Ten­nis gi­ant finds his mojo at last

Ses­sions with psy­chol­o­gist helped the late-bloom­ing South African ban­ish his shy­ness and start win­ning

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Kevin An­der­son

For the ma­jor­ity of his ca­reer, Kevin An­der­son had been dis­missed as a nearly man. Too timid, too tall, too nice. At the age of 29 he had not reached so much as a grand-slam quar­ter-fi­nal, with his big-serv­ing game viewed as pro­hib­i­tively one-di­men­sional.

Now, three years on, An­der­son has played in two ma­jor fi­nals, achieved a ca­reer-high rank­ing of No 5, and for the first time qual­i­fied for the ATP Fi­nals, where he be­gins to­day with a match against Do­minic Thiem.

A shy char­ac­ter, An­der­son’s hopes of stay­ing un­der the radar were dashed on that crazy Fri­day at Wim­ble­don in July, when he de­feated John Is­ner 26-24 in the fifth set of their 6hr 35min marathon semi-fi­nal. Wim­ble­don has since an­nounced the in­tro­duc­tion of a tie-break at 12-12 in the fi­nal set – a de­ci­sion An­der­son wel­comes.

But with or with­out such epic en­coun­ters, An­der­son be­lieves there is more to come in his late-bloom­ing ca­reer. “Even though I’m 32, I feel like I’m play­ing my best ten­nis and the best years are ahead of me,” he tells The Sun­day Tele­graph. Prior to 2015, An­der­son, who is South African but lives in Florida, had a rep­u­ta­tion as a choker. Thought­ful, in­tel­li­gent and gen­er­ous off the court, it was be­lieved the 6ft 8in gen­tle gi­ant was not ruth­less enough for the cut-throat world of elite ten­nis.

In the early part of his ca­reer, An­der­son’s fa­cial ex­pres­sions tended to be­tray his anx­i­ety.

Then came a link-up with sports psy­chol­o­gist Alexis Cas­torri, an ex­pert in her field who has helped Andy Murray and Si­mona Halep be­come grand-slam cham­pi­ons.

Cas­torri urged An­der­son to ex­press him­self more on court and find a way of feel­ing com­fort­able dur­ing big matches. A keen gui­tarist, An­der­son was en­cour­aged to har­ness the crowd’s en­ergy in the same way his beloved Dire Straits might dur­ing a con­cert.

Over time, An­der­son meta­mor­phosed from wallflower to fist-pump­ing ball of en­ergy. The results soon fol­lowed, with a de­feat of Murray at the US Open three years ago fol­lowed by a run to the fi­nal there in 2017. Then at this year’s Wim­ble­don, An­der­son de­feated Roger Fed­erer and stag­gered past Is­ner be­fore run­ning out of gas against No­vak Djokovic.

“To make phys­i­cal gains you would go to the gym and lift weights. It’s the same for the men­tal side,” An­der­son ex­plains. “The work you put in on the men­tal side needs the same ded­i­ca­tion as the phys­i­cal side.

“Some­thing I worked very hard on, es­pe­cially last year, was be­ing more out­go­ing on the court; recog­nis­ing good points I’d played and trust­ing my­self and my skills on the court. The fist pumps weren’t nec­es­sar­ily to let my op­po­nent know I was here, more to let my­self know that I’m here.”

How then, does he pre­pare for those key mo­ments, such as the match point he saved dur­ing his de­feat of Fed­erer at this year’s Wim­ble­don? “There are a lot of big mo­ments in matches, and what I al­ways say is that your body doesn’t know whether it’s the first point of a prac­tice ses­sion or if it’s match point in a big fi­nal.

“In the big­gest mo­ments, that’s when re­ly­ing on your rou­tines, your rit­u­als, be­comes im­por­tant. If you can stay in the mo­ment and treat it like any other point, that’s go­ing to give you the best odds of win­ning.”

Even if An­der­son has be­come more im­pos­ing on the court, he re­mains a bea­con of sports­man­ship. Af­ter de­feat­ing Is­ner, An­der­son drew ac­claim for the way he ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for his van­quished op­po­nent. De­nis Shapo­valov praised An­der­son at the US Open for wait­ing un­til the end of the first set be­fore call­ing for the trainer. He was sub­se­quently nom­i­nated for the ATP’s 2018 sports­man­ship award, along­side Fed­erer, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro.

An­der­son is also kept busy by his role on the ATP Coun­cil, hav­ing been re-elected for an­other two-year term ear­lier this year. One of his main pri­or­i­ties is se­cur­ing sup­port for the ATP World Team Cup, which is sched­uled to launch in Jan­uary 2020 and will ri­val the re­vamped Davis Cup.

For now, though, ten­nis pol­i­tics will have to wait. An­der­son knows he has a real chance of win­ning the big­gest ti­tle of his ca­reer in Lon­don this week.

Per­haps nice guys do not al­ways fin­ish last.

Flour­ish­ing: Kevin An­der­son is im­prov­ing with age

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