Is Kevin Anderson setting a blueprint for future pro players?

NEW YORK -- Kevin Anderson had plans the Saturday night before the US Open almost two weeks ago.

He was supposed to get together with some friends and alumni from the University of Illinois for a viewing party to watch the Fighting Illini take on Western Kentucky in Champaign, Illinois. Subject to change, of course, if he went on a long run.

Well, his plans did change, and he couldn't be happier.

"It's actually a good position that I'm in that I'm not able to attend," Anderson said with a smile. "I think they'll understand."

As Anderson stood outside the locker room at Arthur Ashe Stadium, he was still processing what had just happened moments earlier on the court in his four-set victory Friday against Pablo Carreno Busta, who had not dropped a set heading into their match.

Anderson not only reached his first Grand Slam final in his 34th appearance, but became the lowest-seeded player ever at No. 28 to reach the singles final here. He's also the first South African to reach the US Open final in the Open era.

Anderson also became the first player with college ties to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Todd Martin at the 1999 US Open, and if he finds a way to defeat Rafael Nadal on Sunday, Anderson will become the first ex-college player to win a major title since John McEnroe here in 1984.

"I really didn't know too much about college tennis when I was in South Africa," Anderson said to ESPN.com afterward. "My last year of juniors I started getting calls from coaches, and the more we looked at it, the more we realized it was a very worthwhile opportunity to explore. Coming from South Africa, we didn't have the funding required to establish a base in the U.S. where I could play a lot of tournament and develop my game, which was important."

When Anderson was being recruited in 2004, coach Craig Tiley, who's also from South Africa, had built Illinois into one of the best tennis programs in America, recording an NCAA record 64 consecutive wins and winning the NCAA title in 2003.

"Something about Illinois really struck me," Anderson said. "They had just won the NCAA title the year before, and Craig Tiley was very well known in South Africa. I didn't know anything about the place or the city. I just wanted to go to the best tennis program, and I was able to make a great decision."

Tiley, who is now the CEO of Tennis Australia and the director of the Australian Open, was in the crowd Friday night to watch Anderson, 31, and remembers the first time he saw him on a tennis court 15 years earlier.

"The first time I saw him, he was a junior player who was still learning and growing and putting it all together," Tiley told ESPN.com. "He had unquestionable passion, and he already had professionalism as a young player, and he had the strong desire to excel.

"It was a no-brainer to recruit him. It was never easy to get players to come to Champaign, Illinois, but we had some good teams, and we prided ourselves on a program that developed players that would go on to be professional players. It's been great to see Kevin go on and have that success."

While Tiley coached professional players such as Ryler DeHeart, Amer Delic, Graydon Oliver, Rajeev Ram and Brian Wilson at Illinois, none has had the success of Anderson, who was a three-time All-American and played John Isner in the 2007 NCAA Division I tennis championships.

Anderson and Isner have represented the high watermark of collegiate players on the pro circuit over the past 15 years with most talented juniors skipping college altogether.

"It's a fantastic step if you haven't really broken through and don't have a lot of funding," Anderson said. "College is a fantastic opportunity. I really think it was a great stepping stone from the juniors to the pro ranks.

"It's been a quite a while since I left college, and there's been a lot of lessons I've had to learn at the pro level, but it was definitely an important part of my development. A lot of kids I speak to I always encourage them to go [to college]. I think it's changing. I think there have been a lot of successful college players to come through, and I hope that trend continues because it's a very valuable experience."

One of the positives going for college tennis coaches recruiting players is the careers of players are now stretching into their mid to late 30s. Suddenly going to school for three or four years and turning pro at 21 or 22 doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

"It's a fantastic ground to develop your game, and I think it might happen more because there's so much more longevity now with guys," Tiley said. "There's no need to rush into it. It's a tough sport on your body, and it's not easy traveling around the world, week in and week out. For a player that needs the coaching support and the competition, college is a great option."

The biggest moment of Anderson's time in college, however, didn't come on the tennis court. It came when he met his wife, Kelsey, who was on the Illinois golf team at the time. The two began dating and eventually married in 2011 with an Illini-themed wedding, which included a Fighting Illini-decorated cake and street sign.

"It's impossible to recreate the relationships I made in college," Anderson said. "I met my wife there, met my best friends there, the Illinois tennis community is like a family. I'm so close with everybody there. It changed my life in so many ways."

Of course, as with many things in life, money is an overwhelming factor with these decisions, which is why the best young tennis players in the world normally chase prize money and endorsement deals over scholarships and diplomas.

"When you're 17 and someone is giving you $500,000 per year in contracts, I'd say turn pro because that's big dough," said ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert, who was an All-American tennis player at Pepperdine before a 14-year pro career. "If you can't afford it, or you're not physically or mentally ready, college is a great option. If you want to turn pro, but someone's not paying you, or someone's not paying you to go travel, you've got some issues."

By the time Anderson left Illinois, he was physically and mentally ready to be a professional, something he wasn't prepared for when he arrived on campus.

Within six months of turning pro, he was a runner-up in the 2008 Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas to Sam Querrey and leaped into the top 100.

If Anderson's journey ends with a Grand Slam title Sunday, it will perhaps motivate others to follow a similar path.

"At that stage, it helped my development a lot," Anderson said. "Physically I was able to get a lot stronger, and mentally I was able to grow a lot as an individual."