It’s been a wild two weeks at the US Open, and now, the stage is set for the biggest curveball of them all.
About as close to Rocky as a tennis match can get, Kevin Anderson versus Rafael Nadal is the epitome of an underdog story. The world no. 32, whose best achievement is a trio of 250-level titles, against the world no. 1, a 15-time grand slam champion, who by any estimation is one of the greatest tennis players in history. As far as finals go, they don’t come much more one-sided than that.
So with all the weight of expectation, history and, well… common sense working against him, what chance does Anderson have of downing Nadal? Read on to find out.
As with most things about this matchup, the stakes could hardly be more different. Win or lose, Nadal leaves here a tennis legend, and with his chances of finishing the year at no. 1 looking extremely good. Where a win would really make a difference is in his titanic rivalry with Roger Federer – allowing him to close the gap to the Swiss back to three majors while also getting over the non-clay court hump that has hindered him since 2013.
On the other hand, a win obviously transforms the career of Anderson. At 31 this is likely to be his only shot at a major title, the outcome deciding whether he goes down as another Rainer Schuttler… or Thomas Johansson. The difference is only three sets of tennis, but it’s an awfully large one.
About the only statistic where they are level, both Nadal and Anderson have played 21 sets of tennis over this fortnight, albeit with Anderson having the overall more difficult draw, and Nadal the more difficult semifinal opponent. As such, Anderson will come in knowing he can handle a bit of adversity, but based on his final three sets against Juan Martin Del Potro, Nadal will have to feel he is playing some of his best tennis right now.
Nadal and Anderson have played four times before, with the South African having taken a grand total of one set in those meetings. Obviously, that doesn’t bode well for this match, but with Anderson’s particular playstyle, there’s always a chance – here’s why.
Like Lukas Rosol (Wimbledon 2012), the aforementioned Del Potro (USO ’09), Nick Kyrgios (Wimby ’14), and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (AO ’08), Anderson possesses three traits that can particularly trouble Nadal, should he have the match of his life. The first is a massive serve, which is pretty straightforward – send down a hail of aces (>20% of first serves), race through your service games, and play with the subsequent freedom to go for everything on Nadal’s. Second is height, which at 6’8 Anderson has in spades – off clay Nadal’s heavy top-spin runs the risk of putting his shots squarely in the hitting zone for bigger players. Third is pace-of-shot – Anderson doesn’t exactly possess the biggest forehand for a tall guy, but if the ball is up in his zone, he’s shown in the past he can flatten it out when necessary, while his backhand is excellent, and at the very least, he should be able to force the action with frequent forays to net. In essence, Anderson has to play incredibly high-risk, high reward tennis, but on this surface, against the top-spin of Nadal, it gives him at least a shot.
Conversely, anything less than Anderson successfully executing that brand of redline tennis, and Nadal will eat him alive. If he’s not looking to end rallies, Nadal will push him out of the court, if he’s not clinical with his approach shots, Nadal will pass him, and if his serve is anything less than stellar, Nadal will eventually pounce. After all, it’s Rafael freaking Nadal – there’s a 15-slam, 31-place gap in their standings for a reason.
Nadal in three. The most likely outcome, Nadal is simply too good to suggest otherwise, in which case, just enjoy the show of the Spaniard in full flight. That said, the upset is not entirely out of the question – it would just require a so-so day from Nadal, and the greatest performance of Anderson’s career. Whatever happens, savour it – one final match to close out the remarkable year of grand slam tennis that has been 2017.