Refusing to curse his luck

 

BADMINTON: SCOTT EVANSScott Evans may be facing the current Olympic and world champion, but he knows what to expect and fancies his chances, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

IT’S A scary thing, a peek over the cliff’s edge. Scarier still when you feel like you’re not the one in control of whether you drop or not. Scott Evans spent the best part of four months last winter scared stiff that he wasn’t going to be allowed to compete in London. The problem was entirely of his own making, the solution completely out of his hands. How’s that for a walk on the wild side?

In the quarter-final of the Norwegian International tournament last November, Evans had his serve to stay in the match against Belgium’s Yuhan Tan called out. Feeling that the officials had been riding him all match, Evans let loose a few salty sentences of invective and walked off the court without shaking hands with the umpire. He returned inside a minute and apologised but the damage was done. He was given a black card, the worst punishment in badminton.

“A black card is incredibly rare,” he says. “Very few people have ever received one in a tournament. I can laugh about it now but at the time it was a disaster. I was sitting alone in my hotel room in Norway thinking that I wasn’t going to the Olympics. Those people who had got black cards before me always got like a year-long ban or even a two-year ban on the back of it.

“The whole process of trying to sort it out was a really bad time for me. My training was very bad, I slept terribly, my emotions were all over the place. It took four months basically to get it sorted and throughout those four months, I never really knew what was going on. I had to go to a disciplinary panel to see would they let me compete in the Olympics.”

On court, he’s always had ready access to the red button. The explosions are getting less and less common the older he gets but only because he’s emptied tank-loads of coolant into the mix. Some of it has been self-sourced, some of it imported. But all of it was needed. Norway was the worst of the worst and as a bad day on court gave way to a lonely night on a hotel bed, Evans promised himself a new way through.

“I sat in my room that night and said, ‘This can’t go on, I can’t be behaving like this’. I went and worked with a sports psychologist straight away and made a big effort to change. The disciplinary panel saw all that as a good thing and to my mind they let me off lightly. Normally, someone who’s black-carded loses out on the points from the tournament, they have to pay a fine and they get a ban. I actually only got one of those three handed down – I had to pay a fine. But they let me keep the points, which was the reason I ended up qualifying for the Olympics.

“I think it might have been in the panel’s mind that the original decision was a bit unfair. Normally to get a black card, you need to spit in the umpire’s face or throw a chair at him or something like that. All I did was say ‘f***’ a couple of times. And sure any Irish person knows that we say that as part of our everyday speech. I wasn’t threatening or anything, just very angry. I deserved to lose a point but disqualification from the tournament was a bit heavy-handed. I think the panel recognised that and took it easy on me.”

One way or another, he made it through and is putting down his days this week training in Lensbury, near Twickenham. Four years ago in Beijing, his Olympics was over before you even knew it had started.

He was the first Irish athlete in action and lost his match on the opening morning, long before anyone had stirred from their bed.

This time around, things couldn’t be more different. Indeed, it’s safe to say that no Irish athlete will be seen by more pairs of eyes at these games than Evans will when he faces China’s gold medal favourite Lin Dan on Monday night.

Although every news report of his draw since Monday has mentioned his Chinese opponent’s pre-eminence in the sport, it still feels like they’ve been underplaying it a touch. Lin Dan is the only badminton player in history to win all nine major titles in the game. He’s won 49 tournaments in 10 years, is a four-time world champion and comes to London as the reigning Olympic champion.

He’s Federer on a green floor and he’s still only 28.

Anyone expecting Evans to curse his luck will be waiting a while though. He’s been working with Keith Barry on getting his mental approach spruced up and spends time every day listening to Barry’s voice on his iPod, reinforcing, visualising, pushing the positive.

Lin Dan isn’t just any old opponent and he won’t treat him as if he was. But he’s played against him quite a bit and knows he can compete – this time last year, he ran him to a 21-18, 21-17 defeat in the World Championships in the very arena in London where they will meet in four days. The whole of badminton expects him to be dealt with in a trice. Evans expects different.

“I think it’s an amazing draw. Obviously, playing him in the first round isn’t the funniest but if I’m going to go far in the tournament, I’m going to have to play the best players and he is of course the greatest badminton player there has ever been. Nobody who has ever played the game is better than this guy.

“But I’m looking forward to it, I’m ready and I’ve played him a good few times before. I know what to expect from him, I know the game I have to play.

“I’m going to have to work so unbelievably hard to win and I’m ready for that. It will be so great to make an upset in the first round.

“The thing is, if I take any other sort of attitude about it, then I’m not going to turn up because there’s no point in playing. If I look at it and go, ‘Aw, he’s the best in the world, I’m going to get killed’, then I may as well go and get pissed drunk and not even turn up for the game.

“That’s totally the wrong attitude and anyone that knows me personally knows that it isn’t the attitude that I have and it isn’t the way I will approach any challenge.

“The first thing my coach said to me when the draw came out was, ‘f***ing great.’ We both knew I was going to be drawn against him because it has happened so many times now. As soon as I qualified, we kind of had it in our mind that I would meet him. So I was ready for it and now I can’t wait.

“If I can get my emotions right, I can beat people. I can beat the top players in the world. I’ve done it before so there’s no reason why I can’t keep doing it. It’s just getting the whole thing right on the day. That’s why I believe I can beat Lin Dan.

“I know that my level when I’m at my best is good enough.”

On Monday night at Wembley Arena, he’ll breathe deep and make the jump.

The view from the cliff’s edge isn’t so scary if you’re there on your own terms.

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