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Rafael Nadal vs Kevin Anderson US Open Final preview: Anderson stands in the way of Nadal and a 16th Grand Slam title

Brendan O'Neill in Tennis 9 Sep 2017
Rafael Nadal (Photo by Tanya Cicconte)

Spanish great Rafael Nadal looks to add a 16th Grand Slam title to his trophy cabinet when he takes on first-time major finalist Kevin Anderson in the 2017 U.S. Open final on Sunday in New York.

Watch and bet on tennis live at bet365 > sports > live streaming tennis. The final begins at 4.00pm local time on Sunday (9.00pm BST).

After 126 matches spread out over the last fortnight in the men’s singles draw at Flushing Meadows, only two players remain. One is to be expected - World No. 1 and top seed Rafael Nadal, the resurgent Spaniard who is chasing a 16th Grand Slam title and a third U.S. Open crown after surging into his first final in New York since 2013, when he won his last slam outside of Roland Garros. The other is a complete surprise - although perhaps not so much of a shock when analysing the completely decimated bottom half of the men’s draw, with 28th seed Kevin Anderson navigating each obstacle with supreme professionalism to advance into his first Grand Slam final. Anderson is playing career-best tennis after spending much of the last 18 months on the sidelines - but the competition rises considerably as the big-serving South African aims to complete a fairytale run against the legendary Nadal, who is targeting a third U.S. Open title and 16th major trophy. Nadal and Anderson take to court at 4.00pm local time on Sunday (9.00pm BST).

Rafael Nadal arrived in New York with a stellar 49-9 record for the season, capturing four titles at French Open, Madrid Masters, Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open, results that contributed to the Spaniard returning to the World No. 1 position. However, while he was back to his intimidating best in sweeping the European clay court swing, Nadal wasn’t in great form before the U.S. Open, suffering defeats to Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios in Montreal and Cincinnati - his only tournaments after falling to Gilles Muller in the R16 at Wimbledon. Nadal was also beaten in straight sets by Sam Querrey in Acapulco and went down to an injury-plagued Milos Raonic in Brisbane, so I think it’s safe to say his form on hardcourts, while yielding some great results, wasn’t actually ultra-impressive and more an indication of the weakened men’s tour in 2017.

Nadal didn’t start well at the U.S. Open either. The 31-year-old was lucky to escape with a straight sets win over Dusan Lajovic in the first round after the Serbian served for the opener, while both Taro Daniel and Leonardo Mayer each won the first set in the second and third rounds respectively. However, as all great champions do, Nadal has raised his level after sinking his teeth into the tournament, crushing Alexander Dolgopolov and Andrey Rublev before saving his best match of the tournament so far for a highly-anticipated semi-final showdown with Juan Martin del Potro.

Del Potro was brimming with confidence after taking out Roger Federer in the quarter-finals and was looking to repeat his explosive 6-2 6-2 6-2 win over Nadal from the 2009 U.S. Open. But after withstanding a thunderous opening set from del Potro, Nadal quickly gained control of the match, showcasing his trademark relentlessness and determination to crush the spirit of the Argentine over the course of the next three sets. Nadal’s famous topspin forehand was in vintage touch, with the World No. 1 striking a total of 42 winners to just unforced errors in the 4-6 6-0 6-3 6-2 victory.

“I was playing so-so at the beginning of the tournament and I have been playing better and better every day,” Nadal said after the win."Today was the day to play the best match of the tournament since that moment, because I played against the toughest opponent in that moment, and that opponent as I said before, was coming with big confidence. I woke up today and said to myself that today is the day that I'll play with the right energy and I needed to increase the level of my game.”

The overall carnage of the men’s draw at the U.S. Open this season is highlighted even further when you consider that Nadal could win the title without having to face a player ranked in the top 25. Del Potro took out his great rival Roger Federer, who had defeated him at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami earlier this season, while defending champion Stan Wawrinka and modern-day juggernauts Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have both shut down their seasons due to injury - while Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic were also missing.

