London, United Kingdom – Many a coach has had to console a player after a match with “You lost to someone better,” and that was the reality facing Kevin Anderson as he came off court after an emphatic 6-2 6-2 defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Nitto ATP Finals.
Anderson has had a great year. He ends it in sixth place in the rankings, the highest-ever year-end finish for a South African man since computer rankings began 45 years ago. But he was made to look decidedly ordinary at the hands of the Serb who has reclaimed the world No 1 ranking spot as if he had never vacated it.
Such is Djokovic’s form that Anderson knew he had to do everything right just to have a chance of being competitive. When he missed 11 out of 20 first serves in his first two service games and went a break down in the opening game, the omens were not good. And while Anderson picked up his serving level in the second set, by then the genie was out of the bottle.
There are many who feel that Djokovic will have no competition next year if he can keep up this form, and the way he demolished Anderson in just an hour and a quarter confirms such views.
Djokovic moved effortlessly around the court, and while Anderson didn’t play his best match of the year, it’s churlish to castigate him for a sub-standard percentage of first serves, if only because Djokovic was as adept at returning the first serve as he was the second.
After Anderson was broken at the start, he very nearly lost his second service game, but saved two break points to open his account. He was then broken again in the seventh game, and seemed happy to see the first set end.
Yet Djokovic broke to love at the start of the second, and took a second break to lead 4-1. Such was the depth and accuracy of Djokovic’s groundstrokes that the moment Anderson dropped the ball remotely short – and often when he didn’t – Djokovic would just turn defence into attack and leave Anderson on the back foot. In the end, the South African did well to win two service games in the second set, both of which went to deuce.
Anderson was far from happy with his own serving display and admitted to not finding the same “sense of freedom and relaxation” against Federer and Djokovic that he had in his first two group matches against Thiem and Nishikori. “From my side it was pretty disappointing,” he said. “I didn’t really play a very good match. I felt unsettled right from the beginning. I knew I had to take care of my service games, because he’s serving really well. And he’s returning well, which definitely makes life difficult, but that’s why he’s one of the best players of all time.”
Rather than bemoan an emphatic defeat in Anderson’s last match of the season, it would be fairer to say it took something really special to end the most successful year in his career, indeed in South African tennis in the ‘open’ era.
He won tournaments in New York (indoor) and Vienna, reached the Wimbledon final, and made the semis on the clay of Madrid. He also set a historic mark for a Grand Slam semi-final, winning his marathon with John Isner at Wimbledon
26-24 final set, a match which prompted Wimbledon to limit final sets to a maximum of 24 games and a tiebreak starting next year.
With Raven Klaasen’s good year (also a Wimbledon runner-up) and Jeff Coetzee coaching Juan-Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah to the last four of the ATP Finals, it’s been a great year for South African tennis. Anderson just had the misfortune to run into one of the sport’s greatest players playing at his brilliant best.