Two-time former champion and world number one Rafael Nadal takes on first-time Major finalist Kevin Anderson of South Africa. Both men have had very different tournament and doubtless had varying expectations when they arrived in New York. Who will walk away triumphant from the US Open final?
Nadal and Anderson have met four times so far through their careers, and the South African has claimed just one set. Their first meeting came in Toronto seven years ago in the round of 16. Nadal was comfortable in the first set, winning it 6-2, and despite Anderson making him work in the second, the Spaniard won it in a tie break. They next met five years later in Melbourne. Anderson was looking to make it to his first Slam quarter-final but was stopped by Nadal in a 5-7 1-6 4-6 defeat. He took his first and, so far, only set off the Spaniard at the Masters 1000 in Paris later that year, but Nadal rebounded to win 4-6 7-6 6-2. Their most recent meeting was this year on the clay courts in Barcelona. Nadal was unstoppable this year on the red dirt and he dismissed Anderson 6-3 6-4.
Anderson is also vastly less experienced than Nadal. The South African has had a fine career, having turned pro in 2007. Since then he has picked up 268 match wins and three tour titles. But before this year’s US Open his best ever result at a Slam was his run to the US Open quarter-finals in 2015. He does have 12 top 10 wins, including one at a Slam which was also at the US Open in 2015, when he beat then world number three Andy Murray in the fourth round. Nadal, however, is competing in his 23rd Slam final and has won 15 of the previous 22. He also has 861 career match wins and is looking for a 74th crown. Whilst Anderson may be overawed by the occasion, there is little chance of that from Nadal.
Nadal’s path to the final
Nadal began his US Open campaign against Dusan Lajovic of Serbia. Lajovic began well, breaking Nadal early in the first set and he served for it. But two net cords went against him and Nadal seized on the good fortune to break to love. Nadal took the set in a tie break and dropped just four more games as he powered into the second round. There he faced Taro Daniel, a New York born Japanese. Daniel also began well, and he was able to take the first set as the Nadal forehand misfired. When that famous shot came to life, the match was effectively ended as a contest. Nadal stormed through the next three sets 6-3 6-2 6-2 to win.
He then went onto meet Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer. The Spaniard was once again made to pay for a slow start when he dropped the first set. He also squandered his first 11 break points before finally taking his 12th attempt. That swung the match in his favour, and Nadal was rarely troubled thereafter. He raced away with the second and third sets and was a double-break up in the fourth. Despite a late flurry of resistance from Mayer, Nadal secured a 6-7 6-3 6-1 6-4 victory and a place in the fourth round. His opponent there was Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov. On his day, the Ukrainian can be a dangerous opponent but Nadal dispatched him with ease. Two breaks saw him take the opening set comfortably, and whilst Dolgopolov pushed for a break briefly in the second, the result never looked in doubt. Nadal progressed 6-2 6-4 6-1.
Andrey Rublev, making his debut in a Slam quarter-final, was his opponent in the last eight. The teenage Russian looks to have a bright future in the game but couldn’t trouble Nadal in their first meeting. He fell 1-6 2-6 2-6. In the semi-finals, Nadal faced the last man to defeat him in the last four at a Major, Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine had already felled Dominic Thiem and Roger Federer with his sledgehammer forehand. When he took the first set, he looked set to add Nadal to his list of conquests but the Spaniard grew into the match, mixing up his tactics and attacking the Del Potro forehand. The big man had struggled with a virus in New York, and against a relentless Rafa, his challenge faded with his energy levels. Nadal returned to the final in New York with a 4-6 6-0 6-3 6-2 victory.
Anderson’s path to the final
Anderson, seeded 28th, began his US Open campaign against American qualifier JC Aragone, who he dispatched in straight sets 6-3 6-3 6-1. He then defeated former French Open semi-finalist Ernests Gulbis, also in straight sets 6-3 7-5 6-4 in the second round. This was followed by another straight sets victory over Borna Coric, who had defeated early favourite Alexander Zverev in the previous round. Coric’s level against Anderson, however, was a long way short of what he had produced against Germany’s world number six. Anderson brushed him aside 6-4 6-3 6-2 to reach the fourth round in New York.
He returned to the quarter-finals for a second time after defeating Paolo Lorenzi in four sets. Anderson looked comfortable enough in the early stages and took the first two sets 6-3 6-4 to establish a commanding lead. But Lorenzi fought back to take the third set in a tie break. Anderson, however, was able to reimpose himself from the baseline, and one break in the fourth was enough to settle the match. He completed a 6-3 6-4 6-7 6-4 victory to make his second Slam quarter-final. He went into that quarter-final as the underdog against home hope and 17th seed Sam Querrey but the South African had enough to complete a tight four set victory. Unsurprisingly, breaks of serve were at a premium, but it was Anderson who hung tough to win 7-6 6-7 6-3 7-6 and reach his first ever Major semi-final.
There he met Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta, who was also making his bow in the last four at a Grand Slam. Carreno Busta had been playing excellent tennis in New York, with his relentless baseline work conjuring shades of the absent former champion Novak Djokovic. The Spaniard was also returning well, and he broke Anderson in the first set, taking it 6-4. The second set was a tight affair, and it also proved crucial. Carreno Busta threatened throughout but as it reached its climax, nerves seemed to get the better of him. He was broken when serving to stay in it and Anderson powered on from there. He won the next two sets 6-3 6-4 to make an unexpected first ever Slam final.
How do they match up?
Anderson and Nadal bring very different approaches to the court. Anderson’s style is dominated by his easy power off the serve and his groundstrokes. The big South African, who stands 6’8 tall, is one of the best servers on tour but unlike John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, is comfortable rallying from the back of the court too. His forehand is his most effective weapon, but his backhand is generally solid, though it can misfire when he goes for winners. Nadal, in contrast, is seven inches shorter and blessed with far less power on serve. But, his forehand is one of the best the world has ever seen. Nadal is able to dictate with it, and its wicked amounts of topspin make it difficult to deal with, especially for a right-hander’s backhand.
That pattern of Nadal’s cross-court forehand into Anderson’s backhand will be something that the South African will have to be wary of. If Nadal is regularly able to extract errors from Anderson’s backhand, it may prove to be a short and unpleasant evening for the South African. However, of greater importance for Anderson is to keep the rallies short. It is crucial that Anderson goes big with his forehand early as often as possible, to win both the mental and physical battle. If Nadal is denied rhythm and the chance to wear Anderson down, he may be able to pull off the upset. But if Anderson engages in long rallies regularly with Nadal, he will be reminded that he has neither the legs nor the groundstrokes to compete with the great Spaniard.
Anderson has done superbly to seize the opportunity of an open draw and reach a Grand Slam final. It was probably not something Anderson thought was likely when he was considering the possibility of hip surgery earlier this year. But whilst the memories of his run in New York will stay with him forever, it is hard to see him emerging with the title. Nadal represents a massive step up in quality and was in frightening form against Del Potro. If the Spaniard brings that level of performance, only two men could possibly hope to emerge victorious against him and Anderson is neither of them. Nadal in straight sets.
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