Showing Us Something

by: Steve Tignor | September 08, 2015

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After a summer of bad boys, tennis should welcome a good guy like Kevin Anderson. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—“You gotta show me something!” Brad Gilbert yelled at Kevin Anderson during their post-match interview in Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday. 

The ESPN commentator demanded that the South African turned Floridian, who had just beaten Andy Murray to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at age 29, rip his shirt and let out a roar. For a second, Anderson looked ready to comply. He took a step back: Was he actually going to oblige? Was it possible that this most undemonstrative of athletes, a man whose inscrutable facial expression never changes on court, would tear open his Lotto shirt on national TV? 

No, it turned out, it wasn’t. Instead, Anderson smiled and waved politely to the crowd. 

This was as it should be. Tennis is an individual sport, and every individual should be allowed his own way of celebrating success. Anderson didn’t need to blow kisses to the corners of the stadium or do the Worm to let us how much his four-hour, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (0) win meant to him.

“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Anderson said as he scratched his hair. “Obviously played one of the best matches of my life. Obviously to get through to the quarterfinals for the first time here in New York feels just amazing.” 

As far as acceptance speeches go, that may not cut it at the Oscars. But the emotion in Anderson’s voice was genuine, and it conveyed a heartfelt sense of satisfaction in a job well done and a goal finally reached. As far as I could tell from the Armstrong crowd’s reaction, that was more than enough. It sounded like something that you or I might say in that situation.

Anderson’s statement had the added virtue of being true. Even for those of us who have been watching him for years, this was the best tennis we could remember from him, by a considerable margin. He hit 25 aces and a mammoth 81 winners, but it wasn’t the quantity of those winners that impressed the most, it was the timing. 

The 6’8” Anderson has always had a strong, solid, surprisingly-well-rounded-for-a-tall-guy game, and we’ve known since he upset Novak Djokovic in Miami seven years ago that he could wield it successfully against the sport’s upper echelon. Anderson, who played on the University of Illinois tennis team for three years, has also made slow, steady, conscientious progress throughout his career. 

Anderson says that his time in college, and away from the tour, makes him feel younger than his years as a player. Yet whatever improvements he made, he always seemed to hit his head against the same (high) ceiling. Before Monday, he had reached the fourth round at the Slam seven times, and seven times he had come away a loser. His most recent defeat happened at Wimbledon two months ago, when he lost to Djokovic in a heartbreaker, 7-5 in the fifth, after jumping to a two-set lead. Against the best players, Anderson often seemed to be literally one shot—a key double-fault, a shanked forehand on break point, a forehand sprayed into the alley—behind. 

Against Murray, that dynamic was finally reversed. At 5-5 in the first-set tiebreaker, Murray put a passing shot at Anderson’s feet; it was exactly the type of shot to draw an error from the big man. But this time the big man didn’t make an error; instead, he hit a low-lining half-volley winner that made Murray do a double-take—who was this guy, and where did he get that shot? On the next point, at 6-5, Anderson was even better, leaning in and hammering a monster forehand from the baseline for another winner. This time it was Anderson who was a shot ahead, and despite Murray’s best, rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light efforts, he stayed there all evening. Anderson even closed with a showman’s flourish, blanking Murray 7-0 in the fourth-set tiebreaker.

Amid the chaos of a jammed Armstrong, it was Anderson’s calm that helped pull him through. With Murray in full ranting-warrior mode, and the crowd eating his anger up, the last thing Anderson needed to do was add to the chaos.

“Especially in a match like that where I felt so much energy out there,” he said, “I was really just trying to focus on the basics as much as I could.”

Anderson credited the win to his preparation.

“I’ve got a great team behind me,” he said. “... I’ve been working with a sports psychologist as well. Obviously, I think that’s been a big benefit for me, just being more comfortable in these big positions.”

For Murray, the experience was exactly the opposite. It was the first time in five years that he had failed to come through at this stage in a Slam; the loss snapped his streak of 19 straight quarterfinal appearances at the majors. He has always dreaded the wild west atmosphere in Armstrong, as well as its surface.

"It was a tough match,” Murray said. “That court is a lot quicker than Ashe. I felt like I was on the back foot quite a lot. I wasn’t able to play that offensively. But when you’re playing against someone who has the game style he does, you’re always going to have to do a fair bit of defending, especially if he serves well.”

Perhaps The Independent summed up the Scot’s evening best:

“Murray was furious at the changeover,” Paul Newman wrote, “launching into a tirade that appeared to be directed at nobody in particular.”

Afterward, the consensus among a few British writers was that Murray was “knackered” from a long season, and it's true, this would have been his 60th win of 2015. It was a rare slip in an otherwise remarkably consistent campaign. 

Instead of Murray in the quarters and beyond, fans in New York will have Anderson. That may not be to the tournament's and its TV partners' liking, and they would be right to say that Anderson doesn’t have star quality. But he does have human quality, and anyone who is fed up with pro-athlete entitlement might find someone to pull for in the quiet giant. After all, many of us would, like him, choose to smile and wave politely after a big win rather than tear our shirts off.

After a summer that has been dominated by bad boys in tennis, it was refreshing on Monday to have a good guy on the big stage. 

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