Resilient former junior rivals square off in the US Open final.
World No. 1 Rafael Nadal’s rivalry with 28th-seeded South African Kevin Anderson dates back to their days playing 12-and-under tournaments and now they face off for a Grand Slam championship.
Sunday’s US Open final is a stylistic clash of 31-year-old comeback artists.
The 6’8″ Anderson feared he would need hip surgery at the end of 2016 and saw his ranking drop to No. 80 as he skipped the Australian Open in January to rest and rehab.
Nadal missed Wimbledon last year before pulling the plug on his 2016 season early to rehab the wrist injury that plagued him for much of the season.
A revitalized Rafa has roared back to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking nine years after he first rose to the top spot. Nadal is playing for his 16 Grand Slam title, including his third US Open crown, while Anderson makes his Grand Slam final debut.
Join us as we preview the final here.
The top-seeded Nadal is contesting his 23rd Grand Slam final, while Anderson is making his major final debut.
The 28th-seeded South African has dropped serve only five times in six tournament matches.
Anderson leads the tournament with 114 aces—86 more than Nadal.
Both men have hit 18 double faults in the tournament.
Nadal leads the tournament with 37 service breaks—14 more than Anderson.
Nadal owns a 3-4 record in Grand Slam finals staged on hard court. Nadal is 12-3 in major finals on all other surfaces.
The 2013 US Open is the last Grand Slam title outside of Roland Garros Nadal has won.
Anderson advanced to his first Grand Slam final in his 34th major.
The world No. 32 is bidding to become the lowest-ranked US Open men’s champion since the advent of the computer rankings in 1973 and the lowest-ranked Grand Slam champion since 44th-ranked Argentine Gaston Gaudio defeated Gullermo Coria in the 2004 Roland Garros final.
Nadal has lost his last eight hard-court finals, including defeats in the Australian Open and Miami finals to Roger Federer and a loss to Sam Querrey in the Acapulco title match this season.
Nadal carries an ATP-best 55-9 record on the season into the final, including a 28-7 mark on hard courts.
What the finalists are saying:
Kevin Anderson on facing Rafael Nadal: “Nadal’s, I think, one of the greatest competitors in sports, period. He’s an amazing fighter. He really controls the court well, you know, the few times I have played him. I really need to be dominant and control proceedings as much as possible, because if you let him do it, it’s very difficult.”
Kevin Anderson on managing the pressure of his first Grand Slam final: “I think what I have been doing very well is sort of trying to put all those outside factors at bay. I have been really focused on trying to take care of my business, my side of the court. I feel like it’s been working well for me, so I’m not going to do anything much different… I’m going to treat it like each match I have throughout these two weeks. At least that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Rafael Nadal on facing Kevin Anderson: “A very, very tough one. He’s a huge player with an unbelievable serve. He plays well on this surface. He has some injuries so it’s a big example for him to come back the way he has. I know him since we were 12 years old. It’s great to see him now in the final of one of the most important events of the year. It’s gonna be a tough one. I need to play my best and play with full energy and full motivation to play my best.”
Rafael Nadal on the pressure of the US Open final: “Of course winning or losing that final is a big change, but I am very happy about all the things that happen to me and I am going to fight to win another title here. But still a great season for me. And as I tell you before, for me, more than winning Grand Slams or not, of course, if I win, I will be more happy but is about being healthy and feel myself well and competitive. That’s already happened in the whole season. So that’s most important thing for me.”
(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (28) Kevin Anderson
Head-to-head: Nadal leads 4-0
Last meeting: Nadal d. Anderson, 6-3, 6-4, in 2017 Barcelona round of 16
The world’s largest Grand Slam stage is a crossroads for contrasting styles.
Detonating an explosive serve, the 6’8” Anderson is a flat-ball hitter who will try to exterminate points as soon as possible.
Nadal will use his twisting topspin forehand strikes and eye-popping court coverage to extend points.
Both men have shown tremendous resilience overcoming nagging injuries last season, both are playing dynamic tennis and exhibiting a strong sense of belief.
— Kelsey Anderson (@KelseyOAnderson) September 9, 2017
Both are skilled around net.
