Monday 22 January 2018

Badminton: Scott Evans in control of his own fate

John O'Brie

Strange thing. Scott Evans sips honeyed tea in a little cafe off Grafton Street and talks about the long difficult road that brought him to an emotional triumph in the Irish Badminton Open last weekend<./p>

Evans talks like he plays: with feeling, a constant ball of energy and passion. But here's the odd thing. Forty-two minutes have passed and, as yet, not a single expletive has passed his lips.

If you know him, you'll understand there's something not quite right about this. Like Tiger Woods teeing up in the last round of the Masters wearing a navy blue top. Or Roy Keane going through an entire broadcast without tipping his cap to sundown. And it can't last, of course. Like West Brom lying in the top four in the Premier League. Sooner or later, the natural order will reassert itself.

"Yeah, it was great," he says, reflecting on his major breakthrough after years of agonising near misses. "Then again I've worked so unbelievably fucking hard to get where I am. So of course I feel great and stuff, but I also feel it's about fuckin' time, you know. I put so much into it. I pushed myself to the absolute limit."

Evans uses expletives the way others might use clichés or change gear in their car. Naturally, almost without thinking. No offence intended. "I say 'fuck' a lot," he says smiling. "I say it to express myself, to show something means a lot to me. Like, fuck that tea is unbelievable, you know. I don't say it like it's a bad word. But sometimes people don't pick up on that."

And sometimes they do. He tells about meeting the mind specialist Keith Barry last summer. The meeting had been arranged by his agent Derry McVeigh in the hope that Barry might be able to lift Evans out of the dark cloud that had enveloped him. At the time he'd been seven years in Denmark and didn't know who Barry was. So he checked out a few videos on YouTube and began to wonder what he had let himself in for.

"I was unbelievably fucking nervous about meeting him. Shitting myself. Derry was there 'just relax'. I'm lying down on this bed. I've got this absolute legend beside me whose videos I've been watching on YouTube. I don't know what the hell I'm doing there.

"So he starts chatting and he's like, 'Right you go into this point and you're going to fucking mill it and you're going to fucking do this and fucking do that'. The way he said it was brilliant. I almost started laughing."

As he listened to Barry, a stream of colourful language rushing from his mouth, he felt instantly comfortable, almost like it was an echo of himself. He thought back to all the years he'd spent struggling to find himself, the army of sports psychologists he'd visited since he was 12, none of them ever sounding like Barry, none of them ever able to make a connection in the same way.

And he knew that, whatever happened, he had come to a good place.

* * * * *

SCOTT Evans isn't your normal, run-of-the-mill athlete. He hasn't followed the conventional athlete's path. There's no university education, no desire to tread the well-worn scholarship route. Even the notion of it – taking time off to pursue your sporting destiny, fitting your career around your studies – held little appeal to him. Hell, he couldn't even wait around to complete his Leaving Cert.

He was 16 when he made his peace with education. Scrambled through his Junior Cert at Wesley College and he was done. No big deal. The Chinese did the same thing at 14 so he was already behind. Already playing catch-up. His parents weren't thrilled about it but they knew his talent and his dreams and didn't try to step in his way.

"My mum especially would have liked me to sit my Leaving Cert but she understood I hated it. I was never great at any subject. I could get by but I never put that extra bit in like I did for sport. If anything, I'm angry I didn't get away earlier. If I'd done my Leaving, I wouldn't be as good at badminton as I am now. The later I left it, the harder it was going to be."

Because there was nothing for a young professional in Ireland, he found a place in the national academy in Denmark and moved to Copenhagen. Just 16 and so far from home, the first year was an unremitting struggle. "All I did was wake up, go training, come back, eat, sleep, wake up and do it all again the next day. I hated it. And results don't just come like that. That really bothered me. I'm thinking 'what am I doing turning pro? I can't even win a game'."

After a year he signed up for a Danish club and came under the wing of Jim Laugesen, a former World No 1, and Laugesen became like an older brother to him. He loved being a professional but can't remember a point when the life came easy. For a time he worked part-time in a sports shop, but the compromise it entailed unsettled him. How could he call himself a professional badminton player if he was working to pay the bills?

That cruel dilemma neatly encapsulated his biggest problem. His greatest strength – an unbending will against compromise – also happened to be his biggest weakness. As a kid, he'd harboured a pathological fear of losing he could scarcely comprehend. The placid, cheerful kid off court would, Hulk-like, become a fiercely driven competitor once he'd hit the boards, prone to explosive fits of temper when things didn't go his way.

"At school, I'd get reports home from teachers saying I was too serious in PE. If we play a football match, I don't want to sit around and twiddle my fingers. I want to win. Then the teachers complain I'm too serious. So I stopped doing it. If I can't be the person I am doing it, then I won't do it. I could never win in school. My parents would read the reports and say, what's going on? Look, I just want to win. No one could understand it."

