(8) Kevin Anderson vs (12) Novak Djokovic
Who Recovers Better?
Sunday’s final is set up to be an absolute war of attrition with the way the semifinals played out. On one hand, you have Kevin Anderson who outlasted John Isner 26-24 in the decisive 5th set in a match that lasted six hours and 36 minutes. On the other, you have Novak Djokovic who outlasted Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 11-9. That match lasted five hours and 15 minutes over two days with the pair finishing up Saturday with the final two sets. Ive said it many times before, but playing Rafael Nadal in a five set match seems more like a seven or eight set match. There were more physical rallies, so when you couple in Anderson getting a complete day off on Saturday – I do think we’re close to even on fatigue.
I won’t get into the skewed numbers as far as winners for Anderson in the quarters, but one number really sticks out and that is just 24 unforced errors. That is less than half what Isner had for the match. Big Kev sported a solid win rate of 84 percent on 1st serve and 59 percent on second serve. Those numbers will be challenged by a much better returner on Sunday in Djokovic. The 8th seed was broken just twice on five break chances, while crafting four breaks of the previously unbeatable serve of Isner on eleven chances. There were plenty of unreturnable serves from Isner, but Anderson stayed tough mentally and was able to take some big rips to get clean winners. That allowed Anderson to keep Isner at 78 percent on his first serve win rate and under 50 percent on his second. Considering again the dominance of the Isner serve prior to the quarterfinals, that is solid, solid work.
Djokovic’s match was the obvious polar opposite of Anderson-Isner with a ton of long rallies that tested the Serb’s will power and shot making ability. One of the bigger surprises though had to be Djokovic’s serve. His first serve win rate was 76 percent which is an elite number against Nadal’s return. Djokovic was broken four times on eleven chances, but he came up with some timely first serves when he needed them most. The 12th seed racked up 23 aces. That was his best showing since round two when he tomahawked 18 against Kyle Edmund. The big difference though again was who he was hitting these against with Nadal still ranked as one of the very best returners in the game.
All around, we got glimpses of the Djokovic of old during this match mixed in with some of the inconsistency that still plagues him at times. His return was marvelous and his ground game solid with both the backhand and forehand showing well. The Serb finished with 73 winners and 42 unforced errors, the exact same numbers as Nadal. An area where I think he’s still challenged some is at the net, but he finished with 30/44 points won there while Nadal won 37/50 and really controlled the volley game at times. I think the big thing for Djokovic to take from this battle was how he responded mentally to the challenge. He looked dog tired at times from running down unending shots from Nadal, but he found a gear to get over the finish line that he had not shown since making his last Slam final in 2016 at the U.S. Open.
This is Anderson’s second Grand Slam final with his first coming last Fall at the U.S. Open, a straight sets loss to Nadal 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. For Djokovic, this is his 22nd Slam final. He is 12-9 in thos previous finals, including a 3-1 mark at Wimbledon. Even though he has not been in this position for nearly two years, you have to give him a slight experience edge. I say only slight because this is a big moment for him. After he got walloped in the quarters at the French Open by Marco Cecchinato, he was distraught and was still in a fragile state of mind. The grass court season has changed that though with the Serb finding a groove to the Queen’s Club final and then obviously continuing that form through to where he is now.
I think for both players this match really starts with the mental game. Anderson has to overcome the marathon fifth set against Isner, while Djokovic has to do the same with the Nadal experienxe while playing for the third straight day. This is by far the biggest test he faces physically since his return and Anderson has that big serve to help carry him through the early going if his legs allow for it. I don’t think there will be much hiding what sort of physical condition Anderson is in to start the match. This will be his 7th career match against Djokovic with the last coming at Wimbledon in 2015. Anderson had the Serb on the ropes down two sets to love before Djokovic rallied for a 6-7 (6), 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 victory. Overall, Djokovic leads the series 5-1 with Anderson’s lone win coming in their first clash in Miami in 2008. Djokovic also beat him in straights at Wimbledon in 2011 in their only other grass court clash.
