LONDON — This past July, during a grueling run to the Wimbledon final, Kevin Anderson lost four toenails.
A round after a stunning two-sets-to-love comeback against Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, Anderson needed 6½ hours to finally stop John Isner. When Anderson finally reached the final, he was spent. Worse off, Novak Djokovic was waiting in the championship.
Anderson wasn’t able to put up much of a fight against Djokovic that day, and it took him a couple of weeks before he felt normal again.
That was then. Four months on, Anderson, 32, is into the semifinals of the Nitto ATP Finals in his first trip to the season-ending event. And wouldn’t you know, waiting for Anderson is Djokovic (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET on ESPN3).
With Federer taking on Alexander Zverev in the first semifinal (Saturday, 9 a.m. ET on ESPNEWS and the ESPN App), there’s no doubt a Federer-Djokovic final would be a fitting finale to the season.
But big-serving Anderson revels in the spoiler role. While Djokovic will draw strength from what was his fourth Wimbledon title, Anderson hasn’t forgotten the lost opportunity.
“It was a tough match,” Anderson told ESPN.com. “Ultimately, the goal was to win on that day, so afterwards there were some bittersweet emotions, but it was a terrific two weeks for me, a lot of memories, lot of excitement and motivation. I’m looking ahead to hopefully putting myself back in that position.
“You sort of dream about walking out and playing in the finals of the Wimbledon, going through the corridors [of the All England Club]. That was very special and quite unique, and I was very motivated because it is something very special. I want to give myself more opportunities like that.”
Just getting out on the court that day was an achievement after Anderson had pushed his body to the absolute limit before holding off Isner 26-24 in the final set of their semifinal, the second-longest match in Wimbledon history.
It has taken Anderson a long time to reach his peak, and at 32, he says he is taking inspiration from the likes of Federer, who recovered from a poor performance on opening day here to top his group.
After a breakthrough year — Anderson won two titles for the first time in his career — all that is lacking is that last step up, a significant title.
“I understand the difficulties,” he said. “The challenge now is knowing that in order to win those tournaments you’re going to have to beat a handful of guys who’ve had so much experience of that.
“Ultimately, I’m going to do everything I can to put myself in the best possible position. If I finish my career without hoisting one of those, a Grand Slam trophy or Masters Series, it will be tough in some ways, but I’m going to do what I can and more than that, I can’t really do. I definitely want to be in more Masters Series finals, hopefully hoisting one of those. They’re ambitious goals but well within my ability. I’ve definitely proven that to myself.”
Germany’s Alexander Zverev sealed his place in the ATP Finals semifinals with a straight-set win that knocked his American opponent John Isner out of the season-ending event.
Anderson has not beaten Djokovic since 2008, but there has been at least one tiebreaker in each of their past three meetings, and at Wimbledon in 2015, Anderson led by two sets to love before falling.
Given what Djokovic has achieved in the second half of the year (he has lost only one match since the start of Wimbledon), Anderson will need to play his best Saturday, but he believes he has the mental strength to do it.
“He’s playing amazing tennis,” Anderson said of Djokovic. “Obviously, he’s really established himself back to the top of the game. “But it’s a great, great opportunity for me.”
A Djokovic-Federer final might be what the crowd and tournament organizers want, but Anderson believes he has the game to come out on top.
And why not? He’s playing terrific tennis, and his toenails are intact.