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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League - By Si­mon Briggs at Flush­ing Mea­d­oes


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)

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