Published On: Sun, Sep 10th, 2017

US Open final preview: Anderson looks to spoil Nadal's Sweet 16

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We knew from the start that opportunity would knock at this year’s US Open, and Rafa Nadal and Kevin Anderson have answered the door.

Both of the men who will compete for the title on Sunday are improbable finalists, in their own very different ways.

First and foremost, there’s Anderson, who is both the lowest-ranked US Open finalist and the tallest Grand Slam finalist in recorded history; who struggled through ankle, shoulder, and knee injuries for most of last year; and who, at 31 years old, had never even previously made it to a Slam semi, and had advanced past the fourth round just once.

Nadal’s run has obviously been far less surprising, especially given the way his draw parted for him (No. 28 Juan Martin del Potro was the highest-ranked player and only seeded opponent he faced along the way), and the fact that he’s the world No. 1, and already has 15 major titles (including two at the US Open) under his belt.

But there was still plenty of uncertainty surrounding him coming into Flushing Meadows. He’d looked uninspiring on the summer hard courts, and had lost to Gilles Muller, Denis Shapovalov, and Nick Kyrgios in his three tournaments since the French Open. He hadn’t made it past the fourth round at the US Open since 2013. However, after going almost three years without making a Slam final, he’s about to play in his third of 2017.

Despite a few slow starts, Nadal has been playing some of his finest hard-court tennis in years this fortnight, particularly in the past three rounds. Anderson has played perfectly to his strengths, crushing huge first serves and controlling the net. Considering this will be Nadal’s 23rd Slam final and Anderson’s first, and that Nadal holds a 4-0 head-to-head edge with just one set lost, the Spaniard has to be considered a pretty significant favorite. But don’t sleep on the big South African, who has the weapons to swing the upset if everything clicks.

If Anderson is to beat Nadal, or even keep things close, he’ll need to serve like he did in the semis against Pablo Carreno Busta, when he bombed 22 aces, and won all but nine of his service points over the final two sets. Nadal has a habit of playing passively in the return game, especially early on as he tries to get a feel for his opponent’s serve. Anderson needs to take advantage of Nadal’s deep court position by pressing forward, playing the aggressor, and taking his time away.

Nadal knows he’ll have to prevent that from happening.

”He serves so well. Playing with tons of confidence and doing it very aggressively,” he said of Anderson, who’s been broken just five times all tournament. ”I will need to impose my tempo.”

Meanwhile, Nadal has been serving brilliantly in his own right, dropping just 10 service points in the final three sets of his semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro. Anderson will have to find a way into those service games, which will likely involve taking big chances on the return. He can’t afford to play this match on Nadal’s terms.

“He really controls the court well,” Anderson said. “I really need to be dominant and control proceedings as much as possible, because if you let him do it, it’s very difficult.”

Playing Del Potro – a similarly large, big-serving, big-hitting player – was a good warmup for Nadal, but not all of the tactical adjustments he unlocked to take control of that match will carry over. Anderson can attack from both sides, and won’t have to cheat to one side of the court to protect a weaker wing. His game is a little closer in spirit to that of Sascha Zverev, which is a matchup that’s given Nadal some issues.

Anderson’s got a strong two-handed backhand and a huge strike zone from which he can unload, making Nadal’s high-kicking topspin forehands a potential liability. Despite his size, Anderson isn’t as vulnerable as you’d expect in longer rallies, and while he’ll undoubtedly still prefer to keep the points short, he won’t necessarily break down. Nadal can’t rely on him to make mistakes and beat himself.

At this point, we more or less know what to expect from Nadal. He’s been there and done that, and he’ll be prepared for the moment. Anderson is the wild card. His first foray into a major final can go a couple of ways: he can succumb to the pressure, or he can play like he has nothing to lose. Even the latter wouldn’t guarantee anything, but it’d certainly give him a shot.

In this respect, it probably helps that he’s been trying to emulate Nadal’s laser-like focus and fierce intensity.

“He’s one of the greatest competitors in sport,” Anderson told Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times this week. “His ability to reset for every single point, regardless of what the situation is. I’ve always looked up to that side of him. You’re never too old to learn different things. He’s the best at it, and you can take a few lessons out of his book.”

THE PICK: Nadal in four sets.

HOW TO WATCH: ESPN (U.S.) or TSN (Canada), Sunday at 4:00 p.m. ET.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)

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