London: There are two first-time qualifiers at this week’s ATP Finals. At 33, American John Isner is joined by 32-year-old South African Kevin Anderson — making them the oldest first-timers at this event since 1972.
Anderson, who won in straight sets against Austrian Dominic Thiem in Sunday’s opener, however, holds another distinct record at this tournament as he is the first singles player from South Africa after Wayne Ferreira featured in this year-end competition 23 years back.
...my hope through the position that I find myself in is to bring about tennis awareness through all parts of Africa.
But given his recent rising status, these are records that the lanky tennis player may well shun. Anderson instead is on the lookout for every chance to alter a long-standing gibe, if not accusation, that he has largely rejected the opportunity to represent his country of birth particularly by refusing to play in the Davis Cup for South Africa.
The 6.8ft right-hander looms over the sport with his recent exploits on court, but he is pragmatic when it comes to bettering the sport in Africa. “We’ve got to be honest in the first place. For people from Africa it is pretty tough as far as tennis goes,” Anderson said after being asked about his intentions to change things for Africa. “To start with there are very limited resources, and then financially too it is tough and expensive to send players to Europe to stay and play here in various tournaments. And on top of all that, it takes us a lot of time to get to other places.
“Tennis is a tough sport and you’ve got to really start from a very young age and a lot must be going your way from the start. We [Africa] are not going to get anything for the next few years, but my hope through the position that I find myself in is to bring about tennis awareness through all parts of Africa.”
Born in Johannesburg, Anderson moved to Florida while studying at the University of Illinois in 2005. Two years later he was playing on the men’s tour, winning some and losing in quite a few. And it has been only in recent years that he has shown signs of living up to his full potential as a top-class player.
“I try as much as possible to hold myself as a role model whenever I am back in South Africa,” he said. “I just go and do as much as I can by visiting schools, and this is not just for tennis but just to get kids to believe in themselves and start that spark in the younger generation.
“Growing up I had my fair bit of heroes and I was fortunate in that respect. I take a lot of pride in being the highest ranked [in Africa] and being so much in the public eye and this position that I have to inspire a new generation.”
Last year he announced his arrival while reaching the final at the US Open before going down in straight sets to Rafael Nadal in the final. This year, he eased into his second Grand Slam final where he lost to current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. In February, Anderson won the 250 Series New York Open and followed up with a second title in October at the 500 Series Vienna Open in Austria helping him end sixth in the list of top-eight players for the season-ender.
“Winning two tournaments in one year was a huge achievement for me,” he said. “The Masters series final is also big. I think I have set myself up this year for the next season, and in the right direction.”
Anderson married his college girlfriend, golfer Kelsey O’Neal, in 2011, and they bought a home in Delray Beach, Florida. He is a permanent resident of the USA, but does make the occasional trip back home to Johannesburg.
Anderson, his wife Kelsey and former coach GD Jones launched a tennis instructional website in June 2016 entitled Realife Tennis, offering practice and lifestyle tips from travelling the world playing tennis, along with tailor-made courses for improving one’s tennis game.
Anderson is quite an accomplished guitar player, and he is a huge fan of the British rock band Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler. His favourite show on television is House of Cards. The South African is also a huge Harry Potter fan.