He may now be 29, but rather like John Isner, Anderson came later to the professional circuit from the American college system, and didn’t win a title until 2011, but has since climbed to a present career-high of No14.
His results at Grand Slams over the same period also slowly but surely improved as he continued to add greater variety and more fitness and mobility to his big serving game, but he was trying now to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
And the 6ft8in Anderson arrived fresh from his first tour-level grass final at Queen’s, and with some high-profile wins over Stan Wawrinka and Gilles Simon.
Such has been his growing profile that new fans have been following the quiet man of the top 20 in droves. At The Boodles exhibition event in leafy Berkshire, there was clearly fresh interest in this tall, angular player practising what looked like an old-fashioned grass game of big serve, big follow-up forehand, and some aggressive net plays.
But in taking on the world No1 and defending champion, Novak Djokovic, he faced a task of the highest order. As if owning the Australian title plus four Masters titles and a final run at the French Open was not enough, Djokovic had lost only three matches to 44 wins this year. His progress here had also been serene: Not a set dropped, not even a tie-break required, against considerable early-round opposition including the man who missed seeding by one place, Philipp Kohlschreiber, in the first round.
Add in that Djokovic had won all five of his previous matches against Anderson, without dropping a set, and the stage looked set for a quarter-final place for the mighty Serb.
What that past record did not show was that Anderson was still ranked in the 30s when he last played Djokovic, and was still to reach the fourth round of any Major—and had won only a single match at Wimbledon.
So while Djokovic would never be one to underestimate an opponent, nor be unaware of the form of Anderson, the crowds packed into Court 1 were clearly not expecting what would become such a dramatic and close contest. Even across on Centre Court, as the scores flashed up mid-match, there were gasps.
For it looked, at two hours old and two sets old, that Djokovic was coming perilously close to falling before the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time since Roland Garros 2009.
In the first set, Anderson served his way through to the tie break with relative ease, and Djokovic hit his second double fault of the set to give up the vital mini-break and the set, 7-6(6).
It was the same story in the second set, but this time, Djokovic seemed to have the edge as he took a 5-2 lead in the tie-break. But Anderson saved set point with an ace, and hit back to seal the set in precisely the same score as the first.
But there was no doubting Anderson had thrown his all into those two sets and Djokovic, one of the fittest men in tennis, came back strongly to win the third set, 6-1, in under half an hour. The fourth brought more of the same, and Djokovic levelled things up at 6-4.
Had the continued, it looked likely that even Anderson himself would have little expectation of winning the fifth and deciding set, but fate—in the shape of the march of time and the dimming of the light—took a hand. The match was stopped at around 9pm: Anderson could catch his breath and come back to try his chances in one final set.
Fate took another hand before they could get underway: rain, though only the most fleeting of showers. Enough to send the two players off before they had even begun to warm up, enough to dampen the grass before the covers were swiftly pulled across, enough to delay the start for half an hour.
Would the damper, cooler, more slippery conditions favour one over the other? Or had Djokovic learned enough of his opponent’s grass props to cut to the chase?
The set started much as the match had started, with Anderson dominating effortlessly. The first game: 136mph ace, 130mph ace, a serve and volley winner, and hold to love with a 128mph ace.
Djokovic got in a couple of blistering returns of serve in the next to take Anderson to deuce, but that would be his only glimmer of a chance—until the denouement. The South African hit his 35th ace to go 2-1, hit four more winners to go 3-2, a 38th ace to go 4-3, and held to 15 with a couple more aces for 5-4.
In contrast, Djokovic had to defend two break points in the fourth game, deuce in the sixth, and was raising his hands to the heavens, apparently in hope of some relief. Anderson’s average second serve speed was the same as Djokovic’s first, but of course that is not what has made the Serb the Grand Slam champion he is. He produced some pitch-perfect accuracy and kick to hold to love for 4-4, and did the same at 5-5.
And the moment Anderson blinked, which he did at the vital stage of the set with two double faults, Djokovic pounced with a return at Anderson’s feet to draw the error.
With 45 more minutes on the clock, Djokovic, served it out, 7-5: It had been a test of the toughest order, and denied him a day off in the schedule, but perhaps he needed just such a match to sharpen him for what lay ahead.
For the quarter-final brings another worrying name to the Djokovic table: US Open champion Marin Cilic, who has had trouble reproducing that Grand Slam winning form after shoulder injury, has clearly been working his way back.
The No9 seed, though, has expended huge resources in two consecutive five-setters already, but few will forget, least of all Djokvoic, that Cilic led him by two sets to one in the quarters here last year. He remembered it well: “I remember we played very close three sets. I played very well the fourth and fifth. He got a bit tired and was not serving as well. But he had an exceptional season last year, the best of his life… and of course winning US Open. So he’s been playing on a high level.
“We meet again in the quarter-finals. I’m going to try obviously to do a few things differently in terms of return and my positioning. Hopefully I’ll be able to get more balls back, because he does serve very well, too.”
It could be a cracker.
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