Flushing Meadows, New York— One man has been on this stage so many times before across an illustrious and prodigious career, claiming major crowns sometimes in clusters, winning admirers worldwide for his fundamental decency, work ethic, pride and professionalism. He has been in 22 Grand Slam tournament finals before, winning 15 of these premier prizes, taking nothing for granted along the way, celebrating all of his successes with a brand of humility that is rare in his trade. His name, of course, is Rafael Nadal. Standing across the net from the Spaniard in the final will be a dignified gentleman who hails from South Africa. He was born about two weeks before Nadal in the year 1986, but only lately has this fellow started thinking of himself as someone who has the talent and the temperament to handle big occasions. For the first time in his distinguished career, he has made it to the final of a Grand Slam championship, and no one can say he has not earned his right to be there. Kevin Anderson will hurl everything he has in his arsenal at Nadal tomorrow in the title round contest, and the contrast of his big serving and flat ball hitting off the ground with Nadal's unique way of playing the game will be fascinating. The fans in New York and the millions more observing on television are in for a treat.
Either Nadal will secure a 16th major and his second Grand Slam title of the season, or Anderson will put his name on a "Big Four" trophy for the very first time. It will be a fitting way to wrap up the season at the majors as these two honorable individuals do battle. Both players came from behind commendably last night to capture their semifinals. Nadal upended Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 to reverse the result of his 2009 semifinal against the Argentine. To be sure, del Potro was depleted after his astonishing recovery from two sets to love down against Dominic Thiem followed by a hard fought, four set triumph over Roger Federer. But Nadal did more than defeat his longtime rival; he masterfully moved the big man from side to side until the 2009 champion was utterly exhausted and thoroughly out of gas. Only Nadal could have done that to del Potro because the Spaniard used every inch of the court, every conceivable angle he could invent, and every shot in his wide-ranging arsenal to make his opponent feel like he was 86 years old.
At the beginning, however, it was del Potro who very much had the upper hand. At that stage, he remained fresh and vigorous. His explosiveness off the forehand and markedly improved backhand were keeping Nadal at bay. Del Potro and his legion of fans in the stands unnerved the Spaniard to some degree early on. Nadal nearly lost his serve at 1-1 in the first set. He was awfully tight, hitting his shots with an excessive safety net, looking uncomfortable on serve. At 2-2, he did get broken as del Potro's let cord return on break point fell over for a winner, but leading up to that point Nadal's play was disheveled.
For the rest of that set, del Potro was utterly in control. He did not face a break point the entire set, winning 77% of his first serve points and, more importantly, 63% on his second delivery. Nadal stood way back behind the baseline for his returns and his defensive posture amounted to an expensive mistake. Serving at 5-4, 40-30, del Potro unleashed one of his trademark rocket forehands down the line for a winner to seal the set in style. Nadal fans were worried. Del Potro was cheered on vociferously by his loyal admirers. The 6'6" Argentine seemed to be invigorated by the setting and his circumstances. Danger seemed to surround Nadal after his inauspicious start.
But from the moment the second set commenced, Nadal was a man on a mission with another mindset altogether. He cast aside his first set disappointment and soared to a new level, and the way he imposed himself and produced shotmaking of the highest order, it was apparent that del Potro had no idea how to retaliate. Nadal held for 1-0 in the second set at 15 with a cluster of winners, including a game concluding backhand volley winner behind del Potro. Then the Spaniard broke for 2-0 by playing defense that only he can. Del Potro laced a forehand with all of his might that probably no other player could have answered, but there is no one else quite like Rafael Nadal. He stood his ground and rolled his forehand back in play, drawing an error off the forehand from the Argentine.
Nadal had the break for 2-0 and now it was an entirely different match. He won 25 of 33 points in a stirring second set performance, and in the process he made a debilitated del Potro wonder how he could possibly keep up with an opponent who had reset his game so persuasively. Nadal swept 12 of 14 points on his way to a 3-0 third set lead, and then advanced to 15-40 on del Potro's serve in the fourth game. Del Potro somehow escaped from going down two service breaks, holding on for 1-3. But Nadal was sedulously protecting his own service games. He moved to 5-2. Once more, he had a chance to virtually lock del Potro out of the match. The 28-year-old Argentine trailed 15-40 again but a slightly overanxious Nadal did not convert. Nevertheless, he took command and served out the set successfully at 5-3, driving a forehand down the line with interest to set up a decisive overhead. Set to Nadal, 6-3.
The match was only two hours and three minutes old as the fourth set commenced, but there was no way del Potro was going to stop Nadal from two sets to one down. Del Potro did hold for 1-0 but Nadal was unrelenting in capturing five straight games from there, losing only three points in that golden stretch. He closed out the contest with ease on his own serve at 5-2, having lost only 5 games across the last three sets.
