There is something almost Sisyphean about tennis — each step towards victory reveals more challenges. Maybe it’s the byzantine scoring system that requires players to build their victories point by point and set by set, where each game won just reveals another challenge, and the threat of rolling backwards is ever present. Perhaps it’s the very nature of the game itself, where each apparent winner is often met with an even better response. Or maybe it’s the year round schedule — even a Grand Slam winner starts back at zero the next week.
Nowhere is this felt more than in the trenches of tennis, among the players who put everything towards a sport that anoints only one winner out of 128 entrants in the main draw of a major. Especially in this era of ATP tennis, there are many very talented and dedicated tennis professionals who enjoy only the aurora of the Big Four’s eclipse of hte spotlight. One of the upsides of the star-deprived US Open draw this year is that many players who often end up as cannon fodder for the stars have had a chance to make a mark. And, perhaps no one has taken better advantage of the moment than South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
In many ways, Anderson is the professional’s professional — extremely hardworking and fit, and armed with a big serve and good movement for a guy who stands at 6′ 8″. He, too, has faced the pushback of the tennis tour, as he has worked through injuries that caused him to drop in the rankings over the past year or two. Last night, he handled the challenge of playing American Sam Querrey in a way that reflects his years of experience, and also his commitment to improvement. Not surprisingly, with Querrey standing 6′ 6″, the match often came down to serves and first shots. But, over four sets, it was a constant test of Andersen’s faith in himself and his game.
After holding serve to force a first set tiebreak, Anderson fell behind 2-5, on a series of errors, but just continued plugging away at the match, exhorting himself loudly in a way that few had seen him do before. The persistence paid off, as he snuck away with the tiebreak 7-5. After going up a break lead in the second set, Anderson rolled backwards, losing the break, and falling behind 1-6 in the tiebreak. The South African improbably saved five set points, only to lose the set point in his favor on a loose forehand volley error. Yet, he remained undaunted by the setback and continued to battle — though Querrey took the tiebreak 11-9.
Many players would have experienced a serious letdown after coming back from so many set points and then losing the set anyway, but Anderson used his experience to remain in the match. He took the third set relatively easily, and the fourth set lurched towards another tiebreak. Here, Querrey continued to fight, and earned a set point, but Anderson continued to stay the course, and eventually converted on his second match point.
There’s a conventional wisdom in tennis that you only play one point at a time, and one match at a time, but both players must have been aware of the opportunity this match presented. Anderson enters his first Grand Slam semifinal against Pablo Carreno Busta, a player he has beaten twice, the last time about a month ago in Montreal. Given how stingy the tennis gods have been to players not named Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray/Wawrinka, it’s reasonable to think that Anderson, despite his talents, may not have expected to get this far in a Slam, even though, like many of his peers, he continued to work towards better results, even if it wasn’t a tournament win. Last night, his relentless pursuit of improvement paid off — and he has earned the opportunity of a lifetime, the hard way.