Nevertheless, they all count, and Nadal won’t care about the state of the field if he can further cement his legacy and status as one of the greatest players of all time by collecting a 16th Grand Slam title and third U.S. Open crown. Nadal’s made three slam finals in a single season for the first time since 2011 and he will be attempting to join Federer as a two-time major champion in 2017 when he takes on a man who is experiencing a fairytale fortnight in New York.

Kevin Anderson made his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the U.S. Open in 2015 by conquering Andy Murray along the way and cracked the top 10 soon after, but multiple injury issues sidelined him for the bulk of last year and denied him the opportunity to build on that result and have a go at cementing his spot inside the world’s elite bracket of players. But Anderson will get another opportunity to maintain a spot among the best players in the world, with his magical run to his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open ensuring he’ll return to No. 15 when the new rankings are released on Monday - and to No. 10 if he can win the title.

However Anderson won’t be thinking about rankings as he prepares to ambush Nadal and secure what would be one of the most shocking Grand Slam title triumphs in history. Earlier this season Anderson’s ranking dipped to as low as 80 in the world after a hip injury - following knee, shoulder, ankle and groin problems in 2016 - forced him out of the Australian Open. Anderson didn’t know if he’d ever be a consistent presence in the top 100 again, let alone challenge for major titles, but his hard work, determination and perseverance has been rewarded in the Big Apple, and now all of a sudden he’s one win away from etching his name in tennis history.

There were signs a big run was coming for Anderson, with the 31-year-old the Citi Open final in Washington D.C., the quarter-finals at the Montreal Masters and the R16 at Wimbledon over the last few months, while an altered and more animated on-court persona has helped Anderson through the tough moments at the U.S. Open, with the South African taking down JC Aragone, Ernests Gulbis, Borna Coric, Paolo Lorenzi, Sam Querrey and Pablo Carreno Busta en route to the final. Anderson was on the brink of going down two sets to Carreno Busta in Friday’s semi-finals, but he managed to break serve late into the second set, which changed the whole course of the match as he ultimately ran away with a 4-6 7-5 6-3 6-4 victory and climbed into his players box to celebrate with his team, including coach Neville Godwin and wife Kelsey.

“I really don’t know what to say right now,” Anderson said during his on-court interview. “I don’t know if the team hug is appropriate for the semis, but it felt the right thing to do.“These Grand Slams are tough. We’re privileged to play with some of the best players to ever play the game. It’s nice some of them gave us a shot to make a run. This is why we work so hard. It was an unbelievably tough match for me. It was the first time for both of us on one of the most famous stages in tennis. I really had to dig deep, I think my emotion at the end summed it up. I’m over the moon right now. I’ve given myself a shot and I’ll allow myself tonight to celebrate this win."

Anderson, currently ranked No. 32 in the world, is the lowest-ranked finalist at the U.S. Open since the inception of the rankings in 1973, while he’s the lowest-ranked Grand Slam finalist since No. 38 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2008 Australian Open. Anderson is also the first South African to reach the U.S. Open final since Cliff Drysdale in 1965 and the first South African to make a major final since Kevin Curren at the 1984 Australian Open.

But Anderson will have to take his game to another level altogether if he is to cap a dream run and claim a shock Grand Slam title against a man he's known since their junior days when they were both 12 years old. He’s lost all four previous tour-level encounters against Nadal, including three on hardcourt at the Canada Masters in 2010, the Australian Open in 2015 and the Paris Masters the same season, while Nadal won 6-3 6-4 in their meeting this year on the clay of Barcelona. It’s a match-up we’ve seen thousands of times before - the big-serving and flat-hitting of Anderson up against the brick-wall defence and lightning forehand of Nadal. If Nadal is hitting his forehand like he did against del Potro, I don’t think Anderson can win. You know Nadal is in the zone and confident when the forehand is firing, and it was back to its devastating best during the last three sets on Friday night. Anderson will have to serve out of a tree, red-line with his groundstrokes from the baseline and keep his nerve and composure in the pressure-environment of playing in a first Grand Slam final inside the biggest tennis stadium in the world against one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Needless to say it’s quite the challenge, and I don’t think Anderson will be up to it. Nadal to win a 16th major title in straight sets.

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