NEW YORK -- Roger Federer and Andy Murray, seeded Nos. 2 and 3 in the US Open, respectively, are two of the most prominent Grand Slam "haves" in tennis. On Monday, each of them dueled with dangerous and desperate "have nots," and only one of the elites survived.
That's the difference between Andy Murray, junior member of the vaunted Big Four, and the dean of that group, Roger Federer.
A berth in the quarterfinals seemed a particularly attractive prize to the men Federer and Murray played, which helps account for the quality Kevin Anderson brought to his seventh tussle with Andy Murray, and John Isner mustering at times in his sixth career meeting with Federer.
Quarterfinals are ho-hum to the likes of Federer and Murray; the former had a streak of 36 straight appearances in major quarters snapped at Wimbledon in 2013, while Murray was looking to make it 19 in a row this week. By contrast, Anderson, a long-struggling, power-serving South African, had failed in seven previous attempts to punch through to the quarters at a major, and despite that atomic serve, Isner has cracked the quarterfinal code just once, here at Flushing Meadows in 2011.
Anderson had particularly good reason to harbor bitter feelings about the fourth round. At that stage at Wimbledon in July, he jumped to a two-sets-to-none lead over top-seeded Novak Djokovic. But once again, his game, responding to a tune called by his nerves, betrayed him.
Not this time.
While Murray sputtered and fumed, Anderson played a tightly controlled match built on the foundation of that monster serve. He nailed 25 aces, but he also played a beautifully balanced game, winning 41 of 58 points at the net against one of premier defenders in the game.
Anderson tagged 81 winners to just 49 by Murray and kept the Scot off-balance as a long, humid afternoon waned into twilight. By the time Anderson won it in four sets (7-6 ,6-3, 6-7 , 7-6 ), it was the longest match of the tournament at 4 hours, 18 minutes -- almost all of it riveting.
"I've been working with a sports psychologist," Anderson said in his news conference afterward. "I think that's been a big benefit for me, just being more comfortable in these big positions. Today it feels good to take a little step and actually beat one of the best guys in the world in the fourth round of a Slam."
Isner didn't fare quite as well, losing in straight sets, 7-6 (0), 7-6 (5), 7-5. It was never really close for two main reasons: the quality of Isner's opponent and the limitations of his own minimalist game. Both matches featured an unusual, 7-0 tiebreaker that had a critical impact on the outcome. Perhaps they told us all we need to know about why things turned out the way they did for both men.
Anderson won the first two sets from Murray, and weathered a third set rebound in the fourth. Thoughts of Djokovic's comeback raced through his mind, he said later. But he managed to banish them when he got into the tiebreaker. He hit an unreturnable serve to start, then blasted two outstanding service returns to jump out to a 3-0 lead that simply put too much pressure on Murray. A Murray error followed by an Anderson ace put the tiebreaker -- and the match -- out of reach.
Isner entered the tournament with an even more formidable serving portfolio. He had held serve 93 consecutive times going into his match with Federer, a streak dating back to the start of the tournament in 2014. While he managed to win three rounds without having to play a tiebreaker last week, most analysts felt he would have to win at least a couple if he hoped to compete with Federer.
The one thing nobody would have predicted is that Isner would lose a tiebreaker 7-0. After all, Isner had played 448 of the deciders in his career and never once been on the wrong end of a shutout. But that's Federer, a man who never met a record he didn't want to, or couldn't, break.
Federer blanked Isner because he outserved him, and because he found a way to win back enough of Isner's serves to keep the 6-foot-10 American off balance (a theme that was constant through the match). Federer put balls back into play on each of Isner's four serves in that woeful first-set tiebreaker. The result: three Isner errors and one gorgeous Federer service-return placement, a down-the-line backhand that gave him the critical 3-0 lead.
With a set hand, Federer was free to breathe a little more freely. But the second set tiebreaker proved more problematic.
"That one was massive," Federer said afterward. "I wasn't feeling that good going into it, and I had to fight off some tough serves in it. It was rough. But I just picked the right side a few times. Confidence helped get me through that one."
The key point in that episode? Up a mini-break at 5-3, Isner hit a blazing 140 mph serve, but Federer reflexed a return. Isner made the volley moving forward and Federer unleashed a forehand pass to win the point. The reset enabled Federer to reach set point with two mini-holds. He converted his second set point shortly thereafter.
Isner was realistic after taking the loss; how do you argue with a guy who can make a great return off one of the best serves of perhaps the most dangerous power servers in the game?
"It was a few points," Isner said. "If you would have told me before the match started it would come down to a few points here or there, I would have taken that -- especially given how good he is. But he played those points better, he came up with the goods. That's why he's who he is."
And that's why Federer is there to welcome Kevin Anderson as the newest member of the Grand Slam quarterfinal club.