Asmussen | Ex-Illini Anderson 'played like a champ'

Asmussen | Ex-Illini Anderson 'played like a champ'

I sat down to watch a few minutes of Wimbledon on Wednesday morning. And couldn't turn it off.

Former Illini Kevin Anderson played the match of his life against legend Roger Federer. Down two sets in the quarterfinal, Anderson rallied for a stunning five-set victory, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11 in a match that exceeded four hours.

Federer is the greatest champion in the history of men's tennis, with 20 Grand Slam titles.

The crowd in England was clearly pro-Federer, cheering every point as if he was from London. Almost 37, he is in amazing shape and was favored to defend his title at a place where he has won eight times before. But not this year.

Anderson simply played better. Maybe the win meant more. He is looking for his first Grand Slam title. The others are prestigious, but Wimbledon is the pinnacle for players.

Before Wednesday, Federer had dominated Anderson in four previous matches.

He had never dropped a set to the South African.

The streak ended. Though Federer had match point in the third set, Anderson refused to give in.

"I just kept on telling myself, 'I have to keep believing.' I kept saying that (Wednesday) was going to be my day, because you really need that mindset taking the court against somebody like Roger," Anderson told reporters. "If you go out there with doubts or unsure what's going to happen, like I maybe did a little bit in that first set, it's not going to go your way."

Federer won the first two sets before Anderson rallied to win the next two, becoming the first player at Wimbledon this year to take a set from Federer.

Then, the marathon fifth set began.

The two held serve the first 22 games in the final set, before Anderson broke Federer's serve and took a 12-11 lead.

Federer double-faulted to put Anderson up 40-30 in the 23rd game of the set. An unforced error by Federer gave Anderson the game.

Anderson went up 40-15 on Federer in the 24th and final game of the fifth set before closing out the match with an ace, denying Federer a shot at his ninth Wimbledon title.

In all of his Grand Slam events, it was just the third time Federer lost after leading by two sets.

"I had my chances," Federer said, "so it's disappointing."

Two wins away

Anderson, 32, moves to Friday's semifinal against American John Isner. College tennis will win on Friday, with Isner a Georgia graduate. The winner of that semifinal match will take on one of the game's greats in either Novak Djokovic, a three-time Wimbledon champ, or Rafael Nadal, who has won Wimbledon twice. Between the two, they've claimed 29 Grand Slam championships entering their semifinal match on Friday.

I will definitely be watching. So will plenty of others in Champaign-Urbana, a community that supports the Illinois program.

Like golf, tennis is a major sport at Illinois. The men's team won a national title in 2003 and is a yearly threat to advance deep into the tournament. The women's program is on the rise, too.

Craig Tiley, the guy who helped build the Illinois program into a power, was at the All England Club for Anderson's big win on Wednesday. With a smile on his face.

"Any success that comes Kevin's way, he deserves," Tiley said. "He is the absolute professional. His work ethic and focus continues to pay off for him."

Tiley saw it coming.

"(Wednesday) was a historical win for Kevin and as the match progressed he continued to get better," Tiley said. "He played like a champ."

Give the good-timing award to the Illinois Hall of Fame selection committee. Anderson is as part of the second class.

He wasn't able to get back for the Gala in Chicago. And won't likely attend the induction ceremonies in September. His tennis commitments take priority.

Cheering section

Current Illinois men's tennis coach Brad Dancer is going to England to support his former player. He will be at the semifinal and hopes to stay for the rest of the weekend.

Dancer was scrambling Wednesday to make travel arrangements. Count on the ESPN cameras to find him in the stands Friday. The network loves crowd shots.

It's a very good thing for the Illinois program. On multiple fronts. The television exposure helps with recruiting. Maybe some hotshot 13-year-old with a giant serve will see Anderson and say, "I want to be just like him."

Many of the world's top junior players will be at Wimbledon. That draws most of the Top 25 coaches.

"It's a big recruiting trip," Dancer said.

Dancer won't be the lone Illinois representative at Wimbledon. Other program supporters will be there. And Anderson's family is attending.

If it goes the way Dancer, Tiley and friends hope, C-U will need to tune in to Breakfast at Wimbledon at 7 a.m. Sunday. Bacon, eggs and aces.

That's my plan.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

-