Kevin Anderson — whose wife is, like me, a tennis blogger (and that’s pretty much where the similarities between our lives end) — surely heard the voices in his head.
“Oh no — not again. Not this time. No, it can’t be. Please, God, no. I’ve worked too hard for this. I’ve come too close. I’ve put in too much effort. I’ve outplayed these guys for two and a half sets. Come on, I HAVE to get the final half of a set in my pocket. DAMMIT, I WAS ALMOST AT THE FINISH LINE! Is another top-three player going to deny me? Stan Wawrinka, whom I OWN, is in the quarterfinals, too. This is the chance of a lifetime for me, and it could slip away! I’VE BEEN THROUGH THIS SH** TOO MANY G** D*** TIMES!”
Andy Murray — whom we’ll have more to say about when we wrap up this tournament next Monday — did not enjoy a good U.S. Open, but he at least pushed Kevin Anderson to his limits. This Labor Day afternoon match turned into a night match because Murray, despite struggling with his game and his forehand all the way, was able to compete well enough to survive longer than many thought he would.
In the first two sets, Anderson clearly outplayed Murray, with the second set being a butt-kicking that was almost a breadstick (6-1) set. Anderson, showing the same form he had displayed in his previous major-tournament fourth-round match against Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, once again won a first-set tiebreaker (just as he had done against Djokovic two months earlier). Anderson once again took a two-set lead with a more authoritative level of play than he’d been able to display in previous fourth-round situations.
Anderson, who brought an 0-6 record in major-tournament fourth-rounders to Wimbledon, opened eyes with his performance against Djokovic. However, when a two-set lead turned into a five-set loss (thanks to a crucial miss early in the fifth set when he had the world No. 1 on the ropes), Anderson’s mark in the round of 16 at the biggest events on tour became an onerous 0-7. When Anderson gained a two-set lead on Murray in his eighth “sixteener,” there was no room left for a moral victory. This became a match Anderson had to close down, or his reputation as one of tennis’s most recognizable “almost men” would have been affirmed to an even more considerable degree.
When Murray, fighting himself and his substandard level of play — the antithesis of his ruthlessly aggressive tennis in Montreal — managed to overcome a break deficit in the third set; push the match into a fourth; and dragged the proceedings into a fourth-set tiebreaker after four hours of action had already been completed, Anderson faced his moment of truth. Like John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, Anderson is one of the “big guys” in tennis, at 6-feet-7. In a fifth set — which would have brought the match time near five hours — Murray’s familiarity with major-tournament match pressure, not to mention the legs of one of tennis’s best court-coverage merchants, would have made him the favorite to win. Kevin Anderson, so close to authoring a massive fourth-round upset against a top-three player at Wimbledon, endured his “baptism of almost” that day.
This time, against Murray, he had to deliver, and that fourth-set tiebreaker was likely going to represent his point of no return.
The italicized internal dialogue is not an actual quote from Anderson, but it represents the collection of critical and fearful voices that surely could have flowed through his cranial nerves at the time. Tennis is so magnificent to watch not just for the outrageous physical skill of its practitioners, but for the test it represents in the mind and heart of the two individuals who stand on opposite sides of the net. The ball must always be the focus, but the opponent plays a role in determining where the ball goes. Beyond that, however, the weight of the moment and one’s personal history in relationship to the sport make tennis so fully and fearfully a battle with one’s own self, with those voices in the head.
No champion — not Federer, not Serena, not Rafa or Steffi or Martina or Chrissie or Bjorn or Jimbo or Venus — has ever established immunity to those voices. They’re there, but they have to be subdued, not given the credence a perhaps-tortured past might warrant. When tennis players try to cross thresholds — to achieve at a height they’ve never reached before — the pressure to perform, with all its attached fears, can be excruciating.
Let’s put it this way: Everything in Kevin Anderson’s long tennis life — he is 29, not a spring chicken in this profession — had led up to that moment in the fourth-set breaker against Murray. Everything he had done, and more instructively, everything he had failed to do, set up a situation in which he had to make good… or suffer, truly, the most discouraging loss of his career.
You try to imagine what it was like to be Kevin Anderson at the beginning of that tiebreaker, after more than four hours inside Louis Armstrong Stadium, a place which has witnessed so many players cross thresholds over the past 37 years. You try to inhabit the mind and thoughts of a 29-year old who had labored long and hard in the vineyard of tennis, wanting just this one major quarterfinal, so that you wouldn’t have to bear this “o-fer” ever again.
Just how well did Anderson play in that breaker?
He didn’t lose a point.
Anderson, knowing that a five-minute sequence of points would in many ways determine how he felt about his season and his career, played that handful of minutes as well as any other set of points he’s ever played.
He didn’t coast to the finish line — Andy Murray made him run this race all-out, to the very end.
He didn’t backdoor into a match win courtesy of a bucketload of errors from his opponent in a tight scoreboard situation. He didn’t, for example, benefit from a failed smash by Murray at 5-5 in the tiebreaker. No, Anderson never allowed that tiebreaker to become a close call.
Anderson, after staying on court for what had to feel like half a month, not just half an evening in New York, smashed down the door that had blocked his path to a first major-tournament quarterfinal. He took down an elite player with his best stuff. Years of agonizing losses at the majors and in Masters 1000 events gnawed at Kevin Anderson, but they’ve clearly had a gradually positive effect on the South African.
He could have sulked, could have despaired more, not less, after the loss to Djokovic at Wimbledon.
Instead, Kevin Anderson reboubled his efforts. Now, with Wawrinka in his path in the quarterfinals, Anderson has a chance to make his first major semifinal.
This is how careers and repuations change. This is how beautiful stories are authored in tennis.
Kevin Anderson conquered Andy Murray on Monday evening in the Big Apple. More centrally, though, Kevin Anderson conquered his past and laid his own doubts to rest. It’s always beautiful when this happens in sports, but in the solo-athlete theater of tennis, it’s particularly poignant, compelling… and wonderful to see.