Tennis with an Accent head editor Matt Zemek astutely observed in his commentary on Tuesday – about what awaited Federer starting with the Wimbledon quarterfinal round – that Kevin Anderson was a “a solid top-10 player who has made a major final,” and represented the first genuine challenge for the Swiss champion in London this year. He could not have been more accurate.
With Federer being the clear favorite to advance, the more central question revolved around the level of tennis he was going to put on display against the big-serving South African who also possessed commanding weapons in his arsenal that he could employ as follow-up strikes to his serves. Master of neutralizing opponents with one or two powerful weapons, Roger naturally counted on holding his serves and looking for that one crucial break in each set. When you came into the encounter winning 92% of your first-serve points (164 out of 179) throughout your first four rounds, you have the luxury to make such calculations.
Four hours 14 minutes later, Kevin Anderson pulled one of the biggest upsets of the year in a stunning comeback from two sets and a match point down to defeat Federer 2-6 6-7 7-5 6-4 13-11. It was a shocker not because Anderson does not have the weapons to defeat an elite player like Federer. He does. If you have followed his steady and consistent rise to prominence over the last 10 months, starting with his appearance in the final of the US Open, you should not be taken aback by the fact that he is now a bona fide top-10 player at a level where he can challenge the best in our sport.
It was a shocker of an upset that Anderson defeated a legendary champion at the very tournament that played a central role in him becoming one, because he was 0-4 against the legend without even having won a set against him, and also because, the match stuck to the expected scenario for almost three sets before finally beginning to turn around. It’s one thing for the heavy favorite to have a bad day and the underdog to come out firing, thus producing a lop-sided, straight-set win. It’s another for the match to almost come to its terms in the way that was expected, only to stun everyone by turning the script around at the last second and remain in that reverse form all the way to the end.
In fact, Federer played his best tennis of the tournament in the first set, bludgeoning Anderson from the baseline, and returning the South African’s serve with ease to complement his own excellence in serving. Roger lost only one point on his serve – first and second serves combined. Anderson, for his part, remained below 60% on his first serves and with Federer’s returns clicking on all cylinders – not an everyday luxury for Roger, one must admit – he only managed to win three points on his second serve. Furthermore, Federer dominated the baseline rallies, making only three unforced errors in the first set (I do my own count of unforced errors), and winning all but one of the ten points in which rallies exceeded four shots. It was a squeaky-clean set for the Swiss.
In the second set Federer committed few more errors than in the first and that helped Anderson sink his teeth into rallies. Kevin also hit more aces in the second set (seven vs one in the first set), but he still could not get his first serve going (55%). He did, however, change his approach to second serves. He began taking more risks on it. After all, what did he have to lose, considering how little success he had in the first set on points started with his second serves? That adjustment bore fruit for him as he won most of his second-serve points at 62% compared to 25% in the first set. That was the main reason why he was able to take the set to a tiebreaker after an exchange of breaks early in the set. It was not enough though, because Federer, 0-2 down in the tiebreaker, won five points in a row to grab a 5-2 lead and won the tiebreaker 7-5 after winning another rally that ended when he put the heat on Anderson’s forehand and made him miss.
The pre-match favorite was now up two sets to love and the third set began to roll forward not much differently than the first two. The players kept holding serves until Federer led 5-4 and held a match point on Anderson’s serve at ad-out. Anderson approached the net with a solid deep shot to Federer’s backhand and the Swiss framed the backhand passing shot out. It was well bravely by Anderson, taking it to Federer, making him come up with a difficult passing shot. It was not squandered by Roger since Anderson approached well enough to where he would have to produce a stellar passing shot to win the point. Federer fans, if you lament the match point missed, you are not being fair to yourself. What you should look to, if anything at all, is the forehand that Roger missed at 30-40 – break point – when Anderson was serving for the set at 6-5. In that point, Federer had a forehand that he could have used to approach the net, but did not, and missed the next forehand from inside the baseline into the net. Anderson ended up holding serve in that game and winning the third set 7-5. That forehand error at 30-40, you can lament. But remember that had Federer won that point, it would have brought him into a tiebreaker, with no guarantees to win the fourth set.
There was one other bright spot for Anderson in the third set. He recaptured his first-serve prowess by serving at 70% compared to staying well below 60% throughout the first two sets.
