The routine for a Grand Slam semi-final win isn’t quite set in stone. And Kevin Anderson showed how much it means for players like him, who have seen their hard work and effort brickwalled by the Big Four, to make it to a Major final.
After beating fellow first-time semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta, the South African climbed a chair, then a flower box to get to get to where his family and team sat at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. It is a celebration usually reserved for a Grand Slam title win. But for Anderson, a 31-year-old who had to get past 12th seed Busta in four hours to reach his maiden Grand Slam final, just getting there was a reason to rejoice.
A few hours later, Rafael Nadal won the other semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 to book his spot in the final. The Spaniard’s reaction was tame compared to Anderson’s. Understandably so; the Spanish bull had charged into his 23rd final. There were the usual punches in the air, waves at the crowd and, of course, roars of ‘Vamos!’ Despite chronic knee troubles and the aches that come with his attritional play, Nadal knows he’s meant to be there.
Anderson, and the rest of the tennis world, can’t quite fathom how he got there. The little steps he has taken to get this point, have largely gone unnoticed.
Even at this year’s US Open, as the focus remained on Nadal, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro in the top half while the bottom half ran along as a sideshow. No one quite noticed Anderson or his gradual rise through the rounds till he appeared in the final four.
But Anderson now become the first South African since 1965 to reach a US Open final. Should he win it, he’ll be the first winner of a Major from his country since Johan Kriek won the 1981 Australian Open. With his 6-foot-8 frame he also becomes the tallest ever player to reach a final. As the lowest seeded player, the World No 32 has taken advantage of the open field left by the absence of the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
Nadal, meanwhile, has lived up to his World No 1 billing by making it to the final, losing only three sets on the way — the same as Anderson. Interestingly enough, Nadal has reached the summit clash without facing a single top-25 player. Seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov, ninth seed David Goffin, 15th seed Tomas Berdych and even Federer, the third seed, crashed out of the tournament before they could square up against Nadal.
Instead, Nadal will meet the 28th seed in the final. The Spaniard has won each of the four matches the two have played against each other on tour, the most recent clash coming at the Barcelona Open in April.
The two players, though, go back a long way.
A photograph has been doing the rounds on social media hours after the two semi-finals ended. Anderson’s wife Kelsey had uploaded the snap taken at the 1998 Stuttgart Junior Masters, with the pair of then 12-year-olds (Anderson is just a month older than Nadal) posing together. Just as he does now, Anderson wore a baseball cap while Nadal was all smiles. The caption read: “I’m just happy I have another excuse to share this adorable photo again #usopen final!!”
Three years after the polaroid moment, Nadal turned professional. Anderson took his time and made his way through college before going pro in 2007 — Nadal had already won three French Open titles by then. Among all the stats he’s inked in record books this fortnight, Anderson is the first US college player to make a Major final since Todd Martin in 1999 and could become the first since John McEnroe in 1984 to win a Slam.
Anderson stayed among the middle rung of players, till date winning only three ATP titles, while Nadal was a World No 1 well on the path to claiming the 15 Slam titles he holds today. But they were both faced with injury troubles last season. Nadal was forced to retire from his beloved French Open in 2016 due to a wrist injury, but Anderson — whose 6-foot-8 frame makes him extremely injury prone — had a longer injury list.
Despite ending the 2015 season by breaching the top 10 for the first time in his career, Anderson’s body grew rife with problems. Recurring issues with the left knee were compounded by a right shoulder problem, and were later overshadowed by the ankle surgery he needed in 2016. Earlier this year, there were concerns with his elbow along with the threat of a hip surgery.
“Here I am just nine months later, after thinking I might have to undergo a year’s worth of hip surgery recovery. So this means the world to me,” he said.
The ranking took a significant dip, as he started the 2017 season at 80. But he persevered and started making his way back up, reaching the final of the Citi Open, and later the quarter-finals of the Montreal Masters.
Nadal meanwhile had made a strong recovery, making the final at the Australian Open, followed by La Decima – his 10th French Open crown.
At Flushing Meadows, Nadal has exceeded expectations. He went without a title in the US hard-court season ahead of the Open and didn’t seem to have the firepower to counter hard-hitting players like Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios. The top-spin on his shots is not half as wicked as it is on clay and the faster hard-courts rob him crucial seconds to run down every ball.
But Nadal has deconstructed opponents with his cracking forehand this time around, going in for the attack more often. Anderson meanwhile has found a fair degree of mobility despite his large frame, and has not rushed to end points.
“I feel like I’m just being a bit more patient with myself. I feel like that’s been a big change I have implemented in the last few months,” he said.
Of course, with his height his serve has been his biggest weapon. He powered down 22 aces in the semi-final, including a 212 kmph monster serve to win the second set. Through the tournament, he’s lost just five of his 109 service games.
It’s a rejuvenated Anderson that a refreshed Nadal will face at the Arthur Ashe Stadium for the title. Two old friends from junior days, whose different career graphs never let them meet too often on tour for them to become familiar foes. Nadal is the overwhelming crowd favourite, but Anderson is the heartening underdog story. This may not be the final everyone had hoped for, but it is the final that Nadal and Anderson deserve.
Published Date: Sep 10, 2017 03:26 pm | Updated Date: Sep 10, 2017 03:26 pm