In their fourth round encounter, No. 14 seed Kevin Anderson outplayed No. 3 Rafael Nadal for nearly all of the opening set.
Employing tactics straight out of the Djok(ovic) Book, Anderson came in with a clear game plan and committed to it from the start. He was taking his backhand early and hitting it with conviction. He was ripping his forehand cross-court into Nadal’s backhand. He crushed short balls with his cross-court backhand and inside-out forehand. His serve was on fire.
Across the net, Nadal was struggling simply to win points on Anderson’s serve.
Eventually, something had to give, and it did at 5-5. Anderson jumped out to a quick 40-0 lead on Nadal’s serve, one point away from serving for the first set against the Spaniard. Unable to capitalize on this opportunity and break, the match suddenly shifted. Keep in mind, Anderson hadn’t lost the match or even a set. He wasn’t even broken.
All that happened was that Nadal held serve.
Against any other player, Anderson probably would have been able to move on. Against Nadal – or against any of the the other greats of the game, for that matter – it’s an entirely different mindset. Against the standard ATP player, Anderson realizes his chances of eventually finding a break is much easier. While I can’t speak to what the South African was thinking during the match, it’s hard to believe that his inability to break someone like the nine-time French Open champion didn’t impact his next service game and, ultimately, the rest of the match.
After failing to break at 5-5, Anderson was broken in the very next game and proceeded to then lose the second set 6-1 and the match in three sets.
Whether it’s a sense of frustration or desperation – maybe both – Anderson was rattled. But that truly speaks more to Nadal’s overwhelming intensity and fight than it does to Anderson’s mental fortitude. Let’s not be mistaken here: Kevin Anderson is about as professional and mentally mature as any player on the ATP World Tour.
Let’s not confuse Anderson being thrown off his rhythm and game with Anderson giving in.
Yesterday’s match may be remembered as the one where Kevin Anderson beat himself at 5-5 in the first set. But it’s important to remember that the match didn’t end there. There was still a lot of tennis to be played, yet the match felt like it was only going one direction.
Nadal is one of few players with the ability to have such an influence over the outcome of a match, so early in a match.
What we saw wasn’t a choke. It wasn’t a lapse in mental fortitude, nor was it a breakdown in play. It was Rafael Nadal being Rafael Nadal. No matter how good you are, the Spaniard will always be exerting that maddening level of “breathing down your neck” pressure, one that is hard to prepare for, and even harder to replicate in practice.
It is the responsibility of the ATP’s so-called “Second Line,” however, to learn from a match like this. Rafael Nadal may not change, but Kevin Anderson can.