And that is how matches turn around in the most unexpected way. The player trying to mount a comeback begins hitting a particular shot better, a point goes this way, another one goes that way, the underdog makes a brave decision, earns the result desired, begins trusting his weapons again, and grows in confidence. As a result, the light at the end of the tunnel shines brighter to his eyes and before you know it, he starts doing everything right to climb out of the hole.
When the player in question happens to be named Kevin Anderson, you better watch out. Because the 32-year-old possesses some substantial firepower, and I do not mean just on his serves. He can nail big shots from both wings during rallies too. Boy, did he get to showcase that “muscle” in the fourth set. Just like Roger dominated all facets of the game in the first set, Anderson dominated them in the fourth. Remember how Roger won 9 out of 10 points in rallies that went over four shots in the first set? Kevin won 7 out of 8 of those in the fourth. Remember how dominating Federer was on his serve in the first set and how Anderson struggled on his (14 out of 28 points won on serves)? In the fourth set, Anderson lost only six points on his serve.
The stark contrast between the first and fourth sets reminded me of the 1981 Wimbledon semifinal match between Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, when the American erased the Swede from the court in the first set 6-0 and went up two sets to love, only to see Borg come back with a vengeance and return the favor of the bagel to him in the fourth set, in the same dominating fashion. Borg also won that match in the fifth, coming back from two sets down.
The last game of the fourth set, when Anderson held serve to win it 6-4, should tell you everything you need to know. Anderson hit 3 winners and two aces in that game, in response to four winners by Federer who had a break point at ad-out to get back to 5-5 after hitting his fourth winner of the game. Anderson responded with a backhand winner, blasted an ace at deuce, and pocketed the fourth set after nailing yet another forehand winner. That game was representative of his level in the fourth set during which he could do nothing wrong despite playing a high-risk brand of tennis. Federer did not play a bad set at all folks (as that last game will tell you). He made only 4 unforced errors in the set and served at 70%. Anderson did one better at 2 unforced errors and serving at 86%.
Again, you can rue the 30-40 return at 5-6 in the third set if you insist on finding fault to Federer. Or you can look at what Anderson accomplished through the 60 minutes that eclipsed from 5-4 in the third set to the end of the fourth set and appreciate how he managed to top Federer’s already high level of play in the early going.
After four spectacular sets, the fifth one did not disappoint either, although the shot-making quality understandably dropped just a bit for both players as we entered the extended period after 5-5. Both players found themselves a number of times two points away from losing their serves, at 0-30, 15-30, 30-30, or deuce, but produced one clutch serve after another to repeatedly get out of trouble.
The most notable one took place at 6-5 for Federer when he led 0-30 and had a look at Anderson’s second serve. Granted, Kevin came up with a crisp second serve that clocked at 111 mph, but it was a makeable return. Federer’s backhand slice return sailed in the net. Anderson came back to hold, and it looked like something extraordinary needed to happen for a break to occur. It did in the 11-11, much to Federer’s detriment.
He committed his first – and only – double fault of the match at 30-30 and followed that up with a forehand unforced error. That two-point sequence signaled the end of the road for Federer, as Anderson, who has not lost his serve since the fifth game of the second set and faced only two break points since that forehand missed by Federer – noted above – at 6-5, 30-40, in the third set.
Anderson finished the match with 28 aces (three double faults) and 37 winners. He committed 30 unforced errors but half of them came in the first two sets. If you remind yourself that the fifth set was longer by itself than the first two combined, you can get an idea of how much Anderson raised his level as the match progressed. Federer, for his part, put up impressive numbers too. He finished with 16 aces (one double fault) and 45 winners, while he committed 29 unforced errors. Then, there were some high-octane rallies, showcasing the footwork of both athletes. It was an excellent tennis match, the best of the tournament so far, in my opinion.
Kevin Anderson next faces John Isner for a spot in the finals. He is two wins away from establishing himself as a legitimate force behind the elites of men’s tennis, perhaps along the same lines as Marin Cilic. It would also mean that he defeated Roger Federer and either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal on his way to his first Major title. He would then become only the fifth player to accomplish that feat.
Anderson is on the cusp of a special achievement and he is ready for it.
When asked about the impact of this win on his ongoing run at Wimbledon, Anderson’s response hinted at where his central focus remains: “it’s definitely a win that means a lot to me today. It’s tough in the sense that I’ve got to get ready for my next match. I can’t dwell on it too long. Obviously a lot of emotions going on. You try to calm down as quickly as possible. Already started my recovery process.”
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