The first time Illinois men’s tennis coach Brad Dancer saw Kevin Anderson play was in Flushing Meadows, the famed New York City home of the U.S. Open.
Yet this was in 2003; it was the U.S. Open Junior championships, and Anderson, a towering teenager from South Africa, was an Illini recruit. Dancer, then an Illini assistant to Craig Tiley, had high hopes as Anderson’s first-round match against fellow future pro Karol Beck began.
“He lost in, like, 42 minutes — an absurdly short match,” Dancer recalled with a belly laugh Saturday, a day before underdog Anderson, the best player in Illini history, was to take on top-seeded Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final.
“Can you believe that was my first viewing of Kevin? But he was 17. Beck was a good player. The fact that Kevin got lambasted as bad as he did? We weren’t going to go on one result. We knew we wanted him.”
Now 31, Anderson — a three-time All-American in singles and two-time All-American in doubles at Illinois — has played his way onto the grandest stage of his career. The No. 28 seed in this tournament, he trails the luminescent Nadal 73-3 in ATP titles and 15-0 in major titles.
For many tennis fans, the emergence of Anderson — who stands a striking 6-8 — might not be all that exciting. The New York Times waved off Anderson’s semifinal victory over 12th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta as a “warm-up act.”
“He’s going to play his heart out,” said Dancer, who became Illinois’ head coach before Anderson’s sophomore season. “He’s incredibly mentally strong, a great competitor. He’s always up for the fight. He’s always looking to compete.”
Anderson — who reached No. 10 in the world rankings in 2015 — returns to his alma mater often and has diehard fans among the current Illini players, who’ve been “glued to the TV,” according to Dancer, “and yelling like crazy.” Dancer and Tiley are in New York with Anderson, enjoying a dream-come-true reunion. Meanwhile, Anderson’s former Illini teammates are watching and rooting from all over.
Brandon Davis and Ryan Rowe, coaches at the Austin (Texas) Tennis Academy, have been watching every point of Anderson’s matches together and trying not to blow up their former teammate’s phone with too many texts. Rowe and Anderson won a national doubles title together in 2006.
“This is just unbelievable,” Davis said. “We’re going crazy. We’re through the roof. When he got past the fourth round, it was like, ‘Whoa, this could happen.’ ”
Anderson had never reached the fourth round of a U.S. Open, but he has made it that far — three times each — at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. In all nine of those cases, though, Anderson’s runs ended right there. Consider that invisible barrier blown to bits.
During Anderson’s semifinal match, Davis and Rowe found themselves reminiscing in between cheers. They recalled a “skinny dude” from a faraway land who wasn’t exactly the smoothest with women. As Anderson’s roommates at Illinois, they planned his first date — dinner and a movie — with Illini golfer Kelsey O’Neal, who would become his wife.
“He really needed our help,” Davis said. “He didn’t really know what he was doing.”
Just look at him now.
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