He hits the ball with deadly ferocity but there’s more to Kevin Anderson’s game than a booming serve. In recent weeks, the tennis player from Johannesburg, South Africa, has proved he is a match for the best. He made the final of the Wimbledon warm-up tournament, Queen’s, where he was beaten by Andy Murray. At Wimbledon, the tournament every player wants to win, he gave the champion, Novak Djokovic, an almighty scare. On the way, he beat Grand Slam champions Stan Wawrinka and Lleyton Hewitt.
After winning 6-7, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5, Djokovic, the best player in the world, said Anderson also deserved to win.
“It’s good to hear that he felt the same way. It’s tough losing matches like that but it would be unfair on myself not to try to take as many positives out of it as possible,” says Anderson.
The 29-year-old Anderson, who stands 2.01 meters tall in his tennis shoes, grabbed the world’s attention when he won the first two sets against Djokovic.
“I was in a very good position but the margins are so small. In the third set, I was trying to find a way to keep the pressure on him and by giving him that early break, he got some confidence and ended up being too classy for me. But, for the most part, that is how I want to be playing.”
His form this year has been rewarded. After reaching the final at Queen’s, he earned a career-high world ranking of 14.
Anderson has long been seen as a dangerous player but the world’s stars probably lost little sleep. That could change.
“I think it’s been my hunger to keep improving and put myself in this position. I made some small improvements but those small improvements make a big difference. Also, just playing different guys more, playing in different match situations and different rounds; it’s tough to beat that kind of experience. I think everyone’s improving, so you’ve got to work hard and when you see the results it gives you more motivation.”
His hard work is finally earning South Africa’s highest ranked tennis player the recognition, many believe, he deserves. Before this year, Anderson was not as well known as a top sportsman in a sport-mad country should be. He hopes his newfound fame can help revive tennis in South Africa.
“Schools sent a bunch of their tennis players to Wimbledon to watch me play and train and interact with me… It was great but it’s such a difficult thing because you need to start tennis at a young age. My hope is the better I do, the more influence I can have.”
South Africa has a rich history of great tennis players such as Johan Kriek, Kevin Curren and Wayne Ferreira. Anderson is reaching their level. He has won two tournaments on the ATP World Tour – the SA Tennis Open in 2011 and the Delray Beach Open in 2012.
Curren, a finalist at Wimbledon in 1985, is interested to see what Anderson can do.
“He’s done very well with what he has with his game. It will be interesting to see whether he can step it up to that next level… I don’t think the guys like to play him because he’s a dangerous opponent,” says Curren.
Being the highest ranked South African doesn’t worry Anderson.
“I’ve been the highest ranked player since 2008. I’m really proud and happy to do that, especially for players that are looking up to me. I feel excitement rather than expectation. I feel like I give my best and there’s nothing more I can do; I’m comfortable with that.”
Winning the SA Open in Johannesburg is the highlight of Anderson’s career so far.
“It’s my home event and 15 minutes from where I grew up. To win my first tour title there was a great feeling; friends and family were watching and it was a special week.”
Family is the reason tennis has been so prominent in his life.
“My dad taught me and my brother when we were growing up. He was incredibly passionate about the game and had high hopes for both of us. We worked really hard as kids and practised a lot. Tennis is an individual sport and that really appealed to us. It’s a sport that relies on pretty much just your ability, sometimes in team sports it’s not always in your control,” he says.
“My dad played himself. Tennis was big in their family. When he lived in Zimbabwe they had a grass court. He was really into sport but I think the individuality of tennis appealed to him.”
Anderson attended the prestigious St Stithians College in Johannesburg. In his final two years of school, he went to British International College because he had started to travel as a junior player to Europe and the school allowed distance learning.
His tennis skills allowed Anderson to attend the University of Illinois in the United States (US). He has lived in the US ever since.
“It’s an expensive sport, especially in South Africa, where you’re trying to play internationally. Even when you’re juniors, you need to travel with a coach and even a physio and these are very expensive endeavours. One of the big reasons I went to college [in the US] was to establish a base outside of South Africa. In the US, traveling around is much easier and there are always players to practice with.”
Despite being South Africa’s best tennis player, Anderson has been criticized for not playing for his country. Over the years, he has withdrawn from South Africa’s Davis Cup team; the result of a busy diary.
“I don’t want to speak out of turn, but as a rugby player you dream of playing for the national team. As a tennis player you dream of winning Wimbledon. Golf doesn’t have the Davis Cup, so it’s much less taxing on the body. It’s one week during the year rather than two or three weeks. The way tennis is set up makes it more difficult than other sports.”
You could argue that by blasting tennis balls past Djokovic’s head, he’s doing his bit for South African tennis.