Anderson shakes off nice guy tag to reach final
South African profits from new combative approach Nadal faces tough task to survive rival’s huge serves
Kevin Anderson feels like he has been hiding in plain sight throughout his tennis career. Despite collecting three ATP titles, and prize money in excess of £6million, he is one of the lowest-profile 6ft 8in behemoths in professional sport.
That will change tonight when Anderson goes out to face Rafael Nadal in the US Open final. On the face of things, it is the biggest mismatch since Cedric Pioline tried to derail Pete Sampras’s charge to a fourth Wimbledon title. But Anderson is unlikely to be a pushover. Anyone who wins 95 per cent of their service games – as he has done this fortnight – deserves their opponent’s respect.
Anderson’s reticence used to run bone-deep. As his coach – fellow South African Neville Godwin – told The New York Times last week: “Big guys are very seldom bullies; they nearly all are embarrassed by their size, so they tend to shrink into themselves to make themselves smaller or less obvious.”
Arguably, then, the most vital training that Anderson has done in recent years is not the work he has put into his 137mph serve, nor even the rehab that helped him recover from chronic hip pain last year. It is the time he has spent in front of the mirror, practising his fist-pumps and primal screams of triumph. Some observers have identified traces of Jimmy Connors in the way this inoffensive character has shrugged off his polite exterior and now salutes every winner through bared teeth.
On their way to this goal, Godwin worked with the psychologist Alexis Castorri
– whose involvement with tennis started with Ivan Lendl in 1985 and continued with Andy Murray earlier this decade – to develop Anderson’s showmanship.
One of Anderson’s hobbies is playing the guitar, so they tried to make him see tennis matches as a performance as well as a competition.
This allows him to tap into the energy of the crowd while simultaneously drowning out his inner doubts.
After his four-set win over Pablo Carreno Busta in Friday’s semi-final, Anderson was asked about his new, more combative demeanour. “When you’ve played a good point,” he replied, “acknowledging that moment has a lot of positive effects that increase your confidence level.
“At first, it took me a while but now it feels more and more comfortable. I’m not too aware of it right now. I feel like I’m putting more out there, and I feel like it allows me to play better tennis. It’s something I am definitely going to look to continue.”
From the moment Murray pulled out of the US Open draw, this has truly been a tournament of two halves. Every other day, Nadal and Roger Federer would summon the crowds to Arthur Ashe Arena while continuing their anointed progress to a semi-final collision that was only derailed by Juan Martin del Potro at the last possible moment.
On the alternate days, however, these legends would step off the stage and the real scrapping would begin. Because there were no obvious favourites in the bottom half of the draw, you felt like you were watching a tank full of Siamese fighting fish turning the water red in some fierce, Darwinian bloodbath.
In tennis, as in the natural world, toughness is essential. But it tends to be raw power that distinguishes the survivors. We knew from the third round, when the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic was eliminated, that there would be a first-time finalist here. But we also suspected that such line-and-length grinders as Diego Schwartzman (who made the quarter-final) and Carreno Busta would lack the necessary X factor to go all the way.
Anderson has played a very different kind of tennis, striking with venom off both wings, and making fine use of his height – which allows him to deliver the ball from at least nine feet in the air – to rack up 114 aces thus far.
Like Kevin Curren – the 1980s forebear he shares a forename with – he serves so big that his opponents can go whole games without feeling the ball on their racket.
Nadal’s response will probably involve retreating so far from the baseline that his backside is almost touching the fence. He did something similar on Friday against Del Potro, whose own serve is barely less lethal, and managed to put 73 per cent of his returns in play. Such a figure tonight would all but ensure a 16th major title for Nadal. Anderson needs to keep it closer to 50 per cent to have a realistic chance. In other words, he needs to serve like God.
Nadal started this tournament as the second favourite behind Federer, having lost all three of their meetings this year. With each round, though, he began to puff out his chest with a little more certainty.
The semi-final turned into a rout once he worked out how to put Del Potro off-balance, spreading play with a series of scorching forehands up the line. The other stat that should worry Anderson is the percentage of baseline points won throughout the tournament. Where he has claimed 48 per cent of these equal-opportunities exramped changes, Nadal has won 58 per cent. Growing up in Johannesburg, Anderson lacked role models from his home country, which is no longer the power we might remember from the days of Gordon Forbes and Cliff Drysdale. So he seized on Sampras for his serve and Nadal for his eyeballs-out competitiveness. Now it feels like he will need to channel one if he is to defeat the other, and thus help South Africa locate another generation of wannabes.
“We definitely face a lot of challenges when it comes to producing tennis players,” said Anderson on Friday night. “My biggest hope is that I’m able to inspire the kids to get out and play because it can definitely feel like it’s a long road being so far from everything.”
A long road indeed. Tonight, though, it will carry him to arguably the biggest showpiece in the game.
High stakes: Kevin Anderson will rely on his powerful serve and new aggressive style of play to unsettle favourite Rafael Nadal (left)