“Who is this beast?”
When Kevin Anderson heard it, mid-way into his serve, he pulled out — catching the toss with his left hand and bouncing the ball on the baseline. Waiting for silence, like Vladimir waited for Godot. “Quiet, please,” the umpire said, even as a gush of giggles swept the court. “The players are ready, thank you.”
Immediately, the culprit, the spectator who spoke those words, drew an imaginary zip over his lips, slinking shamefully back in his seat. But the man wasn’t to blame. He hadn’t yelled it out — he was simply talking, at a normal decibel level, to the fellow seated next to him inside Louis Armstrong Stadium.
A court named after a jazz legend must, after all, possess great acoustics.
The said ‘beast’, though, wasn’t perturbed. When the noise subsided, Anderson thundered his first serve down-the-T — which screamed past Andy Murray’s lunging racquet — to take a two-sets-to-love lead against the 2012 US Open champion. There were no fist pumps or cold stares towards the partisan crowd. Anderson simply walked back to his chair and began sipping from a bottle of purple fluid. The South African was announcing his arrival. Without a drum-roll.
It’s funny how little the world and especially Americans know about Anderson, given that he has lived under their collective noses (in Delray Beach, Florida) for a while now. He has a Green Card (“through my marriage”) and is even eligible for permanent citizenship (“sometime next year I think”). Yet incredibly, despite being quite visible at 6’8’’ and being ranked as high as 14th in the world, Anderson has lived a subterranean life under the radar.
The same, of course, cannot be said about Murray. Here, he draws as much love and attention as he does on the other side of the Atlantic. And he certainly wasn’t under the radar went he to work on his racquet with great precision after losing the second set. With each smack against the blue synthetic floor, Murray castigated self with an inventive list of flowery expletives. Then, much to the crowd’s delight, he handed the assaulted racquet to a spectator and said: “Hope this does you more good than it did for me.”
A change of equipment and shirt (white to black) did the Scot some good. In the third set, he managed to sponge in both his opponent’s booming, 135 mile-an-hour serves and Anderson’s constant gallop to the net. He pushed the set into a tie-break (thumb rule for an all-court player taking on a giant server) and managed to nick it 7-2 to reduce the set deficit to one. But you wouldn’t have guessed that when the players were seated at the changeover. Murray cussed himself after each refreshing sip of electrolyte while Anderson just sat there, calm and serene.
That was just the exterior. Inside, as he would admit later, the mind was fraught with ugly thoughts. Anderson was afraid he had blown it. Just like he had in another fourth round match of a Grand Slam. The previous Grand Slam.
On Wimbledon’s Centre Court, Anderson had met Novak Djokovic. The Serb had few answers to brute pace on slippery grass and dropped the first two sets, both in tie-breaks. Anderson was now a few service holds away from his first ever Slam quarterfinals and an enormous upset against the world’s top-ranked player/defending SW19 champion.
Djokovic, as we know, came through in five (his only five set match of the tournament) and went on to win his third Wimbledon title. And Anderson went on to hire and add a psychologist to his travelling troupe. “There’s no room to improve with physical play. We all know how to hit tennis balls,” he would say before the US Open. “But there’s room to become a better player by improving the mind.”
Sure. Anderson began the fourth set on serve. And Murray immediately put his psychologist’s work to the test by taking it to deuce. This is it, he must’ve thought. Now or never. So he sucked in two deep breaths, landed his first serves on both occasions and put away two volleys at the net. Game Anderson. But Murray kept his end of the bargain by holding six service games and the fourth set, just like the first and the third, was to be decided by a tie-break,
“With breakers, it’s really just about not getting too far ahead of yourself,” Anderson would say later. “It’s really about being focussed one point at a time.” That focus perhaps helped him break Murray on his very first serve. Then, five points later, the players were changing sides with Anderson up 6-0.
Those six set points were also six match points for Anderson. And on serve, he didn’t need more than one. Murray had thrown in the towel with a weak forehand to the tape, losing to the 29-year old for only the second time, in turn making him a quarterfinalist at a Grand Slam for the first time.
Anderson looked more relieved than happy. He held his hands up over his head, soaked in the moment and stored the umpire’s announcement (“Game, set, match Anderson”) in what he called his ‘memory bank’. Half-hour later, looking fresh after a shower but still visibly dazed, he arrived for the press conference.
“Kevin, the crowd was kinda rough on you out there, despite you being kinda American,” said a local journalist. “Would you believe that the public here in the States doesn’t know you all that well?”
Before giving his answer ‘the beast’ laughed, and nodded all-knowingly.