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ANDERSON, DIMITROV, AND HOW TIMES CHANGE

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Go back four years, to August of 2014.

Go back to Toronto for a previous edition of the Rogers Cup.

Go back to the main stadium court for a men’s quarterfinal on a Friday afternoon.

Four years ago, Grigor Dimitrov made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Four years ago, Milos Raonic had also made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Four years ago, Dimitrov and Raonic were both 23 years old, the future mostly in front of them, the “ATP Lost Boys” not yet a punching bag or a sign of crisis on the ATP Tour. Four years ago, the Big Four were still a thing, Stan Wawrinka was beginning to make his ascent, and Novak Djokovic’s remarkably dominant 18-month run (January of 2015 through June of 2016) had not yet begun.

Four years ago, people wondered if Roger Federer was ever going to win an 18th major; a 20th major was far off the radar screen. Four years ago, Tomas Berdych made an Australian Open semifinal. Four years ago, so much was dramatically different about the world of tennis compared to now. It is only four years, and yet in four years, a lot changes.

Of all the changes which have taken place in men’s tennis over four years, several rate as bigger surprises than the turns in the careers of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov. Andy Murray becoming World No. 1 in 2016 was bigger. So was Federer and Nadal winning six straight majors until Djokovic broke that string this past July at Wimbledon. Yes, other changes have been larger and more resonant in the larger course of tennis history, but the divergent paths of Anderson and Dimitrov are worth noting, since they met in Toronto four years ago and then met again in the same city — in the same stadium, in the same quarterfinal round — on Friday in the 2018 Rogers Cup.

Four years ago, Kevin Anderson hadn’t reached a single major quarterfinal — that was still one year away at the 2015 U.S. Open. Anderson had the raw tools to produce strong results — maybe not major semifinals and finals, but certainly better than what he had shown. In August of 2014, Anderson was John Isner WITHOUT the bunch of Masters semifinal appearances. The version of Anderson which existed in 2014 was — like the version of Isner which existed through early 2018 — a player who should not have been expected to REGULARLY make the semifinal stage of big tournaments, but who should have been able to make those deep runs every now and then, let’s say once a year or at least once every six majors.

Anderson and Isner serve too powerfully and effectively to NOT win stacks of matches in certain segments. Yes, their weaknesses and limitations would expose them most of the year against top-10 players. Again, no one should have expected them to be every-week semifinalists on tour. Yet, the reality that they practically never made major quarterfinals — year after year after year (only one between them through Wimbledon of 2015, and only two through Wimbledon of 2017) — was the true surprise.

SURELY, one would have thought, these mammoth servers would get hot, ride the wave, and make a major quarterfinal twice in a three-year span, an average of one out of every six majors (2 of 12 = 1 of 6, or 16.7 percent). That’s not a GREAT percentage, but it would represent occasional prosperity. That expression — “occasional prosperity” — is what players in Anderson and Isner’s tier should aspire to: not being great all the time due to limitations in court coverage, defense, and full variety from the back of the court, but having substantial weapons to dominate on serve and hit opponents off the court. They won’t generally beat players inside the top 10 and especially the top 5, but they can certainly handle players ranked 11-20 half the time, which is generally what gets a player to the quarterfinals of a major on an occasional basis.

Yet, four years ago, Kevin Anderson hadn’t made one major quarterfinal at age 28. Several months before August of 2014, Stan Wawrinka made his breakthrough in Australia by winning a first major title at age 28 in January. Little did anyone know how much Stan would inspire his ATP peers to awaken from slumber in their late 20s and early 30s. Today, we can see how much of an effect Stan had on other guys in the ATP locker room, but back then, the gradual awakening hadn’t yet spread through much of the tour. Anderson had still not found the keys needed to unlock his talent.

Dimitrov seemed to be on the verge of stepping through the door and entering a fancy new house of tennis success.

