Longtime followers of Kevin Anderson wondered periodically if the humble, 6’8”, South African had a tendency to sell himself short. Heading into the 2018 season, the big fellow had captured only three singles titles across his entire professional career. He had been beaten in 10 finals. When he started working with his new coach, Brad Stine, a few months ago, they both agreed that it was time for Anderson to turn that statistic around and start winning titles more regularly on the ATP tour, to make the most of his opportunities in final-round contests.
Although Anderson lost another final at the start of this season in Pune, India, he came through handsomely the week before last to win the New York Open on Long Island, rising to a career high of No. 9 in the world after claiming that crown. That triumph just might prove to be a critical turning point for this earnest and supremely dedicated 31-year-old. I spoke with Anderson by phone several days after his victory in New York, and found him in a very good frame of mind.
In taking that title in New York, Anderson was stretched down to the wire in all four of his matches, and was pushed into final set tiebreakers three times, including his gritty final-round win over Sam Querrey.
He told me, “It meant a lot to me to win so many close matches, digging through them and then getting through my final in New York. The main thing is I was able to play the kind of tennis I wanted to in the final, which hasn’t always been the case in the past. The more that I can impose myself and play the way I know I am capable of playing, the more comfortable I will be in big matches and finals.”
Stine is fully in accord with Anderson on that count.
He recalls, “In my earliest conversations with Kevin, I brought up his history of winning only three titles in his career. I said I wondered why with his skill set that would be true. After he lost the final in Pune, India in January [to Gilles Simon], Kevin told me he had thought a lot about it and he said I was absolutely right. He said he should have won a lot more of these titles. He felt that he had not performed his best in finals because the situation kind of overwhelmed him too often. I had told Kevin as soon as we started talking about working together that if I was going to come on board, one of the things I wanted to do was help him to win more tournaments.”
Delighted with the way Anderson performed match after match in the clutch at the New York Open, Stine says, “Hopefully this will free him up and give him the opportunity to create more opportunities. For Kevin to be a legitimate contender in the bigger tournaments, we have got to get him to go deep in the 500s and 1000s and be able to compete with the eight guys that are ahead of him and everybody behind him as well so he can carry that experience into the Slams and hopefully have more success, like he did last year at the U.S. Open, of getting deep into Slams.”
Anderson clearly wants to reawaken the feelings he had at the Open last year.
“There haven’t been that many people who have been there in the finals of Slams in the last 10 years because of the dominance of a small group of players. My first takeaway is that knowing what it feels like to just walk on the Center Court in the finals of a Slam is very valuable. I showed myself that I can compete at that level, in the big moments at Grand Slams. It gives me a lot of motivation to keep working so I can give myself another shot. As great as the U.S. Open was for me, I was still one match too short of winning the title, and ultimately that is a big goal of mine.”
Having said that, Anderson clarifies that he has different sets of goals, and he is targeting all of them.
He says, “Some of these goals are result oriented and some are longer term goals. But I have really tried to focus on my process goals, in terms of day in and day out and taking care of my body, along with my match goals of how I am looking to compete each match, and the way I want to be playing. You can sometimes get bogged down about defending points or needing to get a certain amount of points, but your body doesn’t know the difference. If you keep working each day on those process goals, that is how you get your best results.”
Addressing his goals in terms of trying to peak and achieve more widely than ever before, Anderson explains, “I really try to target every tournament I play. Obviously we are looking at the Grand Slams and wanting to do well there, but definitely one of my goals is doing well in the Masters 1000s, because I haven’t progressed beyond the quarterfinals. I want to make some semis and finals and hopefully win some.”
One of the keys to fulfilling his objectives will be how he conducts himself on the court, and the passion he conveys as a competitor. Anderson has spoken about channeling his inner Rafa, meaning he wants to project himself with force and intensity.
He explains, “The biggest thing is if you can play each point to the best of your ability, that is going to be huge, especially in a Grand Slam. Tennis matches can literally turn on one or two points here and there. If you can be fully aware of bringing your best to each and every point, you are going to be a more dangerous player. Nadal does an amazing job with that. He plays every point like a match point. So bringing that heightened state of awareness from my side for every point makes me a tougher competitor. The more you [show your emotions] do that, the more comfortable you are.”
Stine believes that the deeper intensity, fist pumping, and emoting more demonstrably is essential for Anderson as he heads into the future.
