By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Britain's Dan Evans took a big dose of self-belief from his run to the fourth round of the Australian Open and said two weeks playing against the best players in the world had convinced him he belongs in the top echelons of the game.
The 26-year-old's Melbourne Park campaign came to an end against French 12th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Sunday, when Evans took the first set but ran out of steam to crash out 6-7(4) 6-2 6-4 6-4 after nearly three hours on Hisense Arena.
It brought to a close two weeks where he had reached his first ATP final at the Sydney International and chased former U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic and local Bernard Tomic out of the year's first grand slam.
Ranked in the high 700s in the world only a couple of years ago but now destined for the top 50, Evans said he had thoroughly enjoyed taking on the game's elite on stadium courts.
"It's just better, isn't it, to test yourself against those guys," he said. "I played some great players this week on some good courts. That's the main reason I play tennis, is to get that sort of buzz. Yeah, nothing else can give us that."
"I need to maybe get a bit fitter so I can last out those matches," he added. "I think today I was flagging pretty much after the first set. I did feel that. My body was sore. Maybe that's something I can improve on a bit.
"But I've still come a long way from where I was last year, I think."
Evans, who also beat world number eight Dominic Thiem on his way to the final in Sydney, said taking on top players had brought the best out of him.
"I think last week proved playing the good guys, then coming here, it improves your game massively. It does for me," he said.
"I'm looking forward to the whole year playing those tournaments week in, week out. It's what I wanted to do. I don't plan on dropping down to play in any challengers. Stay up there and see what I can do."
Evans will return home with more than A$200000 ($151,020) in his pocket and almost certainly to a new kit sponsor after playing in Australia in self-purchased shirts when his previous deal was not renewed.
Asked for the highlight of his trip, though, he returned with a mischievous grin to an incident that initially made him fume "for 20 minutes".
His anger was sparked by a brush-off he received from Kevin Pietersen when he requested a selfie with his favorite former England cricketer outside a Melbourne restaurant.
Evans said on Sunday that the South African-born batsman had got in touch and sent him some tickets for a Twenty20 match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
"Wondering what is going to happen to his image. That's probably the only reason he did it," Evans said.
($1 = 1.3243 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)