At 31, Anderson is two weeks older than Nadal; they have known each other from their first days on tour. But while Nadal has hoovered up major trophies for the past 12 years, the tall and likeable South African with the thumping serve has won just three small titles in his career and, until this week, he had only reached one grand slam quarter-final in his career.
They have met four times before but the result never seems to change: Nadal wins. Sure enough, Anderson took a set from his nemesis once, but that was two years ago and it was indoors and at the end of the season when everyone is tired. This is oh, so different.
The way Nadal crushed Juan Martin del Potro on Friday night was enough to put the wind up anyone, be they a debutant finalist or a serial champion. Del Potro edged ahead to take the first set while Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni, watched on.
Asked what was going wrong with his nephew’s game, Toni was very clear. “The problem is our forehand,” Toni said. He regards tennis as a team sport so it is not Rafa’s forehand but “our” forehand. “When we hit our forehand to the backhand of Del Potro, it is not enough. Rafael needs to have more power with all his shots.”
Down on court, Nadal was of a similar mind. In the few seconds of thinking time allowed at the change of ends, the world No.1 devised a new plan and for the next three sets, he was unstoppable.
He pounded his forehand, he played with power but he also played with craft and guile. He attacked with blood in his eye and he defended as if his life depended upon it. Del Potro, increasingly weary as the sets flew by him, could do nothing to stop Nadal’s march to the final. “He played so smart from the second set till the end of the match,” Del Potro said. “He played well. Against Rafa, you must hit winners from both sides. I didn’t tonight.
“He improved very much his game after the second set, and his ball come too fast from both sides.”
Nadal has been playing well from the very start of the year but now, as everyone else is flagging and the season moves into the final straight, he is playing better than ever.
“I wake up today and say to myself, ‘today is the day that I’ll play. I need to play with the right energy, and I need to increase the level of my game’,” Nadal said. “And I know that. A lot of times I know that, and it didn’t happen, but today it happened.”
When the US Open began, Nadal was practising well but playing so-so. Then, as the tournament moved into the second week, Nadal was practising well and playing like a man possessed. The title seems to be his for the taking.
Pity poor Kevin Anderson.