He says, “It is interesting that you bring that up. This has been something we have talked about. It is extremely important for Kevin to maintain a positive outlook and positive energy on the court. In making himself do it more for a while now, it is much more natural for him. He will continue doing that.”
Something else that Anderson will maintain and value is traveling with a dog, which brings serenity to his life along with his wife.
As Anderson puts it, “Our little dog brings a lot of happiness to my wife and me. We have always been huge dog people, adopting from a local rescuer. We are very involved with several charity events. Regardless of whether I win or lose a match, she is always there for me when I come home. Quite a few women on the WTA tour travel with dogs. Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson just got dogs. It brings a nice balance with the stresses of playing high level tennis.”
Part of the reason there is so much tension surrounding Anderson in his profession is the need to make certain that his game is always finely honed. His ground game will be one of the keys, as will footwork.
Anderson says, “I have always felt a lot of confidence in my ground game. It all comes down to footwork and movement. I would say 90% of the balls that I end up missing are because I am just a little bit out of position. When I am in position and my body is well balanced, I am as consistent as anybody out there. But I also am always looking to impose my game, come to the net more and work on my returns and my balance.”
That self-scrutiny is one of the chief reasons Anderson now resides among the Top 10 in the sport. But the serve remains the cornerstone of his game. It is one of the biggest and best deliveries in tennis, and Stine is convinced that Anderson—who controls the climate of most matches with speed and precision on serve— can improve it strategically.
He points out, “We have focused on him coming forward off of his serve more, and he is getting more comfortable with that. His execution in New York on the serve-and-volley was very good all week. As great as Kevin’s first serve is, he also has a phenomenal second serve. His ability and commitment to spreading the second serve around is terrific, and he does not let the other guys get into a rhythm on returns. He is very un-patterned in how he is serving.”
Stine—one of the masterminds of his profession— has long been one of the game’s finest coaches, ever since he started working with Jim Courier in early 1990’s. He is highly encouraged by the way Anderson has commenced his 2018 campaign.
Stine says, “There is no doubt that Kevin is one of the most intense and focused guys out there. When he walks on the court, he is very committed to what he is doing every single day. He doesn’t want to waste any time. I would say that since my time with Jim Courier, Kevin surpasses everybody else that I have been around in the interim as far as his focus, purpose and commitment to training. At 31, he is really committed to being a better player.”
Moreover, Anderson is ready to embrace new ideas.
Stine says, “We have made some adjustments in some things Kevin was doing technically and tactically, and both of us have seen some really big dividends paid from those little adjustments. Obviously we are not changing major things in his game. He plays unbelievably well. But I have seen some little things we have tweaked. I have been really happy with how open and receptive Kevin has been to approaching things slightly differently.”
That receptivity will serve Anderson well over the next couple of years. He is buoyed by the reality of so many leading players succeeding prodigiously in their early-to-mid thirties.
“It’s funny,” he reflects, “but I was just saying to my coach as the end of practice that I am turning 32 this year, and I feel like my best tennis is still ahead of me. There is no part of me that feels I am over the hill. That is exciting for me. They always say age is just a number, and I really feel that way. My body is in better shape than it has ever been before and I feel like I am mentally tougher than ever before. I just reached my highest career ranking at No. 9. At almost 32 years old, there are a lot of positive signs for me out there.”
Anderson is well aware of how many of his colleagues are thriving in their thirties, led by world No. 1 Roger Federer at age 36.
“It is crazy how things have changed in the last 15 to 20 years since Sampras played his last match at the U.S. Open [in 2002]. Back then, 30 seemed to be the age [when players thought about retiring]. But now when you see guys competing well into their thirties at such a high level, it changes the perception that you have about your age, and how many years you have left as a successful player.”
In the last analysis, Brad Stine answers enthusiastically and optimistically when asked how far Anderson can go in the future.
He replies, “To a large degree, it is about winning more titles, and putting himself in a position to do that. That is the No. 1 objective. It is that old Vince Lombardi quote about winning breeding winning. So winning a 250 like he did in New York is great. Now he wants to take that to the next level and win a 500 or a 1000. I would like to see Kevin finish the year still inside the Top 10, and potentially three, four or five spots higher than where he is right now. That is not outside the realm of possibility in any way, shape or form.”
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