At the time of their last meeting, Djokovic was playing in his third straight Wimbledon final and was the defending champion and eventual repeat champion in 2015. What Anderson can take from that match is that he has the game to trouble the Serb and that was even before Big Kev really became the larger threat that he is at this moment. His first serve in that last meeting won 83 percent of the points, but he struggled at 41 percent on second serve. Djokovic would eventually break him five times on eight chances. Anderson had trouble making inroads against the Serb in key moments with Djokovic saving seven of eight break chances against his serve. Djokovic would win 74 and 69 percent of the points off his first and second serves respectively.
I did go to the tape from that last meeting to take a look at what worked and what didn’t for both. Djokovic really pounded the ball from the baseline in that one, keeping Anderson pushed back with great depth. Even when Anderson got to forehands, he always seemed to be moving backwards to get to them. Djokovic did a good job of not letting Anderson get into stationary strike positions. For Anderson, his best serve seemed to be from the deuce court targeting the Djokovic backhand. He challenged to Serb to stretch down the T quite a bit and found some of his best finishes off those serves. In general, Djokovic did a good job of making contact even on Anderson’s biggest serves and finding a way to recover to keep in the points.
One of the places where Djokovic seemed naturally more at ease in that match was at the net. Anderson does move forward more with his 1-2 combo of big first serve and aggressive ground stroke off the return ball, but he those mainly come on offense. He doesn’t seem to want to get involved defensively too often at the net, unless the point dictates it. I think that is an area Djokovic can exploit in this one. If the Serb is continuing to place his serve well with Anderson getting caught returning short balls or making poor contact – Djokovic has to look to aggressively move in and finish those off. As he did with Rafa, look for drop shots to be part of that plan too. There is nothing a tired player hates more than a drop shot.
I think Anderson is going to have to look for the same go big or go home type of return game that suited him well against Isner. Djokovic is probably going to do a better job of mixing in different serves to change that up, whereas Isner was about pure power and if Anderson made solid contact – it was going to go back the other way in a hurry. Against Djokovic, look for the Serb to target the backhand. In doing so, proper placement should yield more opportunities for Djokovic to move in some and finish with his forehand which has been very solid of late.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
To be honest, I think there is quite a bit of guesswork before this one in trying to figure out what is left in the tank for both men. If this were full rest, even Steven, Djokovic wants to get Anderson sucked into baseline ralliesa nd work the legs. Anderson’s bread and butter in making himself into a Slam contender has been an aggressive game built off his first serve and quick ground strokes to keep from getting into those rallies. You still tend to think Djokovic’s return is going to be a difference maker in this match, even if he’s feeling it after the Nadal match – but that remains to be seen. I think Anderson’s legs are a question mark just as much and it would effect the bigger aspect of his game with his serve.
In reality I think this could finish a lot of different ways. None of us know how these two are truly going to feel on court until we see them. I go back to what I said about a Nadal five set match taking more than a regular toll on the a person who survives it. If you look back to the five set matches he has lost at Grand Slams, here’s the result in the match immediately following someone who beat Nadal in five sets.
Gilles Muller 2017, lost in 5 to Cilic (Wimbledon)
Lucas Pouille 2016, lost in 3 to Monfils (US Open)
Fernando Verdasco 2016, won in 4 over Sela (Australian Open)
Fabio Fognini 2015, lost in 3 to Lopez (US Open)
Lukas Rosol 2012, lost in 3 to Kohlschreiber (Wimbledon)
just once in these five has a player managed to follow up a win over Nadal in five with a win in the next round and that was Verdasco. The plus for Verdasco was that it was round one of the first Slam of the season, so fatigue was not quite as heavy. Here at Wimbledon, it’s Djokovic’s longest and most grueling match of a shortened season. The plus obviously is that his opponent is just as compromised from playing a 50 game fifth set in the last round.
I think getting to stretch out the five sets against Nadal over two days was probably the factor that I think helps the Serb the most. Although he is playing a third straight day, he didn’t get run through the five set ringer all at once. Perhaps that helps the body reponds a bit better. If there is one thing you should have learned about Kevin Anderson by now in his rise into the top five (as of Monday), it’s that his mental strength is at an elite level. He’s right up there with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray at this point. I think that means this can be competitive, but again this is a lot of guessing. In the end, I think Djokovic’s return and Anderson’s lesser return equal Slam title #13 for Novak Djokovic and another one for the Big Four.
Prediction: Djokovic wins in four sets