Wimbledon 2018: Despite lack of tennis idols in South Africa, Kevin Anderson scripts success story many can only dream of

Even one year ago, if you told anyone that Kevin Anderson would be the runner-up at Wimbledon 2018, you might have been met with some surprise. Injury prone, as is often the case with the tallest of players, Anderson had a fairly slow start to 2017, with his season only properly picking up in the grass court swing. The six-foot-ten South African ace managed a strong Round 4 finish at Wimbledon last year, losing to American Sam Querrey — one of the few players on tour who could match him for height.

His best results last year came on hard courts, with Anderson finishing runner-up to Alexander Zverev at the Citi Open, and going on to finish with his first Grand Slam final at the US Open, where he lost to a resurgent Rafael Nadal. That would prove to be the turning point for the 33-year-old, who has been in and out of physical recovery — the biggest chunk of this in 2016, when he had surgery on his shoulder and his ankle.

South Africa's Kevin Anderson reached the final of Wimbledon 2018, before losing to Novak Djokovic. Reuters

South Africa's Kevin Anderson reached the final of Wimbledon 2018, before losing to Novak Djokovic. Reuters

If you were to look at Anderson’s results in 2018, however, they read like those of someone with a foothold on a mountain and looking to scale it yet again. It was his New York Open title win in February this year that sent him back into the top 10 for the first time since 2015, and it is clear that the psychological impact of that alone would have been immense. With consistent deep runs in hard-court tournaments this year, one might not have been remiss to believe that Anderson could have fired strongly at the US Open.

In the earliest stages of Wimbledon 2018, despite being the eighth seed, Anderson was pushed to the brink by each of his competitors, taking only one straight-sets win en route to the final, and being stretched to tiebreaks by every one of his rivals barring Slovakia’s Norbert Gombos in Round 1. The mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils had Anderson teetering on the edge of defeat right until the end — until he eventually broke his own jinx of never having beaten the French ace even once of the five times they had previously met on court. But that jinx having been ended, Anderson was now up against a different foe — eight-time Wimbledon winner, 20-time Majors winner, and the “Greatest of All Time” Roger Federer.

As Anderson took to court at the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2018, he went in the clear underdog in the fight. And perhaps that one match was more watched than any other through the entirety of the tournament. Top seed and reigning champion Federer versus eighth seed and World No 9 Anderson.

Federer had already finished as the finalist at Halle and really, GOATs and grass clearly mix. Not only was Anderson not the statistical favourite to win, he was also not the crowd favourite, given that Wimbledon has all but become the personal shrine of Federer and Serena Williams — and not without reason.

Even over an hour into the match, Federer led Anderson 6-2, 7-6, and Anderson was down match point to the World No 2 in the third. Federer, on the cusp of breaking his own record to go unbeaten in 35 consecutive sets at Wimbledon, was completely stunned by Anderson, who pulled out one aggressive rally after another to seal a 2-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11 win over the eight-time champion.

Picking up on what was perhaps a rare faltering of the Swiss ace’s forehand, Anderson capitalised to force a number of errors — and eventually a deciding set that he took — breaking Federer’s serve, momentum and concentration to take his then-best ever finish at SW19.

Then, he faced off against John Isner in what would become the second-longest match in the history of Wimbledon — played over six hours and thirty-six minutes in what could easily be described either as the 'Battle of the Big Servers' or simply, the 'Battle of Nerves'. In the end, pushing with every last bit of fuel in his tank, Anderson ran, scrambled, served, rallied and pulled out all the stops to trump his American rival.

Up against Novak Djokovic, then a three-time Wimbledon winner, Anderson might not have been expected to win. He was, however, expected to give Djokovic some sort of contest, and indeed he tried. But perhaps it was just a bit too taxing on a body that has only fairly recently recovered from a major rehabilitation.

Anderson is no stranger to a GOAT; the South African ace, who started playing tennis at the age of six, was a regular competitor of Rafael Nadal on the juniors circuit, much before he began his collegiate tennis career.

For a young child from South Africa, Anderson would have had few idols from his home country to look up to, and while that is of course not a necessity — the likes of Zverev and Thiem both cite Federer and Nadal as their main inspirations — it certainly does help to have them.

But for all its talent in the cricketing arena, and in athletics and para-athletic, South Africa has never really been a hotbed of tennis talent. You could count on your fingers the number of South African tennis players who made it big and in fact, for those at the highest level, you could count them on one hand.

How many of you reading this article have heard of former World No 3 Amanda Coetzer? The South African ace, known for her consistency, entered the top 20 four year after she went pro in 1992, and remained there until 2002 — two years before she retired from professional tennis. During that career, she beat then World No 1 Steffi Graf on multiple occasions, and top 5 players Jana Novotna, Mary Pierce and then, a No 1-ranked Martina Hingis.

But her name is not as well known as those of some other South African tennis players.

A more well-known name, perhaps, is Kevin Curren (not to be confused with the Zimbabwean cricketer Kevin Curran), who, before Anderson, was the last male player born in South Africa to reach the semi-final of a Grand Slam at the 1984 Australian Open. By then, however, he had already switched sporting allegiances to the United States of America.

The last South African to make the finals at Wimbledon was Brian Norton, who achieved the feat in 1921 — losing to then-reigning World No 1 Bill Tilden.

Today, Anderson and doubles ace Raven Klaasen are probably the only two high-profile, high-ranking South African players on tour, and it goes without saying that neither has really received the public recognition they deserve.

Up against Djokovic in the finals, Anderson was, lest we forget, off one gruelling four-setter against Monfils, a difficult five-setter back from the brink against Federer, and then, the second-longest match in Wimbledon history against Isner. For even the most seasoned of endurance athletes, a schedule like that might have been a touch too much. But in a sport where he had few, if any, home idols, Anderson still shone.

While so many tennis players who go into the collegiate system take to coaching, or finish with middling, inconsistent results, only to drop off the ATP Tour or become private coaches, Anderson has scripted a success story many can only dream of. One achieved through hard work, endurance, and possibly one of the most difficult workouts we’ll ever read about, if we ever find out how he gets that sort of stamina.

Even till the end, within only a few points of taking it to a fourth set, Anderson fought on with an unforeseen tenacity, and gracious in his defeat, acknowledged Djokovic as ‘one of the greatest champions of our sport.’

On Sunday, we saw two fighters reach finals. Just as Anderson pushed himself to the brink in every match until his final, so too did Croatia, who played into extra time in every single knockout game of the FIFA World Cup 2018 except the final, where they lost 4-2 to France. With a total of 90 minutes of extra time, they played the equivalent of one entire match more than their rivals, France — much like Anderson, who played 24 sets of tennis en route to the final, to Djokovic’s 22.

Sunday was not just about the best team winning. Sunday was also the story of the underdog getting to the finish, maybe not winning the Big Title, but certainly scripting a victory all their own.

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Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 20:26:06 IST

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