Wednesday 21 August 2019

'People will say, we're going to kill you' - Scott Evans on the world of professional badminton

Scott Evans reveals that professional badminton is far from the genteel world you might expect

Scott Evans: ‘Badminton has been my life for the last 15 years, it’s every single minute of every hour, every day, every week’ Photo: Frank McGrath
Scott Evans: ‘Badminton has been my life for the last 15 years, it’s every single minute of every hour, every day, every week’ Photo: Frank McGrath
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Having dedicated his life to badminton, reaching the last 16 at the Rio Olympics should have been his career highlight; instead Scott Evans was fearing for his own safety, and that of his parents, in front of a raucous 5,000-strong Brazilian crowd.

Rarely will any sportsperson witness what Evans did that "crazy night" as every move the fiery Dubliner made was met with a chorus of boos and cat-calls against home-town favourite Ygor Coelho de Oliveira in his decisive final group match. Wiping sweat from the court and requesting a replacement shuttlecock were among the actions met with staunch disapproval - as was his presence in general.

In between points, fans were cursing, making throat-slitting gestures, and flipping the bird. But he wouldn't be deterred and overcame adversity to power through to the knock-out stages. The Full Evans shirtless celebration was on show yet again before thoughts quickly turned to his family.

"No one in badminton has experienced anything like that," the 29-year-old says. ""I went to do some interviews after and there were still some people standing in the corner saying 'Wait till you come outside we're going to get you', which was a bit mental. I couldn't see my mum and dad so I went out with my coach to make sure they were fine, and they were."

With many home supporters now demanding pictures and autographs, it seemed the furore had quietened but luckily it wasn't until after his last-16 defeat to Denmark's Viktor Axelsen, the subsequent bronze medallist, that his eyes were truly opened. Having avoided social media during competition, he visited his Facebook fan page, where he was inundated with vile abuse.

"I had about eight messages from people who were writing some pretty horrendous stuff. I sent them onto someone and deleted them. I didn't respond but they were bad, really bad. It stayed in my head and I can still remember half the messages, a lot of them saying stuff about my mum, so it makes it all a bit of a downer," Evans admits.

It's taken with "a pinch of salt", however, as similar instances, albeit on a lesser scale, have occurred in the past. Badminton is the focus of heavy gambling, and Dundrum native Evans details some "crazy situations" that have occurred at elite level due to disgruntled punters.

"One player beat another in a tournament in England before returning to his hotel. As in most hotels there's a notepad with a pencil or pen on the table but there was a note written saying 'Watch your back, I'm coming to get you'. The only person that should've been in the room barring the cleaners was himself," Evans outlines.

"So obviously he got a bit afraid. They checked the security cameras but couldn't see anything and they hired a security guard to bring him back and forth from the hotel to the hall rather than walking alone. It was mental stuff but there's a lot of betting going on in badminton that many would be oblivious to.

"If you're leading in a game where you should beat someone and end up losing, people will write to you and say 'You're an absolute this, that, and the other, if you come to this country again we're going to find you and kill you because you've lost us an awful lot of money'.

"That's happened to me and a lot of my friends before. People are upset after but I don't think they're actually going to do anything. It's hard not to think about it but you try not to focus on it too much and just get on with things. You do have to watch your back in certain places but there's not a lot you can do."

Having suffered a lot of heartbreak during his colourful career, nothing was going to diminish his satisfaction at officially finishing ninth and becoming the first Irishman to win a badminton match at the Olympics.

Other sports like golf and hockey tickled Evans' fancy growing up, and he was invited to Dublin trials for the Manchester United School of Excellence and made a trip to Melwood to try out for Liverpool. Dundalk striker David McMillan was his badminton partner growing up and it was on the hardwood where he truly excelled.

Evans left home at 16 to start a new life in Denmark, the badminton capital of Europe. His second-level studies at Wesley College were interrupting his sporting ambition and some mornings after dawn training, he'd opt to return to bed in preparation for the next session rather than attend class. His intentions were clear.

