LONDON (Reuters) – It was a case of “Kevin who?” 10 months ago when South African beanpole Kevin Anderson made it all the way into his first major final at the U.S. Open last year.
On Sunday, he was no longer Mr Anonymous as he had to interrupt his pre-match routine to take a call from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa before his Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic.
Although the president’s good luck wishes were not enough to carry a fatigued Anderson to victory on Center Court, his three-set defeat by Novak Djokovic at least shows the giant strides the 6-foot-8 Anderson has made over the past year.
When Anderson made his Grand Slam breakthrough at Flushing Meadows last September at 31 years old and ranked 32nd, pundits were ready to write him off as an ageing one-time nearly man.
After all he had made it through to the title showdown without facing anyone in the top 15.
With no Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray in the draw, Anderson lucked out when he fell into the half of the draw that did not feature either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
When he did come up against one of them, Nadal in the final, he was whipped in straight sets.
Many thought that was it, 15 minutes of fame over.
For late-bloomer Anderson, however, that was only the start.
If the U.S. Open run was a fluke, his journey to the Wimbledon final was a demonstration of all the hours and hours of hard graft he had put in over the ensuing 10 months.
A 3-1/2 hour win over Gael Monfils was followed by the ultimate test in grasscourt tennis – a quarter-final clash with eight-times champion Roger Federer.
It was a match he was not only expected to lose but also get walloped. When Federer won the first set 6-2, there was nothing remarkable about what was going on.
Yet after more than four hours of heart-pounding drama, Anderson had astonishingly come from two-sets down and survived a match point before edging the Swiss 13-11 in the fifth set.
It took him another six hours and 36 minutes to subdue American skyscraper John Isner in the semi-finals and although he simply had nothing left in his “jelly-like” legs on Sunday, the five set points he earned on Djokovic’s serve in the third set gave him heart.
“I thought I had quite a few opportunities to win that third set,” said Anderson.
“I would have loved to have pushed it to another set,
but it obviously wasn’t meant to be.”
Djokovic admitted Anderson “was the better player in the third set, without a doubt” and had the South African won that set, it could have set him free to swing his racket like he did against Federer.
“Potentially had I won that third set, I was going to be in for a shot,” he added. “I was able to pick it up a lot in the third set. I felt I played really good tennis. I definitely had more opportunities than he did. I didn’t face any break points. I had five set points.
“The biggest takeaway for me is sort of the belief, hopefully next time right from the beginning I’ll be
able to play better tennis.”
It is those memories that Anderson will take home with him.
“I definitely believe I have the game to win these tournaments,” said Anderson, who will break into the top five for the first time when the new rankings are released on Monday.
“If you asked me this time a year ago, I don’t think I could sit here and say I really believe that I can win a Grand Slam and say it with the same self-belief and confidence that I can now.
“Just seeing my new career-high ranking is going to mean a lot to me. I feel like I’m on a great path.”
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Ed Osmond