AS THE FINAL point fell in Baldoyle, Scott Evans clenched both fists and exorcised an almighty roar that had been bottled up inside for far too long.
It wasn’t just the joy of winning his first ever international tournament or the added bonus of doing it in front of a home crowd in his native Dublin. It was a roar of vindication, proof that he was right all along when he said that without taking risks, you’ll never get the reward.
Who was he proving it to? A lot of people but mainly, you sense, he was proving it to himself.
The day before his first round singles match against Maxime Michel of France, Evans sat in a small cafe off Grafton Street and picked out the positives from a whirlwind autumn of change. After two disappointing years there were signs that things were finally starting to get better, but if he felt he was on the cusp of the big win that had eluded him for so long, he never let it show.
The 25-year-old has been Ireland’s top male badminton player for more seasons than he can care to remember but from day to day and week to week, he scarcely registers on the radar of the Irish sporting public. For many, the last time they saw him was as he walked off the court in London’s Wembley Arena, beaten but not bowed after losing in the first round against world number one and reigning champion Lin Dan of China.
The Olympic bubble burst with the first mouthful of a burger later that night.
You feel so bad for losing first round. I hate it. Whether it’s the world number one or number 101, I hate it. I hate losing.
Furious with himself, Evans went straight to his default response: he was back in the gym within four days. And then he started to think.
He thinks a lot.
“When I was young, I had to figure a lot out for myself because there wasn’t the people in Ireland to give me the advice,” he explains. “I always had to figure this stuff out for myself so I think a lot about what I do, maybe too much, and that’s maybe my problem. But I’m doing that because I’ve always done that from a young age — trying to improve, ways to be quicker, to be better, to be stronger.”
The mental side of his game was something that he spent a lot of time working on with Keith Barry, the Irish mentalist, in the run-up to the Olympics. “I’ve tried so many sports psychologists and talked to a lot of different people and they’ve all given me bits and pieces to help, but I never really felt that it was working for me. Keith was going down a different road, working with your subconscious.”
That helped on the road to London, but afterwards, a more reflective kind of thinking was required. For seven years Evans worked with Jim Laugesen, the Danish ex-pro who had mentored him and become more of a father or brother than coach since his move to Copenhagen at the age of 17. Though their relationship had become strained, breaking with Laugesen wasn’t an easy thing to do. Nor was it easy to commit to spending so much time every week away from his girlfriend, their dog and his new home in Denmark, especially when the majority of that travel expense back and forth to England was coming out of his own bank account.
It may be the toughest decision he’s ever had to take as a pro but the more he thought about it, the more he knew that he needed to trust his instincts and take the risk.
“It’s always going to be difficult when you have a relationship with someone like that for six years, where you nearly spend every single day together.
I’m not sure if Jim was annoyed at me or just disappointed that now it’s over. I don’t know if he maybe felt I was bailing out on the whole thing and of course I’m not bailing out, but I’ve got to think about what’s best for me and personally I didn’t feel like I was improving.
I didn’t have the motivation for training in that system there. I felt that if I’m going to keep playing, I have to do something else and so I did it.
Now he’s training in England under another Dane, Kenneth Jonassen, the head of the GB Badminton team. Their relationship isn’t strictly that of coach-player; Evans is on a short-term contract to work as a sort of sparring partner to the British athletes, but is reaping the rewards of working within their set-up.
Even before his cathartic win against Lucas Corvee in the Irish Open final, a milestone which moved him up to 57th in the world, the benefits of the move were beginning to show. In October he had a run into the main draw of the Denmark Open, where he beat former world top 10 player Joachim Persson before losing to world number 19 Wing Ki Wong, and then reached his first Grand Prix Gold quarter-final in Bitburger.
“I had two or three weeks training before those tournaments and I put a huge amount of pressure on myself because if it hadn’t gone well in those tournaments, I’m not sure I’d still be in England. I’m not sure I would have continued on.
“If you try to avoid these decisions all the time, you’re not going to get anything of it. Staying in your comfort zone all the time, you never know what it’s like to put yourself in a position where you’re not comfortable — but that’s where these good things happen.”
Those good things are finally starting to happen for him.