It is true that Dimitrov should have won the fourth set against Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals. He shouldn’t have won the match, but he should have forced a fifth stanza. That lapse, however, was allowable. The moment was new for Dimitrov, and as said many times in this space, being a young tennis player inevitably brings harsh lessons. The key is to learn what they have to teach. Dimitrov gained the kind of experience a tennis player needs to eventually graduate to the next level. He seemed to be on his way.

Dimitrov’s coping mechanisms were in development back then. He was an open book, soaking up knowledge, and likely — in the estimation of many, including myself — to one day lift a major trophy. Not eight, not 10, not any large number, but at least a few. Dimitrov was building his career and gathering the kinds of “almost moments” which often lead to ultimate triumphs later on.

Dimitrov’s promising outlook and Anderson’s dreary penchant for failing to win important matches were never more starkly apparent than when they met in Toronto those four long years ago.

Anderson won the first set and gained break point in the second set at 5-5, 30-40 on Dimitrov’s serve. Dimitrov came up with a big serve and erased that break point. There was nothing Kando could do about that hold for 6-5. However, when serving to stay in the second set at 5-6, Anderson double-faulted away the set instead of forcing Dimitrov to play. That was a first — and familiar — sign of Anderson’s nerves, as he stood on the precipice of a first Masters 1000 hardcourt semifinal appearance.

Anderson shrugged off that ugly end to the second set and gained double match point on his serve at *5-4, 40-15 in the third. On each of those match points, Anderson hit a strong serve which elicited a short ball from Dimitrov. Both shots were sitters, cream puffs begging to be swatted away into the open court for easy winners. Anderson choked on both, especially the second one at 40-30, standing right over the net and somehow hitting the ball into the twine. At deuce, Anderson made two more very ugly errors to surrender the break of serve.

Anderson picked himself off the canvas again, gaining a 5-4 lead in the final-set tiebreaker several minutes later, on his serve. At *5-4, Dimitrov fell down when returning Anderson’s serve. Anderson just had to sweep the next groundstroke into the deuce corner while Dimitrov struggled to get up on the ad side of the court, but Anderson hit the groundstroke back to the ad corner. Dimitrov retrieved it and won the point for 5-5. Dimitrov then closed out the tiebreaker, 8-6, leaving Anderson wondering how he let that match get away. It was a vintage representation of Anderson’s then-chronic inability to get over the hump. Dimitrov didn’t carry the run of play, but he forced Anderson to answer questions nearly every step of the way, applying enough match pressure to make Anderson think about the moment, which the South African wasn’t good at doing.

Dimitrov made a Masters semifinal in 2014, one which figured to begin a relatively large and fat stack of such appearances. Anderson remained stuck in his mind, trapped in the mental prison of doubt and distrust.

Four years ago, the tennis world appeared to be moving in specific directions for Dimitrov and Anderson, and those two directions could not have been more different.

Fast-forward to this past Friday, four years later.

Dimitrov had won the past five meetings between the two players. All of those matches were close. None were decided in straight sets… but Grigor regularly prevailed. If you watched the 2014 Toronto quarterfinal and then didn’t follow men’s tennis for the next four years, you would not have been surprised at all by that fact. Yet, outside of his control of Anderson in tight scoreboard situations, Dimitrov spent the next four years faltering quite often in those scenarios. There were occasional exceptions, particularly in his strong 2017 season, but for the most part, the growth and development which were evident in Dimitrov in 2014 did not lead to a continued process of evolution.

Dimitrov has indeed transformed his level of physical fitness. Few players on tour are more able-bodied than Dimitrov, who outlasted Jared Donaldson 10-8 in the fifth set at Roland Garros earlier this year and told reporters after the match that he was ready to play a few more hours if necessary. Yet, for all the physical fitness Dimitrov has demonstrated, his mental game lies in disrepair. He double faults frequently in pressure games (such as 4-5 or 5-6 when serving to stay in a set). His shots break down in important moments. He doesn’t move his feet on returns and gets caught flat-footed. He is a fleet-footed athlete, but the split-second delays in reactions and response are testament to the nerves which weigh him down. The 23-year-old who was climbing the ladder didn’t continue to ascend to a greater height. 2017 had its moments, but his two signature accomplishments that year — the Cincinnati Masters title and ATP Finals championship — occurred against the backdrop of a depleted field, with no Djokovic, Murray or Wawrinka in the way and (in Cincinnati) weather creating a backlogged schedule which left many other players tired. The 2018 season would tell us if a Dimitrov resurgence was real; the verdict could not be any clearer as we sit here in August.

