For the first and probably last time in his life, Andy Murray says he will be happy to finish third. (He will not be happy and nor, in all likelihood, will he finish third.) And Dan Evans, who has never played the three-times slam champion, says he would relish meeting him in the final of the inaugural Battle of the Brits, a dust-up that starts in London on Tuesday and should loosen a few sinews and muscle memories.
It is three months and more since Britain’s best-ranked players have competed, and their performances and fitness over six days will be of as much interest as the results.
There has been no shortage of banter since they were brought out of isolation to prepare for the behind-closed-doors tournament at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. It is the brainchild of Jamie Murray, who has spent several weeks putting it together with the aim of raising £100,000 for the NHS.
“It’s all right for Andy to say stuff,” says Evans, who is partial to a wind-up, “but it’s going to be interesting to see who backs it up. It’s nerve-racking playing the Brits.” James Ward, more subtle in his digs, agrees. “Every day, it’s nonstop. As soon as I finished practice the other day, there were 260 messages unread. It’s ridiculous.” The teenager Jack Draper landed the heaviest sledge when he said of the prospect of playing Murray: “You can’t lose to a guy with a metal hip.” Or as Jamie Murray calls his brother, “the one-hip wonder”.
For all the bonhomie, there will be nerves. As Evans says: “It’s not a tour event but it will be serious. There are a few quirks to the event and we’re not changing ends because of social distancing. It’s going to be good to play some of the other guys and help raise the money for the NHS.”
Novelty abounds. Murray and Ward, who have swapped plenty of air time about Arsenal in a long friendship, have never met on court. Elsewhere in the Tim Henman Group, Murray beat Liam Broady in their only match, in straight sets in the first round at Wimbledon four years ago. Against Kyle Edmund, his only loss in four matches was a tight two-setter at Eastbourne in 2018, when he was easing back on to the tour.
Of the four players in the Greg Rusedski Group, Murray has not played Evans, Draper or the 21-year-old Jay Clarke, and he had to split two tie-breaks with the more seasoned Cameron Norrie before finishing strongly to win their only encounter, in Beijing last year.
They will all fancy their chances of pulling off an upset against el gran señor of British tennis, who has not played since November.
For Evans, the interruption to the schedule arrived as he was building on the best run of form in his career. In the 12 months to March he had moved from 100 in the world to No 28. There can be no faulting his commitment and, at 30, he has hit a level of self-confidence and maturity that rightly puts him in contention to go deep in the majors – starting with the US Open on 31 August.
“I was going well before the break and looking forward to those events [the French Open – rescheduled for September – and Queen’s and Wimbledon, both abandoned]. But it’s a pause. Now it’s gone, we’ve got to start again.” Evans struggles to remember his last competitive match against a compatriot and is reminded it was Edmund at Eastbourne last year, when he lost in three tough sets. In their only other tour matches, Edmund won on the clay of Monte Carlo in 2017 and in a qualifying match, indoors in Dallas, a year before that.
“I had a tight one with Liam Broady at Nottingham [in the first round four years ago] but came through. Apart from Kedders, I’ve got a pretty good record against the Brits; he took me down a few times so he’s probably favourite for the event.”
And Murray? There will be considerable interest in how Britain’s best player will stand up to the strain of competition at 33 and after seven months out. Evans says: “Obviously I wouldn’t want to play Andy until the semi-final or final. We practised recently and he is hitting the ball good. He is always going to be competitive and difficult to beat, full stop.”
While starved of tennis Evans, along with the rest of the planet, has been coping with the pandemic and the reality of Covid-19 hit him hard when his mother, Bernadette, a retired nurse, contracted the virus after volunteering to go back to work. “Yeah, she had it for a little bit. She is fine. It’s all good. She has gone back to work to help and then hopefully once this is all gone and done and dusted, she [won’t have to] go back. It was her choice. It’s up to her what she does obviously, and it’s great that she went back. And it is great she is healthy.
“All of the people who have worked on the frontline, it’s been great. Hopefully we can raise some money for them at Jamie’s event. I am proud of everybody who has worked for the NHS over this period. I am sure there have been some scary times. You have seen it all on the news, the hospitals didn’t look in great shape. It does show what a great medical system we have in Britain.”
Getting his priorities right has not always been Evans’s strong suit, but he is in a good place. And, when he steps back on court in London this week, he might even beat Andy Murray.