Tate: Big man ready for his biggest challenge yet at U.S. Open

Tate: Big man ready for his biggest challenge yet at U.S. Open

Randy Johnson, a 6-foot-10 menace, was the scariest lefty of all time. Coming mostly sidearm, he topped out at 102 mph in fanning a southpaw record of 4,875 major league batters.

They put a racquet in the hands of a right-handed "Johnson," and he is the tennis equivalent. Kevin Anderson's blinding service was timed once at 140 mph on Wednesday and 138 on Friday. This 6-foot-8 flame thrower's service edge over Pablo Carrena Busta in the U.S. Open on Friday was 80-23 — he won 80 of 103 serve opportunities — as he rocked the tennis world by reaching the U.S. Open finals 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. He had 22 aces to Busta's one.

If Busta was mostly better at the longer rallies, that service margin proved too much.

Today, Anderson will face one of the greatest of all time in Rafael Nadal — 15 Grand Slam titles — in a duel of 31-year-olds. Anderson, who ranked as low as No. 80 when hip pain and other ailments slowed him down in the recent past, had climbed back to a disrespected No. 28 when he arrived in New York two weeks ago.

So the former Illini is an underdog today but he has a chance to do something that the UI's other world-renowned competitor, golfer Steve Stricker, never did: Win a major.

And even if he doesn't, Anderson's stunning run in the Big Apple has changed his world. Having earned more than $7 million since he turned pro in 2007, Anderson is headed for his biggest payday and all the advantages that go with it.

He's come a long way

Anderson, who hails from South Africa, dates back to the Illini championship era of Craig Tiley, now director of Tennis Australia. He lost in the NCAA semifinals in 2007, and teamed with lefty Ryan Rowe to win the NCAA doubles as a sophomore.

"Craig led the recruiting on him, and one of my assignments was to go to New York and watch him in the U.S. Junior Open," said Brad Dancer, the Illini's coach who has been attending Anderson's matches this past week. "Kevin lost in about 40 minutes that day, but we saw a young player with a powerful serve and some potential. It wasn't a tough decision. He enrolled that January.

"What you see now is someone who has changed the way he played. He used to rope-a-dope his ground strokes and now he crunches them. He can unwind on a very bruising ball, and he brings that tempo all the time. He is relentless and, when he gets ahead, it is uncomfortable to play against him. His service comes from on high, and it has a lot of movement."

Hard work paying off

Anderson's 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 quarterfinal defeat of Sam Querrey was virtually unnoticed in New York since it ended around 2 a.m. there. Dancer estimates there were perhaps 1,500 fans remaining, and perhaps less.

But Friday brought a full house in the 23,000-seat arena ahead of the prime time match between Nadal and Juan del Potro.

"There was a time when 27 or 28 was thought to be the peak age for tennis pros," Dancer said. "Now 36 of the top 100 are in their 30s. Bodies are lasting longer. Experience counts."

For Anderson, this culminates a decade of grinding, of disappointments and of the fear last year that he might face hip surgery. But he got healthy and kept pounding.

It boils down to this: Anderson controls the game, one way or the other. He always has the edge in service and sometimes commits too many errors ... but when he keeps those sizzling ground strokes in play, he can beat anybody.

Loren Tate writes for the News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com. 

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis

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