Then consider what has happened to Dimitrov’s opponent on Friday in Toronto. Kevin Anderson was fortunate to have avoided Alexander Zverev at the 2017 U.S. Open. He got a dream draw. To his credit, he took advantage of it and made his first major final. Nevertheless, it was easy to chalk up that run to a boatload of good fortune and the same attritional forces which enabled Dimitrov to win Cincinnati and the ATP Finals. Anderson, like Dimitrov, entered 2018 with a target on his back and a lot to prove to his doubters.

Unlike Dimitrov, Anderson has not merely started a climb to a higher level of relevance and success; he has scaled some jagged rock formations at very lofty elevations.

Anderson busted down the door of a first Masters semifinal on clay in Madrid, but that was merely a warm-up act. He handled an in-form Gael Monfils in the fourth round of Wimbledon to make his third career major quarterfinal. When he fell behind by two sets to Federer in the quarterfinals, it seemed his run was over, but then Kando steeled himself, as though he wanted to declare to all the world that he was more — much more — than “the guy who got the lucky draw at the U.S. Open.”

Anderson fought off a match point against Federer, swiped the third set, dominated the fourth set, dug out of a few 0-30 holes on serve in a tense fifth set, and won 13-11 in a prolonged struggle. Knocking Federer out of Wimbledon after trailing by two sets? The 2014 version of Anderson could not have thought that was possible. The 2018 version did… and the 2018 version was so newly fortified with inner belief that he then outlasted Isner in a match exceeding six and a half hours in length. Anderson was toasted by the time he faced Djokovic in his first Wimbledon final, but by making a second major final, Anderson promptly removed the “one-hit wonder” label from his back, changing the way the locker room and the rest of the sport thought about him.

Grigor Dimitrov has more natural talent than Kevin Anderson. His shots flow more easily and contain more variety. Grigor can cover the court more effectively and perform better from defensive positions. Dimitrov has more touch and slice. He might not be great at net, but Anderson is worse. Anderson has a better serve and return, but on a larger overall level, Dimitrov possesses more raw tennis skills. If both players play to their full potential, Dimitrov should be the one who wins.

Yet, these four years after that Toronto meeting in which Anderson’s mental block was so profound, here were these two men — reunited again on Canadian soil in a Masters quarterfinal. Their identities could not have undergone more of an overhaul.

Anderson was the one hitting fluidly and cleanly. Anderson controlled the court and dominated the internal battle of clarity, concentration and confidence. Whereas the 2014 Toronto match featured three razor-close sets, Anderson put his boot on Dimitrov’s throat early in each set on Friday. He roared to an easy 6-2, 6-2 win without the slightest hint of a hiccup.

One man had become liberated, the other receding into helplessness. If you remember the 2014 Toronto quarterfinal, you would have sworn that Dimitrov would be the high flyer in 2018, and that Anderson would be the man left muttering to himself in the corner and on changeovers.

SURPRISE!

It is only four years, but it is striking to recall Toronto in August of 2014 and absorb how much the careers of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov have veered in decidedly unexpected directions.

Source: Michael Reaves/Getty Images North America
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Zverev Gets A Reminder Of The Distance He Must Travel

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Tennis, as I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. Most sports — golf being a conspicuous exception — involve the push and pull of one side’s reactions to the other. From this tension between two competitors comes the complex and often counterintuitive reality of sports: You can play better on one day and still lose. On the other side of the coin, you can play worse on another day and still win. Your opponent might be the bigger and more important variable.

Such has been the case for Alexander Zverev at the 2018 ATP Finals.

