CHAMPIONS in all sports seem to have that knack of timing, the ability to produce their best form when they need it most. And while South Africa’s Kevin Anderson goes into today’s US Open final dreaming of a first Grand Slam title, his biggest problem is that across the net will be Rafael Nadal, revamped and reinvigorated, with those gleaming eyes set on more glory.

This US Open has been a tourn-ament of shocks, beginning with the withdrawal of Andy Murray on the eve of the event, his hip too sore for the rigours of a Grand Slam.

The Scot’s withdrawal left a gaping hole in the bottom half of the draw and through it has stepped the 6ft 8in frame of Anderson, once ranked in the top 10 but working his way back from injury, with his ranking of 32 set to rise tomorrow.

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With his big serve and new-found aggression, as well as his improved mental state on court, the 31-year-old fully deserves his place in the final, sealed with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, win over Pablo Carrena-Busta of Spain on Friday night.

The pressure should be off when he plays Nadal as the world No 1 is exuding confidence and in some ways, it feels very much like 2013, when, in rampant form, he stormed to the title.

It would be easy, then, for Nadal, who won his 10th French Open title in June and lost the Australian Open final, to believe he will win easily against Anderson, especially as he has triumphed in all four of their previous meetings. But that is not Nadal’s way, even if his confidence is sky high, helped by the manner of his performance in beating Juan Martin del Potro in 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, sets on Friday night.

“Of course, the beginning of the year was very positive but the clay court season was unbelievable,” Nadal said. “So that helps a lot for my confidence, to be more calm and I am here in the final. It is a great result for me already.

“Now there remains one last match against a very tough opponent, and I need to be ready for it. It is probably the most important match that remains this year for me, so I am going to try my best to play my best.”

If he does, it is going to very difficult for Anderson to win, such is the confidence oozing through the Spaniard’s pores. Victory would give Nadal a 16th Grand Slam title, putting him back within three Grand Slams of Roger Federer in the overall list, just where they were at the start of the year.

And had Nadal held on to his lead in the last set of the Australian Open final, when he led Federer 3-1, we would have been talking about a possible third slam of the year, a remarkable feat after he missed the end of 2016 to rest his injured wrist.

Anderson, though, will have other ideas in his first Grand Slam final, an achievement that set a host of records. He is the first South African to reach the US Open final in the Open era, the first South Africa-born player to make any slam final since Kevin Curren at Wimbledon in 1985 and is bidding to become only the second player from his country to win a slam in the Open era, following Johan Kriek’s Australian Open victories in 1981 and 1982.

Working closely with his sports psychologist, Alexis Castorri, who has helped Murray in the past, Anderson has transformed his on-court persona from one of pure calm to someone who gets pumped up whenever he can.

“I feel like I have always been a great competitor,” he said. “Some of the challenges have included trusting my ability a little bit more. I have always been very critical about myself and now I feel like I’m just being a bit more patient. I have worked very hard to hit a lot of good shots and I definitely try to focus a bit more on the positive stuff now. It helps me to play my best tennis.”

Anderson will not be short of support, from the South Africa rugby team who texted him good luck to his friends from his days at the University of Illinois, who have been out in force throughout the two weeks at Flushing Meadows.

In theory, Anderson should have nothing to lose but regardless of the fact he is facing Nadal, this is still an opportunity, and one he might never get again. If he serves well, then he will have a chance, but Nadal seems like a man on a mission again this year. It would be a surprise, given his exper-ience and class, should he fail to complete it.