Anderson is a three-time All-American in singles and two-time All-American in doubles at Illinois, while Nadal, one of the most underrated volleyers in the sport, is the reigning Olympic gold medal doubles champion. Nadal played superb attacking tennis at times winning 21 of 27 trips to net in his four-set semifinal comeback win over Juan Martin del Potro, who plays a similar power-based baseline style to Anderson.
In their lone prior Grand Slam clash, Nadal chewed Anderson up rolling to a 7-5, 6-1, 6-4, triumph in the 2015 Australian Open fourth round.
In that match, the left-hander banged his slice serve into the body at times jamming the 6’8” South African. Nadal effectively cornered Anderson with the crosscourt forehand to create space for his pulverizing forehand down the line.
That shot was a key stroke in Nadal’s four-set victory over del Potro in the semifinals and one he will undoubtedly unleash against Anderson.
A willingness to step inside the court and drive the ball down the line off both wings has been a key component to Anderson’s success as well as pouring positive emotion onto court with his fist pumps and vocal exhortations.
If you saw Anderson’s semifinal conquest of Pablo Carreno Busta, then you saw his tendency to play the inside-out forehand as an approach shot when challenged with the low mid-court ball. If he directs that inside-out approach to the Nadal forehand, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Anderson will want to command the center of the court, play short points to apply his explosivity and deny Rafa the rhythm he craves and above all else he must serve with the authority and ambition he’s shown throughout.
In the semifinals, Anderson’s average first-serve speed of 126 mph and average second-serve speed of 105 mph were 14 mph and 11 mph faster than Nadal’s average first and second speed deliveries. Anderson served 69 percent and blasted 22 aces against Pablo Carreno Busta in the semifinals and must replicate those serving numbers against Nadal, who tends to return from a deeper position on court and put more returns in play.
Anderson must also be willing to deploy the occasional serve-and-volley to prevent Nadal from blocking back returns to start points.
Nadal will want to extend rallies, impose his immense advantage in movement by making this a running match rather than a hitting match and replicate what he did so well during the final three sets vs. del Potro and drive his forehand down the line.
Look for Nadal to mix in the short slice backhand to force the big man to hit up on the ball from awkward positions on the court.
Anderson’s flat forehand is lethal when it’s on, but it’s also the wing where he can leak errors when he’s tight or stretched. The South African’s two-handed backhand is his more stable shot. Anderson showed a flair for the sniper’s strike hitting several two-handed backhand passes in his quarterfinal victory over American Sam Querrey.
Given these two have known each other since the age of 12 there are no surprises here.
Ultimately, it’s about execution.
Anderson must make a high percentage of first serves and make this a match of first-strike tennis.
Nadal must put as many returns in play as possible, hammer his heavy topspin into the corners to displace the big man from the center of the court and create running rallies he relishes.
Don’t discount the danger Anderson poses.
Remember, Nadal has not won a hard-court title since the 2014 Doha and he suffered straight-sets losses to a pair of explosive servers on hard courts this season. Sam Querrey surprised the Spaniard in the Acapulco final before Nick Kyrgios banged past Nadal in the Cincinnati quarterfinals.
However, those were best-of-three set matches. Nadal knows exactly what he needs to do in this match-up and the best-of-five set format favors him.
More importantly, he’s shown he can do it when it matters most, winning nine of the 10 sets he’s played against Anderson.
We’ve seen all-time iconic champions upset by first-time finalists in New York before.
Both Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt knocked off Pete Sampras in their US Open final debuts and Juan Martin del Potro defeated Nadal and Roger Federer back-to-back capturing the 2009 US Open final in his first major championship match.
If Anderson can continue to play big and bold as he has this entire fortnight and sneak out the first set—or at least force a tie break—it could ratchet up the pressure on the top-seeded Spaniard and make this final interesting.
Still, Nadal has grown progressively stronger since the start of this tournament, he knows Anderson’s game thoroughly, has shown the tactical acumen to make mid-match adjustments and will be revved up and ready to capture his 16th career Grand Slam championship.
Prediction: Rafael Nadal d. Kevin Anderson in 3 sets.