All things considered, Zverev has played two relatively similar matches in London. He defeated a player  who is chronically unable to raise his game at the ATP Finals. He lost to a player who almost always finds solutions at the same tournament.

Zverev defeated Marin Cilic, who — entering Wednesday, before his match against John Isner — had won only one match in London in four ATP Finals appearances. Zverev then lost to Novak Djokovic, who has won five ATP Finals championships and is steamrolling toward his sixth.

The opponent was the main variable.

This does not, however, mean Zverev had no say in the Djokovic match. It also doesn’t mean Sascha has Zvery little to worry about. He has PLENTY of work to do in the coming offseason, regardless of whether he advances to the semifinals this weekend.

I begin nearly every discussion of Zverev these days with the reminder/disclaimer that Sascha’s career is still well AHEAD of schedule. No NextGen player has made more consistent or substantial advances than Zverev. He is a stone-cold rock of reliability at Masters 1000 tournaments. Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson, and other high-quality players in their early 30s have spent many years struggling how to find the special sauce of success at Masters 1000s. Zverev already owns three M-1000 trophies and made seven quarterfinals this year at that level of the ATP Tour.

Zverev’s challenge is to walk over the hot coals of pressure in the biggest matches at the biggest tournaments against the best players. He handled Cilic in match one, but Djokovic — as usual — set the much higher standard in match two. Much of what happened on Wednesday was the product of the World No. 1 remaining supremely steady in important moments, but at least some of the day’s decisive developments came from Zverev’s inability to pounce… and his subsequent failure to handle that disappointment. From this realization comes a fascinating detail about Sascha’s journey at these ATP Finals.

Anyone and everyone who watched the Djokovic match could pinpoint the moment this match turned. Zverev had multiple break points at 4-4 in the first set and could not convert them. His failure to break in that ninth game of the match flowed in part from an inability to attack vulnerable second serves. Yet, those kinds of moments happen for all tennis players. No one plays several years on tour without enduring those frustrations. We saw Djokovic deal with that frustration in his Bercy semifinal against Roger Federer, in which he went 0 for 12 on break points.

Djokovic, though, kept holding serve throughout the third set of that match, despite failing to gain a decisive lead. Most players would have allowed the accumulation of missed chances to get to them, creating a very familiar Federer escape.

Djokovic isn’t most players. He is a standard of success unto himself.

Sascha might have been Zvery close to winning the first set against Djokovic on Wednesday, but as the saying goes, “So close, and yet so far away.” The small margins in tennis look like the Grand Canyon when one sees the vast difference between two athletes’ responses to scoreboard pressure and high-stakes tournaments.

Ivan Lendl knows how poorly Zverev responded to that ninth-game failure to break Djokovic. That’s exactly the kind of situation Lendl himself failed to handle in the biggest moments against Jimmy Connors (especially at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon) before he finally turned the corner in 1984 and 1985. That’s the real-world experience Team Zverev is counting on Lendl to impart to Sascha, as this coaching relationship tries to take root and bear fruit in the coming offseason.

Zverev’s bright start on Wednesday, followed by his abrupt fall off a cliff in the second set, inverted his performance against Cilic two days earlier. In the Cilic match, Zverev started the match as a dead fish, with Cilic having a sitter forehand for 5-1 but somehow missing it. Zverev battled back, but even then, Cilic’s failure to challenge a call at 5-4 and deuce prevented the Croatian from getting a set point on Zverev’s serve. Cilic played a terrible service game at 5-3 to enable the set to continue.

Zverev wasn’t very good in that first set, but as soon as he stole it in a tiebreaker, he played and served a lot more freely in the second set. Wednesday’s match against Djokovic was exactly the opposite.

Zverev very plainly knew how to run with good fortune in a first set, and didn’t know how to confront adversity at the end of a first set two days later. In both matches, he played one set well and one set poorly. The results were different — the opponent was indeed the main variable — but the inconsistent performances were the same.

