NEW YORK CITY, USA, September 9 – Clambering into the stands – all 2.03 metres of him – to embrace his family and team, Kevin Anderson’s post-match celebration on Friday was more akin to that of the US Open champion than of a semifinal victor.
There was more to it though than the elation of reaching a first Grand Slam final at age 31, after a four-set triumph over No 12 seed Pablo Carreno Busta.
Granted it was arguably the best shot either man would have earned at reaching a Grand Slam final. But for Anderson, it was as much about the reward of having bounced back from a frustrating two years riddled with injuries.
The South African started the season at No 80 in the ATP Rankings after an injury-ravaged 2016. It was his lowest mark since August 2010.
Hip, leg and right elbow injuries have hindered much of this season, while last year, it was ankle surgery, groin, left knee and right shoulder complaints.
“I felt deep inside I always had a chance, but, I mean, I feel like you sort of put that at bay and focus on each match,” he said. “That’s what I have done. Here I am, almost two weeks later in the final, so that’s obviously a great feeling.”
Now he stands one win from an improbable breakthrough. At No 28 in the ATP Rankings, Anderson is the lowest-ranked man into a US Open final since the ATP Rankings began in 1973.
He is the first South African to reach the final since Cliff Drysdale at the US Championships in 1965; the first into a Grand Slam final since Kevin Curren reached the 1985 Wimbledon final.
He will become the first South African since Johan Kriek (1981 Australian Open) to claim a Grand Slam title should he go one step further. (Kriek represented the United States when he defended his Australian Open crown in 1982).
“My biggest hope is I’m able to inspire the kids to get out and play because it can definitely feel like it’s a long road being so far from everything,” Anderson said.
“I feel like when I’m back, I often speak at several schools, the school that I went to, I’m often giving talks and talking about that sort of stuff. As much as I can, I try and have an impact
“I try and focus on the youth coming up, and I think tennis is a great sport regardless of how far you make it, just obviously a lot of good life lessons.”
Having worked his way up through the ranks of South African tennis, Anderson spent three seasons playing college tennis in the United States at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 2005-2007. It proved an ideal stepping stone into the professional ranks.
He is the first player with college tennis ties since Todd Martin (1999 US Open) to reach a Grand Slam final. Many of his best results have come on North American hard courts.
In 2015, he made his Top 10 debut in the ATP Rankings soon after beating Andy Murray to reach the US Open quarter-finals.
Two of his three ATP World Tour titles (Winston-Salem 2015, Delray Beach 2012) have come in the United States; his maiden title on home soil in Johannesburg in 2011.
A run to the final at the Citi Open, in Washington D.C. and to the quarterfinals at the Coupe Rogers leading in were a sign Anderson was beginning to find his feet again. His battles now are as much mental as they are physical.
But it is an element Anderson has been willing to embrace a factor which could prove the most telling factor in his latest surge.
“If you look at some of the best players that we have seen over the years and that I have been playing with, mentally they are the best competitors, as well, something I have worked hard on,” Anderson said.
“I feel like for me, some of the challenges have been to trust my ability a little bit more. I have always been very critical of myself. I feel like I’m just being a bit more patient with myself. I feel like that’s been a big change I have implemented in the last few months.”