A smashing journey from journeyman to full-blown star
Kevin Anderson is not done yet and, after two years of trending upward, how high can his curve go in 2019?
It has taken 11 years, thousands of hours, countless topspin forehands and sliced backhands for Kevin Anderson to finally win the respect and attention of his SA compatriots.
Anderson went down swinging in the semifinals at the season-ending ATP World Finals in London last Saturday to bring an end to his best year as a professional while also breathing life into the sport locally.
Although Anderson has been a professional for more than a decade and had broken into the top 10 in 2015, injuries and playing in the era of some of the greatest of all time, relegated the tall South African to journeyman status.
Those factors and living in the US have made him seem distant to SA tennis fans – until this year, and more specifically on the grass courts of Wimbledon in July.
Continuing from the gains he made in 2017 after two injury-plagued years, Anderson kicked on and took the SA public with him. He won two tournaments, including his first ATP 500 title, in Vienna at the end of October, and a record 45 matches in the year while reaching a career-high fifth in the world rankings.
But his major achievement was a magical run to the Wimbledon final, which captured SA’s attention.
Although Anderson made his first Grand Slam final at the 2017 US Open, given that his matches regularly started after midnight SA time, avid tennis watchers only noticed the run.
Wimbledon is as much an SA tradition as it is a British one. Families have gathered round TVs for years watching the drama at SW19 unfold and seldom have South Africans had one of their own to cheer.
When the draw matched Anderson with Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, we all threw our arms up and declared: “It’s been a nice run Kev, but now time for the big boys to take over.”
Federer was 36 at the time but he went into Wimbledon on the back of winning the Australian Open in January and skipping the clay court season to spare his body and prepare for his favourite Grand Slam tournament.
Like so many before him, Anderson was supposed to play his part by putting up some resistance before reading his lines and allowing the Swiss master to march on to battles with Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
And for a little over an hour it seemed Anderson had read the script and was following it perfectly. Federer went two sets and had a match point in the third.
And then Anderson ignored his lines and started hitting winners, serving thunderbolts and showing tenacity and grit usually reserved for the top three or four players in the world. Anderson won one set, and then improbably took the fourth set of the match to level it. Momentum in sport in everything and it was with the South African.
But Federer hadn’t won eight Wimbledon singles titles because they were handed to him. He fought as if he’d never won one, and the fifth set became a war of attrition that Anderson eventually edged, taking it 13-11 on Court No 1.
And then Anderson and his semifinal opponent John Isner made the Federer fifth set look like a doddle. Anderson beat the American 26-24 in the fifth of their epic contest.
The six hours and 35 minutes the match took meant that Anderson could barely walk the next day. By the time he took to the court for the final against a resurgent Djokovic, 40 hours after ending his semifinal, there was nothing left in the tank. Anderson succumbed in three sets but tennis in SA was reignited.
Overall the men’s game was still dominated by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic with the trio winning the four Grand Slams.
At 32, Anderson isn’t likely to be a long-term threat to the next wave of rising talent but because of his meticulous training and scheduling, the two years of injury-enforced layoffs, and his relatively late start as a touring pro in 2007, Anderson has a younger body than his age suggests.
The 21-year-old Sasha Zverev, who conquered Djokovic at the ATP Finals in London, is the next big thing in tennis while Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas and Canadian Denis Shapovalov are emerging.
But Anderson is not done yet and after two years of trending upward, how high can his curve go in 2019?