Establishing a higher ceiling is part of a young athlete’s task. Lendl beefing up the Zverev forehand and improving the German’s footwork is how that process will occur. Yet, in the pursuit of raising a ceiling, one cannot forget the equally important need for a young athlete to raise his floor as well.

Raising a ceiling is needed to beat the best players in terms of skill and raw athletic prowess. Raising a floor is much more in the province of the mental game, because the mental giants in any sport are able to win even when they are struggling. Mental strength shows up the most when the shots aren’t flowing and the opponent is resolute in offering resistance. Personal struggles against an opponent who demands persistence create a supreme test for an athlete.

Cilic doesn’t demand persistence — he will donate a key game late in a set against elite players. Djokovic always demands persistence. He gives virtually nothing away.

The first set against Djokovic might have been Zvery close on Wednesday, but it showed Sascha just how much growing, learning and internalizing he must do under Lendl’s watch to grow into the even more complete player he hopes to become.

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Dominic Thiem Still Has To Learn To Adapt

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

The photo for this story comes from the 2018 U.S. Open.

That was the tournament in which Dominic Thiem made the first substantial hardcourt breakthrough of his career.

Thiem not only reached his first non-clay major-tournament quarterfinal in New York; he played Rafael Nadal at a high level for 4 hours and 49 minutes, deep into the night. The match ended after 2 a.m., but the outlook in the dead of night was actually very bright for the 25-year-old, who had finally smashed through the notion that he was just a claycourt specialist. When you push Nadal to the limit — and to the precipice of defeat — in a five-hour battle royale, you know you can play on a given surface.

I said it then, and I won’t retract it now: Thiem has earned the right to no longer be called a claycourt specialist. His title in St. Petersburg and his semifinal in Bercy drove home the point, just to make sure.

When a player shows he can play on multiple surfaces, the discussion changes from “Can he adapt in those conditions?” to a more general line of inquiry: “Can he adapt, period?”

Thiem stands in a clearer space now. Questions don’t have to be nearly as tethered to specific conditions. They can focus on the bigger, broader picture, which boils down to this with Thiem:

The man has plenty of talent. He can hit a tennis ball with the best of them… on any surface. On a slower hardcourt which is receptive to spin and creates higher bounces, Thiem can do really well. Yet, on a fast hardcourt (Shanghai) or a low-bouncing hardcourt, as found in London for the ATP Finals, it is evident that Thiem still has a ways to go.

Of course, not all hardcourts and not all surfaces are created equal. Of course, Thiem doesn’t have a lot of problem solving to do on clay compared to other surfaces. Yet, the Nadal match in New York showed he has genuine hardcourt capabilities, while simultaneously showing that a slow, high-bounce hardcourt helps his game in ways that other hardcourts don’t. No one is suggesting that surfaces and conditions are now irrelevant to Thiem’s outcomes and future prospects. The larger point is that whereas the previous discussion about Thiem was surface-specific, the new discussion is more generally about making adjustments whenever and wherever they need to be made.

This is less about “clay versus hardcourt” and more about “slow versus fast,” “high bounce versus low bounce,” and whatever the challenges of a given day and a given opponent demand of Thiem.

In his match against Roger Federer on Tuesday at the ATP Finals, Thiem almost certainly closed the curtain on his season. Technically, he hasn’t been eliminated, but he has virtually no chance of advancing to the semifinals. He would have to destroy Kei Nishikori and have Kevin Anderson destroy Federer. The two scorelines would have to be close to double bagels to give Thiem any mathematical shot. For all intents and purposes, his season will end on Thursday once the final point is played against Nishikori.

When Thiem and Gunter Bresnik — who made real and substantive gains in 2018 — assess the next step, a core principle has to be the willingness to hit at different speeds. This doesn’t mean hitting a series of slices before cranking a few all-out backhands or massive forehands. This is more a matter of hitting a topspin forehand with control and margin, not just at full-throttle. Gaining more layers of speed and added dimensions of placement and angle are what Thiem needs to continue his evolution. Seeds of that evolution were planted in New York, St. Pete and Bercy, but these ATP Finals have shown (as did Shanghai) that Thiem’s game doesn’t grow from every form of soil or mulch.

