Kevin Anderson will try to stick to what has worked for him against Rafael Nadal in the US Open final on Sunday night. Photo: EPA

JOHANNESBURG – Jumping into your supporters box after winning a semi-final and qualifying for your first Grand Slam final is usually improper decorum – and Kevin Anderson knew it.

“I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do before the final, but I felt it was the appropriate thing to do,” Anderson said in an on-court interview following his four-set win against Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta in the first of the US Open men’s semi-finals in New York on Friday night.

Pat Cash made leaping into the ‘supporters’ box famous following his 1987 triumph over Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon.

But Anderson, 31, wasn’t going to wait until after Sunday night’s final (10pm SA time) – against the legendary Spaniard Rafael Nadal – to share the happiest moment of his career, with the people who helped him the most to achieve it.

Anderson’s team is clearly a close-knit one – starting with wife Kelsey, who handles a great deal of off-court matters, including booking flights and hotels – and coach Neville Godwin, who Anderson brought on board in 2014.

He is the first South African to qualify for a final in a Grand Slam since Kevin Curren made it to the Wimbledon final in 1985. It is a staggering achievement, and just reward for a mountain of hard work Anderson has put into his game.

He is highly respected by peers – illustrated by fellow professionals voting for him to represent them on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Player Council for two consecutive terms.

Anderson’s been South Africa’s sole representative among the elite in the men’s game, but until this year’s breakthrough at Flushing Meadows, his career – in terms of the Grand Slam tournaments – has been good, rather than great. 

He’s made it to the fourth round of each of the majors at least three times, but with the likes of Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic around, it’s been hard to go much further.

With Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka absent from the US Open this year, Anderson has taken his chance to grab the spotlight, shining some of it on the game in South Africa.

He said it was tough for a young South African to break through into the top echelons of tennis because the country was “far from the scene”.

A once thriving amateur set-up is stagnant, while various junior training squads that used to tour Europe are no longer because finance is lacking. 

“I have said this all along, my biggest hope is 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,” he said after his semi-final triumph.

Anderson’s path to the professional ranks was through the vibrant American collegiate sports system – something which proved beneficial for South African swimmers like Penny Heyns, Ryk Neethling and Roland Schoeman.

He was a star performer for the University of Illinois from 2005 to 2007. While a South African-trained player has struggled to crack the elite level, for Anderson, the US collegiate system offered him a foot in the door as a professional.

What Godwin appears to have gotten out of Anderson at this year’s US Open is a brazenly aggressive attitude on the court, something which stands in contrast to his laidback nature off it.

Sam Querrey, beaten by Anderson in the quarter-finals, made note of it after that match, describing Anderson as “so overly aggressive”.

There have been plenty of fist-pumps and shouts of “come on” from the St. Stithians College graduate, a conscious effort on his part to elevate his intensity. 

“When you’ve played a good point and sort of acknowledging that also has a lot of positive effect that increases your confidence level,” he explained.

However, besides a change in attitude, the other notable element of Anderson’s play at Flushing Meadows this year has been his movement and defence.

While his height – he stands 2.03m tall – is a huge asset in terms of his serve, it was also a major inhibitor as far as his movement was concerned.

Rafael Nadal has won 15 Grand Slam titles. Photo: Julio Cortez/AP

But despite recent injuries – his back and knee hampered him at the start of last year, his ankle required surgery too, and this year he had a hip problem that almost required an operation as well – what was once a weakness in his game has now been significantly turned around.

“I’m always working hard, looking at ways to improve my game,” he said. “I feel, you know, at times it’s maybe been I have looked a little bit too hard (on myself), and I feel like I need to trust my abilities.

“I feel like I’m doing that better. That’s also a skill you have to learn. I feel like I have got a great team around me, and hopefully we will be able to keep this going. I have always been very critical about myself. 

“I feel like I’m just being a bit more patient with myself. I feel like that’s been a big change I have implemented in the last few months.”

The biggest challenge of his career arrives tonight (10pm SA time) when he faces Nadal, a 15-time Grand Slam winner and one of the sport’s all time greats, against whom Anderson has lost on all four occasions they’ve played, with the South African having won just one set.

“I’m going to treat it like each match I have throughout these two weeks. At least that’s what I’m going to try to do. 

“I’m sure there will be different emotions (than what) I have experienced when I walk out on to the court.

“But it will be very important for me as quickly as possible to really try, as much as I can, to block that out.”

 

Sunday Independent