Tennis giant finds his mojo at last
Sessions with psychologist helped the late-blooming South African banish his shyness and start winning
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