Nothing prepares a young man for sitting in a cold, dark house in Copenhagen missing his father's 50th birthday celebrations, however, and that was Evans' plight just six days after making the move. Yet his only regret is not leaving earlier and accelerating his development. Starting from scratch, he attempted to build his dream life - encountering many bumps along the way.

Problems with channelling his aggression have dogged his career. Evans "couldn't accept losing" and his remarkable journey could easily have been a pipe dream. Eight racquets bit the dust in an under 12 National Championship semi-final and when his father Martyn returned from their car with the last, an ultimatum was issued, 'Break one more and you'll never play badminton again'.

That wasn't an isolated incident. On his first training trip to Denmark two years later, after losing a warm-up match with his new coach in his first session at the club he still calls home, he proceeded to pull his pants down and moon his opponent.

And who walked in? "The chairman of the club knew that I was a new player but I didn't realise that he was going to come down and introduce himself to me. So he strolls in to say hello and I'm stood with my dick between my legs bent over. Then he said 'Okay, welcome to the club'. I have such a close relationship with him now but that could've all gone up in smoke so easily," Evans smiles.

Ill-discipline continued to dog him. When he received a black card in 2007 - only three other players have ever been issued one - for verbally abusing an umpire he hit rock bottom. "I couldn't eat properly, I couldn't sleep for more than two hours a night for about three months, with constant dialogue going on inside my head," he says.

And after being "down in the lowest of the lows" Evans knows he "can come out on top in anything". Emotion comes flooding back when he thinks about Rio and the effects it has had on himself, others and badminton in Ireland. Relationships were forged with the Irish hockey team and fellow Olympians Gary O'Donovan and Thomas Barr, while friends and family texting and calling in floods of tears made all the sacrifices worthwhile. And to see the spin-off effect on the sport on these shores delights him.

When he returned home he took two separate taxi rides through Dublin on the same day with drivers at different ends of the age scale. Both recognised Evans and detailed how they had been fuelled to pick up a racquet after his exploits. People send him pictures of people hitting shuttles over football goals in parks, "stuff that you could never have dreamed about happening before".

His everyday life has also changed dramatically. When ordering drinks in a city pub in the aftermath of the Games, the world's 131-ranked player - with a high of 23 - noticed someone snapping him with four drinks in each hand and the same night the new-found celebrity turned around in a nightclub bathroom only to see "some guy taking a picture of me having a piss". Fame is something he never envisaged; fans regularly comment that they don't recognise him with his shirt on.

That's not the only thing that has changed either: his self-belief has soared through the roof. "It's made me more confident about what I can achieve. I've always believed that if my training is what it should be then I can be at that level and my real top level is there in the top 15 - I've beaten players that have been in the top 10," he says.

"Before Rio I probably would've thought that medalling at Tokyo 2020 would be out of reach, whereas after Rio my views on that are totally the opposite, I really believe that's a real possibility if I can set the training environment up as I want to."

A tattoo of a stickman smiling and holding an umbrella on his left arm reminds him of happy times in rainy Dublin; while he lives in Copenhagen with his girlfriend, with whom he shares a growing women's fashion line, a house and a dog, home will always be where his heart is.

He views the prospect of young Irish talent emerging as a "million times better now" than when he was forced to up sticks, but his finances do take a substantial hit as the €12,000 provided annually by Sport Ireland doesn't go far when you consider training for six hours six days a week combined with physio, doctor, shuttles, rent, food, car and all the other additional costs to keep in touch with the game's finest.

Evans works with the mentalist Keith Barry, who he believes suits his "exuberant personality". He is keen to raise badminton's profile as much as possible in Ireland and sees himself involved in the sport in some capacity for the rest of his days. "It's been my life for the last 15 years, it's every single minute of every hour, every day, every week," he says.

"You do other things but badminton is on my mind from the minute I wake up until I go to sleep, and it's been like that as long as I can remember. I can switch off but badminton will always be on my mind. If I open a bottle of wine I'll always think about alcohol and sport. Ask Conor McGregor or any obsessed athletes if they switch off - there's no way they do."

And with Tokyo less than four years away, Evans has no intention of switching off yet either.

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