It was only in the dead of night that Kevin Anderson discovered the full price of playing a semi-final of unprecedented length at Wimbledon.
Earlier on, that July evening in the midst of this summer, the 32 year-old South African had completed a six hour and 35 minute victory over John Isner which ended with him winning a deciding set 24-22 to make the SW19 final.
Now he was lying in bed at his rented home in Wimbledon, aware of excruciating pain that was the payback for a match which was to lead directly to a major rule change.
Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson knows the excruciating cost of playing a marathon match
‘At about 330am in the morning I woke up and my feet literally felt they were on fire,’ recalls Anderson, after folding his 6′ 8′ frame into a comfy chair at the recent Paris Masters.
‘ I couldn’t even have the sheets touching them. My physio was sleeping in a room downstairs and my wife had to go and get him. He did a treatment to release some of the pressure and get the bloodflow going, which provided some relief.’
The longer term gain from the short-term pain is that the result helped Anderson qualify, for the first time, for this week’s singles at the Nitto ATP Finals at London’s 02 Arena. He plays the opening group singles match this afternoon against Dominic Thiem.
Anderson came through a six hour and 35 minute epic with John Isner to reach the final
After he and Isner traipsed off Centre Court, shattered, their epic proved just the beginning for the now world number six. He had to somehow had to prepare himself for the championship match that was due to begin at 2pm on the Sunday afternoon.
Initially there were fears that there might not even be a final at all, which is why Wimbledon have finally come round to introducing a tiebreak at 12-12 in the decider, although even that looks excessive.
Their marathon already had a profound effect on the weekend’s proceedings, with Rafael Nadal forced – unfavourably for him – to play indoors against Novak Djokovic and the women’s final pushed back from its allotted slot on Saturday so the second men’s semi could finish.
Meanwhile Anderson was doing everything he could to recover, and he gives a fascinating insight into the whole process. As he reveals, it did not start well.
‘I couldn’t have had more than four hours sleep that Friday night with the combination of the adrenaline and the discomfort,’ he says.
‘Immediately following the match it felt very emotional making my first Wimbledon final. There was a good 40 minutes just coming down from that. My mum was there and I called my Dad.
‘Then I did the basic procedures: cool down, stretching, going into the ice tank, get some food in and then you have to do media. That all took about two and a half hours so it was not far off midnight when I got home, and then we did another treatment session.
‘That’s when it got pretty tough, because the emotions from the match had subsided a bit and my toes were uncomfortable, my feet very uncomfortable, and my whole digestive system out of whack. I wasn’t sick but I didn’t feel great and struggled to sleep.
‘On the Saturday I had a hit for ten minutes at the most. You’ve just had a huge match and you’re wondering can I play another? I was going to find a way to play but there was definitely a ‘how am I going to play the finals when I feel like this?’ in the background.
The 32-year-old has qualified for the season-ending ATP Finals in London this week
‘Your mind gets ahead of itself. I tried to stay in the moment. I had a lot more treatments and stretching through the day and managed to take a nap.
‘ I ate in at the house that evening and got about eight hours sleep that night. I still had the adrenaline going on the Sunday morning and didn’t feel too bad. When you’ve lost your body goes into recovery mode and sort of shuts down. I kept it in a holding pattern a bit, had a normal warm-up and we played.’
He put up a decent fight under the circumstances, but the full effects lasted way beyond the Wimbledon final weekend.
‘I think I eventually lost four toenails in all, including one not until a couple of months later that was related to that.
‘A few days after I went up to Carnoustie for the (Open) golf which was nice. But some of the muscular issues took a week to get over and the bruising probably took several weeks. Your toes are really raw with the stopping and sliding. I wasn’t even feeling normal at Carnoustie and it was only three or four days after that when I felt better. It wasn’t just the Isner match, I’d gone 13-11 in the fifth set to beat Federer in the round before.’
Few in tennis will begrudge Anderson this Indian summer of his career.
A dedicated pro and an unusually thoughtful type, he has always been held in high esteem by his peers. As an activist against single-use plastics he has been a driving force in the ATP Tour’s efforts to try and make tournaments become more environmentally sustainable.
There was a time when South Africa was a reliable conveyor belt of high class tennis players but Anderson has become a largely isolated figure from there, having grown up in Johannesburg and then gone away to American University to pursue his dream.
An early foe on court was eventual cricket star AB de Villiers, so talented he could have made a career at several sports.
‘I also played cricket and did athletics but all my family were tennis players so that was what I was going to focus on,’ says Anderson. ‘When I was around ten years old I played AB, who was ranked top ten in his age group but a couple of years older than me and I think he won. He was a good player but I think he made the right choice.’
Anderson’s progress deep into the top ten might also serve as an inspiration for Andy Murray, because in late 2016 he suffered severe hip problems that forced him into a prolonged absence.
While his was a specific injury, as opposed to the wear-and-tear condition that the Scot is now trying to manage, how he coped with it shines a light on some of the issues Murray will have faced, including how it can be difficult to choose the right treatment options.
‘Mine was a tear in the labrum,’ he says. ‘ I spoke to some of the best doctors in the world and most of them recommended a conservative approach but there were a couple who said I needed surgery. It was really scary at the time because something like that takes eight or nine months to recover from, I was told.
‘Fortunately I was able to treat it conservatively . That’s very tricky from a mental standpoint. You ask yourself all the time ‘is it going to get better, do I need surgery?’. It took me a while to find form on the tennis court but at least I was healthy.’
Anderson has used his greater prominence to campaign against plastic pollution, and in December is hosting an event near his Florida home of Delray Beach in aid of the Trash Free Seas Alliance.
‘I have become more aware and educated myself about it. The tour is a great platform. There are challenges in tennis because we play in places where you can’t drink from local water sources. It is a necessary evil drinking from plastic bottles, but there are ways of reducing it and making sure waste is minimised and recycling increased. It’s important we set a good example.’