While the Big 3 holds down the fort for the older tennis players on the circuit, and Sascha Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas lead a pack of younger players poised to move up the ladder in 2019, Dominic Thiem is the one prominent player in the 25-to-29 age demographic who is in especially good position to make some noise next year.

In order to make that noise, Thiem paradoxically needs to quiet down his game and make it less loud and blaring at times. We will see if he performs that fundamental adjustment.

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Kevin Anderson Continues To Stand Tall — And Stand Out

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

The Big 3 live in their own exalted realm, and have done so for quite a long time. The three iconic male tennis players of this generation still comprise the top three of the current ATP rankings… just as they did 10 years ago. The balance of power in the Big 3 has shifted in recent years due to injuries and variations of form, but at least one member of that trio consistently carries the baton at the big tournaments.

The 2018 majors were all won by the Big 3. The 2017 majors were all won by the Big 3. In previous years, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka carved out their significant places in tennis history and assured themselves of a spot in the Tennis Hall of Fame by winning three major titles apiece. Yet, neither Andy nor Stan ever won more than one major in a calendar year. The Big 3, as a group, has won more major titles than any other individual player in every year of men’s tennis dating back to 2004, the true start of the Big 3 era. In 14 of the last 15 years, the Big 3 has won at least three of the four major singles championships. The only year in which it didn’t was 2016, in which the Big 3 won two titles while Murray (Wimbledon) and Wawrinka (U.S. Open) won one apiece. Nevertheless, the tally for that year was Big 3 two, Murray one, Wawrinka one.

As the ATP prepares for 2019, Novak Djokovic seems poised to continue the Big 3’s run. The Big 3 player who carries the baton might change, but the Big 3 — at least for another year if not more — appears likely to endure at the highest level of men’s tennis.

This is a picture of stability — maybe not in the same ways as 2008 or 2013, but still in the one form which counts the most: lifting trophies. On that measure alone, men’s tennis is staying the same.

Underneath that surface, however, everything else is and has been changing quite a lot.

What was once a steady, reliable top eight — with Tomas Berdych making six ATP Finals appearances and David Ferrer seven, like clockwork — has given way to something different in recent years. Yes, this is not entirely a commentary on the quality of tennis being played on the ATP Tour. A lot of this has to do with injuries. Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, and Milos Raonic are primary examples in this regard. They probably would have done very well if their bodies had not been so uncooperative.

Yet, a lot of what has changed below the Big 3 in recent years has indeed flowed from the quality of tennis on tour.

Dominic Thiem (this article is being written before his match against Roger Federer) has needed time to find his way on hardcourts. Alexander Zverev has been a master of the Masters 1000s, but still takes the scenic route at majors and doesn’t find his way home. Kei Nishikori might still be dealing with a measure of pain in his wrists, but even when he appears relatively healthy, he fails to conquer tight scoreboard situations in important matches. He lost ATP 500 finals in Tokyo and Vienna this autumn. His serve still gets exposed in crunch-time moments.

The layer of ATP competition below the Big 3 is an open field waiting to be claimed. Can someone step into this space and take ownership of it?

At the Masters 1000 level, Zverev has largely been that player. He certainly deserves to be recognized on that plane of achievement. It shouldn’t be minimized this early in his career, which has already been stuffed with accomplishments his age-group peers noticeably lack.

At the major tournaments, Marin Cilic has offered occasional suggestions that he can occupy the realm just below the Big 3, but the key word there is “occasional.” He doesn’t seize opportunities all the time.

Another ATP player has made as many major finals (two) as Cilic in the past year and a half, dating back to the summer of 2017 and Wimbledon… but that player, unlike Cilic, has already found a way to succeed at the ATP Finals in London.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kevin Anderson.

