There was a time in tennis – worryingly recent – when the term “best of British” might have been regarded as toweringly ironic. But when Dan Evans beat Kyle Edmund 6-3, 6-2 on Sunday to win a tournament that brought together the best-ranked men’s players in the country for the first time in 18 years, there was cause for applause.
At least there would have been had the Best of the Brits not been held in an echoing National Tennis Centre at Roehampton that was devoid of fans as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.
What was visible on Prime Video over six days, however, was good-humoured and high-grade, a pleasant surprise for viewers and players alike after a worldwide break from the Tour of more than three months.
The last time the British national championships were held, in Bolton in 2002, Alex Bogdanovic, ranked outside the top 500 in the world and the 10th best in Britain, beat Andy Murray’s current coach, Jamie Delgado, in the men’s final. But Bogdanovic never delivered on his teenage promise, receiving eight consecutive wildcards into Wimbledon and losing in the first round each time. At the end of that year, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski were the only Britons in the ATP’s top 100. At least now there are three – plus Murray, the three-times grand slam title winner and former world No 1, lurking at 129 while he recovers from a string of injuries.
Evans, who has climbed from outside the top 100 to No 28 in the world in less than 12 months and remains British No 1, has beaten five top-10 players in this truncated season. He is also 11th in the race to the top-eight ATP Finals in London in November – if they happen – although the suspension of the Tour has thrown the world rankings into confusion.
His fifth win of the week brought together all his best qualities – speed of foot, clever court geography, fitness and patience – as Edmund seemed unable to handle his grinding and slicing in the longer rallies. The 30-year-old from Birmingham recovered from 1-2 and 15-40 in an absorbing first set and after breaking for 4-2 in the second finished too strongly for his flagging opponent. “It’s been a long week and a great way to finish,” said Evans. “Hopefully we can do it all again.”
It was a sentiment echoed in the commentary box by Barry Cowan, who took Pete Sampras to five sets in the second round as a wildcard at Wimbledon in 2001. “You wonder if we might have the return of the British nationals after this,” he said. This was supported by the tournament organiser, Jamie Murray, who said: “There’s definitely the appetite from the players to do this again.” Certainly, outdoors in midsummer in front of a live audience, it would be a worthwhile attraction.
Earlier the younger Murray, Sir Andrew, cut a curious, blue-gloved, figure at the back of the court during a stint of impromptu coaching and ball retrieving for the late substitute, James Ward, in the third-place play-off – surely the only known incident of a knight of the realm working as a ballboy. Cam Norrie won an entertaining if inconsequential match 6-3, 7-5.
Murray should have been playing after an encouraging return from his seven-month sabbatical, but withdrew on Saturday night with a sore shin late – news the organisers chose not to share with the media until Sunday morning.
In between scurrying after the occasional stray ball, Murray said: “I am OK. This week is by far the most I have done in the last seven months. My left shin has been an issue coming in. It was a bit sore after my first match. Then it was OK for a couple of days. I felt it the day before I played Evo [Evans] and then after I finished my match with him. Best not to risk it.
“The results weren’t the important thing this week. I wanted to get matches and hopefully play some good tennis. At times I played really, really well and at times my level dropped quite a lot. If I can get back to that, the level I was playing at in the first set yesterday and maintain that for longer periods, I will be just fine.”
Asked if he thought Murray had a future as a courtside coach, Evans smiled and said: “Not if he keeps swearing on live television.”
Most of the players in this tournament will head for the US after a rest, hoping to play in the Citi Open in Washington DC as preparation for the US Open, scheduled to begin on 31 August. In 2002 the only British players in the main draw at Flushing Meadows were the fifth-seeded Henman, who reached the third round, and Rusedski, who lost against the eventual champion, Sampras, in the American’s farewell tournament.