Tennis star Anderson aims anew for the top

Kevin Anderson faces the Australian Open feeling positive after pre-season training and, after his promising showing at the inaugural ATP Cup team competition, with some confidence.

Despite being stuck in what seems to be an endless loop of injury setbacks, Kevin Anderson has managed some spectacular returns to the tennis court. 

South Africa’s top singles player has been plagued by injuries since 2016 yet managed to produce the best tennis of his career during this time. Anderson’s impressive run from 2018 seemed to spill over into 2019, when he opened the year with a sixth ATP Tour title at the Pune Open in India before the ghost of injuries past visited him. 

After missing a host of hard-court tournaments and the clay-court season, Anderson had knee surgery, which ended his 2019 season and turned his focus to rehabilitation. Offsetting the on-court disappointment, Anderson and wife Kelsey welcomed an addition to their family with the birth of daughter Keira in September 2019. 

“Obviously 2019 was a bit tough in terms of my tennis. I did start the year with a title in Pune, but had some troubles with first my elbow and then my knee,” Anderson said.

“Ultimately I decided to have surgery, and while I was rehabbing, my wife Kelsey and I welcomed our first child Keira. So now it’s a new year, and I’m pleased to have had a strong start with some wins in Brisbane at the ATP Cup and looking forward to continuing the momentum in Melbourne.”

The injuries have played havoc with Anderson’s world rankings. He tumbled from a career-high fifth to 122nd going into this week’s Australian Open in Melbourne.

Lofty heights attainable

But if past injury comebacks are used to predict future results, then Anderson could reach lofty heights over the next few years. He had a nightmarish 2016, sidelined owing to a combination of ankle, knee and shoulder injuries. The year before he had made a significant breakthrough, reaching the US Open quarterfinals and launching him into 10th place on the ATP world rankings. 

Through dogged determination, Anderson fought his way back from the slide down to 79th place in 2016 to reach new career highs in 2017 and 2018. He won two ATP Tour titles in 2018, at the Vienna Open and the New York Open, before reaching the ATP Finals for the first time at the end of that year.

Anderson became the first South African since Kevin Curren at Wimbledon in 1985 to make a Grand Slam final, going down to Rafael Nadal in three sets at the 2017 US Open. The next year at Wimbledon, the Johannesburg-born ace beat American John Isner in the second-longest match in Wimbledon history. Their marathon semifinal, lasting six hours and 36 minutes, booked Anderson’s place in the final against Novak Djokovic. But Djokovic defeated a depleted Anderson in three sets to dash any hopes of a Grand Slam title landing in South African hands.

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Anderson goes into the Australian Open with some confidence following a promising comeback at the inaugural ATP Cup, where he represented South African in a team format for the first time since 2011. His appearance at the ATP Cup in Brisbane was his first tournament since he was knocked out in the third round at Wimbledon seven months ago. Anderson’s only blemish in the team event was a 7-6(5), 7-6(6) defeat to Serbian great Djokovic. South Africa finished second in Group A behind Serbia after beating France 2-1 and Chile 3-0. South Africa needed to beat France 3-0 to make the final eight. 

“The ATP Cup has been a few years in the making so to see it finally happen and be part of it was exciting,” Anderson said. “Obviously playing with the other guys and representing South Africa was great. There was a lot of passion on the court from us and the other teams.”

“I’m always proud to have the South African flag next to my name whenever or wherever I play,” Anderson said. “To play with the other guys and fly the flag together was special. We all enjoyed the support we received from back home.”

Splitting opinion at home

Nonetheless, Anderson has divided opinion among South African because of his decision not to represent South Africa in the Davis Cup and instead to focus on his singles career. His rise in the rankings in recent years and appearances in two Grand Slam finals should serve as vindication. Further, one could argue that Anderson’s performances in the biggest tournaments around the globe does more for South African tennis than having him play in the Davis Cup, which has lost a lot of its lustre. 

Anderson has argued that the scheduling and format of the Davis Cup made it difficult for him to prepare for major tournaments. 

“In recent years, Davis Cup scheduling and format has presented challenges for many players, myself included,” he said. “It’s unfortunate these circumstances have caused many of tennis’ top talents not to be able to participate in that event. The timing of the ATP Cup works well for a lot of our schedules, and I’m looking forward to hopefully having South Africa in contention for many years to come.”

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The ATP Cup demonstrated Anderson’s willingness to represent his country in a team competition. It was also a plus that the team event served as a buildup to the first Grand Slam of the year. 

“The ATP Cup is a great way to start a new tennis year, it fits well in the schedule especially with it being in Australia,” Anderson said. “Davis Cup timing is a bit difficult since it’s at the end of the year and after the ATP Finals, so it makes the tennis year even longer and our off-season and pre-season for the coming year even shorter. So that’s a bit difficult, but maybe with some work, the scheduling could be a bit better and fit them both.”

Olympic and other dreams

Although Anderson’s singles career has taken flight in the absence of playing Davis Cup, his decision not to play in that competition has scuppered his chances of representing South Africa at the Olympic Games. Anderson has not featured at the Games since his debut in Beijing 2008, and he is unlikely to make his return because to be eligible to compete at Tokyo 2020, players have to be part of a nominated team for three Davis Cup competitions between the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.

Anderson is revered on the ATP Tour for his work as an athlete representative and his charitable causes. He serves as vice-president of the ATP’s 10-member Player Council while he received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award from the 2019 ATP Awards in Brisbane earlier this month.  His charitable causes include First Serve, an organisation to help under-served children in Palm Beach County, Dezzy’s Second Chance Animal Rescue in South Florida and Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance.

While his dream of having a shot at the Games is deferred, Anderson hopes to tick a few more boxes if his body plays along. He will play, among others, in his first match in South Africa since 2011 when he takes on rising star Lloyd Harris in an exhibition match at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Jabavu, Soweto on 2 February.

“I’m feeling positive after my pre-season training, feeling healthy and strong again, so I’m hoping to bring that to the court for a successful 2020,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be great playing at home again, in front of friends and family. Lloyd is a great guy with a bright future. It’s great to have another strong South African with me on tour to represent our country. It’ll be really special to play him in Soweto.”

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