With Delpo injured, Kando is making a very strong case that he is the best non-Big 3 player in men’s tennis as the 2018 season winds down. A 6-0, 6-1 demolition of Nishikori — whom Anderson defeated in the Vienna final weeks earlier, and then lost to in Bercy — represented a tiebreaker of sorts with Kei. Anderson essentially won the third and deciding rubber in their European autumn series. What this win also did was place Anderson in the semifinals — not officially, no, but that seems to be a mere technicality.

All Kando has to do (again, this is being written before the Fed-Thiem match on Tuesday) is not get crushed in his Thursday match against Federer. Given how poorly Federer is returning serve, Anderson should be able to avoid the nasty scoreline he slapped on Nishikori. He will play in the semis on Saturday, notching that achievement in his first ATP Finals appearance.

What does that milestone mean for Anderson? Quite a lot.

Let’s start with what was noted above: Anderson has already solved a puzzle Cilic has yet to figure out. Cilic will always have that 2014 U.S. Open title, so from that perspective, his career still rates a notch above Anderson’s. However, with each passing month, Anderson continues to shrink that gap. He has played the Masters 1000s better than Cilic in 2018. He has now already surpassed Cilic at the ATP Finals, doing something Cilic has yet to do in four tries: parking himself in a Saturday semifinal.

That’s a relatively minor point in the bigger picture, however. The significance of Anderson making a big run in London this week is more pronounced because it does something last year’s ATP Finals champion failed to achieve.

When Grigor Dimitrov lifted the trophy inside the O2 Arena 12 months ago, he defeated Pablo Carreno Busta, a 2017 hardcourt iteration of Thiem (i.e., not a very good one), Jack Sock, and David Goffin (twice). Dimitrov played high-quality tennis, to be sure, but it remained that his path was made easier at every step. Rafael Nadal withdrew after one match in Dimitrov’s group (against Goffin), and Goffin upset Roger Federer in the semifinals. Dimitrov’s other huge accomplishment in 2017 was a Cincinnati Masters title in which he faced John Isner in the semifinals and Nick Kyrgios in the final. Kyrgios took out Nadal in the quarterfinals. Federer, Djokovic and Murray were all injured during that week.

Everyone wondered if the 2017 ATP Finals represented a launching pad for Dimitrov, something which would lead to more excellent results and performances. In 2018, we received our answer… and Dimitrov is now removed from the top 10, not even a remote contender for significant ATP titles.

Kevin Anderson is authoring a completely different story.

Anderson is thriving at the ATP Finals, but not in a way which raises questions about his ability to succeed on a consistent basis. Anderson is creating an “inverted Dimitrov,” meaning that whereas Grigor made people wonder if he could sustain his level of quality by winning in London, Anderson is doing the exact opposite: He is shutting down the doubts about whether he can continuously deliver the goods on tour.

Dimitrov wasn’t a relentlessly strong player in 2017, but he seized a few important moments and flourished at the very end of the year. His results at the 2017 ATP Finals suggested that the start of the next season could represent a new chapter of his career.

Anderson HAS been a steady and forceful player in 2018, with lots of Masters quarterfinals, multiple Masters semifinals, second weeks at each of the last three majors (Roland Garros R-16, Wimbledon final, U.S. Open R-16), an ATP 500 title in Vienna, and now this in London, plus — as a bonus — his star turn as a University of Illinois boy made good in Chicago at the Laver Cup.

Whereas Dimitrov’s 2017 ATP Finals success felt like the START of a new period of uncertainty for the Bulgarian — “Hey, this is great, but will it last?” — Anderson’s 2018 ATP Finals success feels like the END of a period of uncertainty.

“Hey, what I began at the 2017 U.S. Open has only gotten better over the following 14 months!”

The Big 3 — right now, Djokovic — remains in position to haul in the biggest trophies in tennis. After the Big 3, though, no one is claiming more territory or making more of a push up the ranks on the ATP Tour than Kevin Anderson.

This doesn’t feel like a Dimitrov-style fluke. This feels like the completion of a process which has grown and continued throughout the 2018 tennis season.

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