CAPE TOWN – Kevin Anderson gave it his all, but with Rafael Nadal in “beast mode”, it was never going to be enough.
A bundle of nerves in an error-strewn first set, as well as his main weapon letting him down in the second, saw South African Anderson go down 6-3 6-3 6-4 in the US Open final to the Spanish master Nadal on Sunday night at the Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York.
Nadal claimed his 16th Grand Slam title and third US Open crown of his career – having won his first two in 2010 and 2013 – as he moved ever closer to Roger Federer’s magical 19 mark.
One of Nadal’s nicknames is ‘Spain’s Raging Bull’, and he was relentless in hunting down Anderson, who was playing in his very first Grand Slam final.
The tall South African’s chief tactic would be to get his monstrous first serve in play and go for the winners at every opportunity in order to shorten the points, as allowing long rallies to develop would play right into the hands of the much shorter, more agile Nadal.
But while Anderson’s game plan may have been the right one, his execution let him down. Where he mainly hit the lines in his semi-final victory over Pablo Carreno Busta on Friday, he generally missed the target in the first set against Nadal on Sunday night.
Watched by the likes of Tiger Woods (who was cheering for Nadal), Christie Brinkley and of course Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, Anderson’s tendency was to win a few points, but then allow Nadal back into the game with a slew of unforced errors.
The 31-year-old from Johannesburg – who is now based in Delray Beach, Florida – was more than not taken to deuce on his serve, which sapped the energy out of the big man as the whippet-like Nadal never stopped pushing.
The fifth game of the first set lasted over eight minutes, and although Anderson held his serve, it was a portent of things to come. And the breakthrough duly arrived in the seventh game as Nadal broke to go 4-3 up.
Even at 5-3 and serving to stay in the set, Anderson had a game point, but was undone by a brilliant backhand winner by Nadal, who claimed the set 6-3 soon afterwards.
A damning statistic saw Anderson tally up 23 unforced errors to just five for Nadal in the first.
Having lost the first set in his semi-final, though, Anderson would’ve felt that he was still in with a chance. He made a solid start to the second set as he held serve confidently.
But Nadal – choosing to counter Anderson’s booming serve by standing deep to receive, close to the line judge – started pouncing on the second serves as Anderson missed too many on his first.
The 31-year-old Spaniard, mixing up his play with heavy top-spin forehands and backhand slices, got the vital break to lead 4-2 in the second as he worked the angles and moved the 2.03m Anderson around the court.
Nadal closed out the second set 6-3, with Anderson putting just 36 percent of his first serves in play compared to the 74 percent by his opponent.
The match was over as a contest by then, and Nadal underlined his dominance by breaking immediately in the third set to set up a comfortable victory.
Anderson managed to keep things going until 5-4, but was unable to break back as Nadal closed out the match.
But the gallant 28th-seeded South African can be proud of a dream run at Flushing Meadows, and to lose in straight sets to a rampant World No 1 and one of the greatest players in history is nothing to be ashamed of.
He was fortunate to be in the side of the draw where Andy Murray had withdrawn just before the tournament started, but he played some of the best tennis of his career to see off tough American Sam Querrey in the quarter-finals and the in-form Carreno Busta in the semis.
Anderson will earn a cool $1.825 million (about R23.59 million) and is sure to move up the ATP rankings as well, while Nadal received a cheque of $3.7m (about R47.81m) for the victory.
The dream wasn’t quite completed, but Anderson will never forget these incredible past two weeks. And, as he said over the past few days, hopefully his success will inspire more young South Africans to take up tennis and make it to the big leagues.