Johannesburg – ‘Rocket Man” Raven Klaasen and his American partner Eric Butorac may have a coveted first Grand Slam title in the bag once the men’s doubles is concluded some time after midday (SA time) in the Australian Open in Melbourne.
But in the meantime the nippy 31-year-old South African express is savouring the moment he and Butorac completed a whirlwind 64-minute 6-2, 6-4 demolition of eighth seeds Daniel Nestor (Canada) and Nenad Zimonjic (Serbia) in Thursday’s semi-finals in the coveted Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park.
It was the fourth win over seeded pairs posted by the unseeded South African/US duo on the road to the final, with their most celebrated victory being the sensational 7-6 (9), 6-4 ousting of the No1s, and the world’s top-ranked team of American brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, in round three.
“That win was great but today we played our best tennis,” said the quicksilver Klaasen, whose astonishing speed around the court has been a key right throughout their successful run in the year’s opening Grand Slam.
“Nestor and Zimonjic are incredibly experienced with something like 130 ATP titles between them but we were quick out of the blocks and kept our foot on the gas. We knew with their experience if we didn’t keep the pressure on, they’d come back at us because they both know how to win doubles matches. But we played really well, really clean tennis and didn’t give them a look-in,” ‘Rocket Man’ told SA media in a conference call on Thursday.
Asked what he felt his own strengths have been in Australia, the South African doubles specialist said: “Look, I’m not the biggest guy on the ATP Tour but I’ve really worked hard on my speed and agility and reflex time and I guess I’ve got to the stage where I’m maybe just a little bit quicker to the ball than the next guy,” said the fleet-footed Klaasen.
“But as a pair our return of serve was really aggressive in the semis and when we both got to net, we formed a wall which they found almost impossible to get past.”
In the final, which will be played after the women’s singles final scheduled to begin at 10.30am SA time on Saturday, Klaasen and Butorac will come up against 14th seeds Lukasz Kubot of Poland and Sweden’s Robert Lindstedt who defeated Frenchmen Michel Llodra and Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 6-7 (12), 6-3 in the other semi-final.
“They (Kubot and Lindstedt) serve and return aggressively but we’ve worked out a strategy and we’ll be ready for them,” said Klaasen who, remarkably, is making only his first appearance at the Australian Open and his fifth Grand Slam overall.
The South African won his three career doubles title last year – at Nice and Metz with Johan Brunstrom, and Kuala Lumpur with Butorac.
“But getting to my first Grand Slam final has been a long, hard road for me,” Klaasen revealed.
“I’ve had some low points in my career and at one stage I was hardly making a cent out of the game and thinking about quitting. But about four or five years ago I began concentrating on doubles and working really hard. Now at 31 I’m still a fairly newcomer on the ATP Tour but, you know, I feel I now belong and I also feel I’ve still got a few good years ahead of me, and the dream has finally come true,” added the South African whose world doubles ranking was 45th going into the Australian Open, and is now projected to be inside the top 30.
Klaasen has played in eight Davis Cup ties for South Africa with a 5-4 win-loss record, and is in the team to take on Monaco in a Europe/Africa Zone Group II first round tie at Irene Country Club in Pretoria next weekend.