CAPE TOWN – Kevin Anderson of South Africa crowned his comeback with hard-fought, gritty performance to defeat France's Benoît Paire 2-6 7-6 (1) 7-6 (5) in their ATP Cup Group A No 2 singles match in Brisbane, Australia, on Wednesday.
In the overall scheme of things, the outcome of this match did not have a bearing on SA advancing to the 'Final Eight' of the competition after they were whitewashed 3-0 by Serbia in their opener. South stormed back to defeat Chile 3-0 but that was not good enough to secure one of two group runners-up slots that were up for grabs.
As the six group winners (A-F) Australia, Great Britain, Russia, Serbia, Spain and Argentina advanced to the Final Eight in Sydney. They will be joined by the best second-placed teams Belgium and Croatia/Canada.
But SA's demise will probably come as a blessing in disguise for Anderson who shrugged off a six-month absence from the world circuit with three superb performances in a matter of five days. His earlier opponents were world No 2 Novak Djokovic (Serbia, Saturday) and world 33 Cristian Garin (Chile, Monday).
These three outings would have been sufficient to kickstart Anderson's comeback ahead of the Australia Open which starts on January 20 in Melbourne. With the ATP Cup exit, Anderson and Lloyd, SA's main draw singles players will have two weeks to recover.
There were tell-tale signs that Anderson was taking strain in his match against Paire and his management will have enough time to whip into shape for the year's first Grand Slam.
In many ways, Anderson was fortunate to emerge the victor against Paire who many chances had to win the match. Paire dished up an incredible 12 double faults, mostly at crucial times. At one stage, Paire was a set up and lead 4-2 in the second when he lost his composure and a steady wave of double faults followed.
Anderson claimed the big points in the second set and then won the tiebreak to force the extra set, which saw Paire spurn seven match points.
Anderson also met his match in the aces count which he lost 18-11 - a rare statistic for any Anderson opponent.
A feature of the match was the exquisite drop shots by Paire in the first and second sets, as the Frenchman looked to test Anderson's mobility. However, in the third set, Anderson stepped up a gear and gave Paire a dose of his own medicine with equally deft drop shots.
Paire's haywire serves meant that Anderson was always in with a chance and at the death, he succumbed in the decisive tiebreak after surrendering four mini-break points.
In Wednesday's opening singles encounter SA's rising start Lloyd Harris produced a five-star performance but it was enough to halt the seasoned Frenchman Gilles Simon who won 2-6 6-2 6-2.
The 22-year-old Harris (world-ranked 99) was expected to face 33-year-old Gaël Monfils (9), a former world No 6. However, Monfils was unwell and France was forced to reshuffle their line-up and hitherto non-playing captain Simon (57) was slotted into the line-up. Monfils took over the captain's duties.
Since this was Simon's first match of the year, he took some time to strike up fluency. He was not given much of a chance and Harris breezed to a 6-2 first-set win.
The vastly experienced Simon called on his all-round court expertise to stifle Harris's challenge and eventually clinched the remaining two sets with a 6-2 scoreline to wrap up the match after a two-hour battle. Simon's return of serve improved vastly in the final two sets and proved to be the anchor of his fightback.
In the day's final encounter, South Africa's Raven Klaasen and Ruan Roelofse claimed the doubles rubber with a 6-3 6-4 win over the French pairing Nicolas Mahut and Édouard Roger-Vasselin.