The worst day? That's an easy one. He was 12, playing in a junior badminton tournament and, disgusted at how he was performing, he'd just made bits of the eighth and last racquet in his bag. His father, mortified, had to go out to the car and get a racquet from his other son's bag so he could continue playing. They brought him to one psychologist after another to unearth why these red mists would periodically descend. Nobody could figure it out.

And then, in October last year, a turning point of sorts. He was playing in a tournament in Norway, another match slipping away, when he lost his cool with an umpire and let fly with a string of insults that landed him with a black card – a nuclear sanction in the sport – that threatened his prospects of competing at the Olympics and, for a time, his future in the sport itself.

"You know, I gave away a lot," he says. "Sometimes too much which hurt me plenty of times. Like, I've lost plenty of matches I shouldn't have because I got so upset I just couldn't control it. It got to a stage where I just flipped out. I mean that umpire. I could've knocked him out if I did, you know. I was in a lot of trouble. I didn't know what would happen for two months. I got a huge fine and was put on probation for a year. If I got in trouble again, that would be it."

He figured the correct response was to become a robot, play the points and then react with detachment, keeping his emotions bottled up, his frustrations wound tightly like a coil. That way he would avoid landing himself in more trouble, but it struck him that it was just another compromise, like the time he worked in the shop. How could he be true to himself in this way?

"It was a hard time," he says. "I was struggling big-time. I couldn't eat or sleep. If I did fall asleep, I'd wake up feeling completely lost. Around Christmas last year, I was really down. I didn't know about the Olympics, a six-month ban and I was gone. I'd six months where I was in a black hole and couldn't see how the hell I was going to figure a way out of it."

In April, he went to the European Championships where he'd reached at least the quarter-finals the previous three years and fell in the first round to an opponent he'd normally have expected to deal with comfortably. A week later, he went to Portugal and adopted the suicide tactics of standing at the net, trying to smash every shot, beyond caring anymore, hoping merely for a quick death.

But something clicked there too. He left thinking of the sorry figure he must have cut, standing stock still at the net, flailing wildly at every shot that came. He had reached rock bottom and knew he needed to change or quit the sport. At home, McVeigh subtly prompted him in the right direction. He'd had seven good years in Denmark, but maybe he needed change. His relationship with Laugesen had grown stale. It was time to move on.

At McVeigh's suggestion, he went to see Paul Byrne, a strength and conditioning coach in Dublin. Byrne reasoned, though, that Evans' biggest issue was a mental rather than a physical one. Keith Barry happened to be one of his clients and the critical connection was made. Then, after London, he hooked up with another Danish coach, Kenneth Jonassen, who was based in Milton Keynes with the Great Britain team. A beautiful arrangement. Bit by bit the pieces were put back in place.

"In October, I went to a tournament in Holland. I'd only been training in England for two weeks. I don't know why but I suddenly started shouting again. Giving it a bit of this. I didn't really think about it until after I'd won. I lost the first set, wasn't playing that well. Then I started to fight a bit and it just came back to me. Ever since then I'm just going like this. It's great to have it back. But I can control it now. I won't ever lose control."

And so, finally, he'd figured it out. Barry had taught him that he didn't have to change who he was to be the player he wanted to be. No more compromises. He could still be the guy who wore his heart on his sleeve on the court, the one people loved to watch. He just had to learn to gather the bad stuff and keep it locked in a vault in a corner of his brain. Easier said than done, he thought, but in Holland, for the first time, he could see it was working.

And yet he arrived in Ireland last week feeling in poor shape. His training in Milton Keynes had been sluggish and unsatisfactory. He was travelling to Ireland as No 1 seed, expected to win the tournament, a guy with a history of seven losing finals behind him, able to get close without clinching the deal. "Kenneth was telling me to relax. But it meant so much to me. I slept shit Thursday and Friday. Just putting too much pressure on myself."

But he got through it. Won his five matches without dropping a set and scrambled over the line, a winner at last. Even now, three days on, the moment of deliverance remains a blur: his mother rushing onto the court to embrace him, the tears rolling down his cheeks as he delivered his victory speech, his friend Ronan reminding him that he'd said, at 13, that his greatest ambition as a player was to win the Irish Open.

So he thinks about heading for the next level now. The global Premier Super Series where the best players congregate for a share of the superior prize money and ranking points on offer. It'll take him a while yet, he supposes, but he's on the right road anyway. It's a struggle, still, but he's happy. He has his Sports Council grant, a loyal friend and sponsor in Jim Hegarty, the arrangement with the British squad is a godsend and talk of a good kit deal on the way.

People ask him now how last week will help in terms of his ranking, but he has hardly considered it. Winning the Irish Open was beyond that, deeper, more elemental. He remembers another friend, Dave Gorman, approaching him afterwards, tears still salting their eyes. "He's saying you've fucking deserved this, it's why you've been waking up every morning for the past 10 years. But I couldn't even take in what he was saying. It's only kind of settling in now to be honest.

"I have to keep reminding myself. I fucking won, you know."

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