"After the first set," Nadal explained later, "I changed my tactic and changed strategy a little bit. That makes a difference, no? I was not feeling bad the ball in the first set but I was wrong in the way I was trying to play, no? I started to understand a little bit better what I needed to do to try to be a little more unpredictable, because he was waiting for me in his backhand side. He was not moving from that side so I have to cover full court. He only had to cover 60% of the court most of the time, no? So that was a big advantage for him. Then I decided to change completely to play much more forehands down the line, and then I was more unpredictable and he was more in trouble."
As for Anderson, he had to work hard to overcome a persistent Pablo Carreno Busta in their semifinal. Anderson had lost his serve only three times over the course of his five matches prior to the meeting with Carreno Busta, but he faced a fine returner in the Spaniard. At 3-3 in the first set, Carreno Busta broke the South African, and he held on all through the set. At 5-4, the 26-year-old had a 40-15 lead, was then taken to deuce, but he followed with an ace and a service winner to garner the set 6-4.
Anderson found his range on the return of serve and broke for 3-1 in the second set, but an obstinate Carreno Busta broke right back in the fifth game. The two competitors stayed on serve until the twelfth game, when Carreno Busta had the opportunity to reach a tie-break and perhaps put some scoreboard pressure on his opponent. Carreno Busta led 30-15 but was forced into a netted forehand by a deep return from Anderson. At 30-30, the No. 12 seed double faulted. That transgression was costly. Anderson connected immaculately with a backhand crosscourt, sending that shot into the clear for a winner. He took the set 7-5, breaking serve in the most timely fashion possible.
Thereafter, Anderson was the dominant figure on the court. He did not face a break point in the last two sets, improving his ground game immensely, moving with alacrity for a man of his size. Carreno Busta double faulted his serve away to trail 3-1 in the third set and Anderson was unstoppable thereafter. He served stupendously all through that set, winning 20 of 25 points on his delivery. Anderson prevailed 6-3. The fourth set unfolded similarly as Anderson won 20 of 24 service points. Carreno Busta battled gamely but realized that he could no longer stay with his adversary. Anderson came through deservedly 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to book his place in Sunday's final against a renowned opponent.
Told that Kevin Curren was the last South African to reach a final at a Grand Slam event [at Wimbledon in 1985], Anderson responded, "It's definitely amazing being in this position and I have worked very hard to get here. Talking about meeting Nadal in the final, he said, "Nadal's one of the greatest competitor's in sports, period. He's an amazing fighter. You know, he really controls the court well the few times I have played him. I really need to be dominant and control proceedings as much as possible, because if you let him do it, it's very difficult."
Nadal was asked what it would mean to him if he could pull off two Grand Slam titles in 2017, and he replied, "I tell you, for me what is more important, more than to win Slams, is to be happy. I am happy if I am healthy, if I feel competitive in most of the weeks that I am playing, and that's what happened this year. So I am very happy about what happened, very happy to win Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Roland Garros. I am very happy to be in the final here at the U.S. Open. Of course, winning or losing that final is a big change... I am going to fight to win another title here. If I win, I will be more happy but it is about being healthy and feel myself well and be competitive. That's already happened in the whole season."
When Nadal last won the U.S. Open in 2013, he was on a roll after taking both the Montreal and Cincinnati Masters 1000 crowns. He had also won Indian Wells earlier that season so that added to his confidence. In 2010, the first time he secured the U.S. Open title, Nadal did not have a good summer on the hard courts but he had been victorious at Roland Garros and Wimbledon so the triumph in New York was his third in a row at a major, which was no mean feat.
This summer, Nadal was stung by a pair of hard court setbacks in Cincinnati against Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16 and in Cincinnati versus the mercurial Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinals. But now, here he is only one match away from another Open title, primed for the appointment, knowing that he is the clear favorite. He is precisely where he wants to be as he prepares for his historical appointment against Anderson tomorrow in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I am very much looking forward to this final. Anderson was seeded only 28th at this tournament but he is a much better player than that. On hard courts, with his serve in full working order, and his self belief growing almost tangibly match after match in New York, Anderson will not be a pushover in this final round appointment. As he said after the semifinals, "I have been really focused on trying to take care of business on my side of the court. I feel like it's been working for me, so I'm not going to do anything different [on Sunday]."
Fair enough. But Rafael Nadal is no ordinary opponent. He will make his presence felt substantially in the final. There will be no gamesmanship from the Spaniard. He will simply go out and do his job with his usual high intensity, total concentration and unwavering spirit. He will make Anderson cover an inordinate amount of court. The Spaniard will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of victory. Anderson will surely need to put on the single best serving display of his career in a best of five set clash if he is going to topple the redoubtable Nadal. His hope is to turn this into a tie-break contest and win two or three of those sequences against the top seed, but under those high stakes circumstances I still believe Nadal would prevail. In the final analysis, this should be a compelling encounter to watch because the methodologies of the two participants are so different. Yet the feeling grows that Nadal will prevail against a very tough rival because he will be the better man under pressure. He has not won a hard court title since Doha at the start of 2014, but the time has come for Nadal to make amends for that, and I fully believe he will.