Pulling Back the Curtain

by: Cindy Shmerler | June 07, 2016

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There's more to Kevin Anderson, the ATP tour's unassuming flamethrower, than meets the eye. (AP)

What is most noticeable when entering Kevin Anderson’s home is just how normal it is. Situated on a stretch of Highway A1A just north of Delray Beach, Fla., the townhouse is gray and nondescript from the outside, and stylish but utterly un-tennis-like on the inside.

There are no trophies on display; no sneakers, racquet bags or sweaty T-shirts littering the hallway. There was once a framed photo of Anderson competing at Wimbledon on the living-room wall, but he had his wife, Kelsey, remove it because he felt he hadn’t played particularly well that match. (He won.) Even a stack of Wimbledon memorabilia books that sit on a modern wall-unit shelf is covered up.

“You can blame Kelsey for the decor,” Kevin says with a laugh. 

Instead, the Anderson home is a Florida model of young, suburban chic. The most stunning feature is a set of screen doors that slide open to reveal a patio and pool with a waterfall that emits a calming trickle. The house, in many ways, projects the exact image of the player himself—placid, unassuming, decidedly un-tennis-like. 

For the first time in years, Anderson spent a sizeable amount of time at home this past winter, but it wasn’t by choice. A spate of injuries caused him to retire from first-round matches at the Australian Open and in Delray Beach, the site of his practices while home. He then withdrew from the Indian Wells and Miami Masters events due to a lingering shoulder injury that hindered his often potent serve.

While rehabbing his shoulder in March, Anderson opted to have minor surgery on his left ankle in order to alleviate the pain in his knee—and, hopefully, prolong his career. He turned 30 in May.

“I don’t think the age thing is a big deal,” Anderson says of the milestone. “Besides, every year my birthday is the weekend before Roland Garros, so I’ve yet to celebrate. When I’m done playing tennis I’ll have about 16 years worth of birthdays to catch up on.”

The 6'8" Anderson, a self-described late bloomer, had a career year in 2015. He won his third ATP title, reached two other finals and made his first Grand Slam quarterfinal in 32 attempts with a four-set win over Andy Murray at the US Open. In October, he became the first South African in nearly 20 years to break into the tour’s Top 10.

“In terms of goal-setting, even the Top 10, it’s something I’m aware of, but it’s not in the forefront of my mind, Anderson says. “The idea of getting out there and improving and doing everything I can to be the best player I can be is enough to keep me motivated.”

With a giant serve—he’s hit nearly 5,000 aces over a 10-year-career—and a big forehand, Anderson has beaten the players he should, but he has struggled against higher-ranked opponents, especially in high-stress environments. Last year at  Wimbledon, Anderson had Novak Djokovic on the ropes in the fourth round, leading by two sets before falling 7–5 in the fifth. It was the seventh time in seven tries that Anderson had lost in the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament.

“He’s an incredibly hard worker and he’s willed himself into being a good pro,” says ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who, in a post-match interview, begged Anderson to show some emotion after his win over Murray. (He politely declined the bait of tearing off his shirt and roaring to the crowd.) “His serve is phenomenal, but can he break enough when he plays the big guys?”

It is his return of serve, as well as his movement, that Anderson still feels need improvement. And then there’s the elephant in the room. For the past two years, Anderson has worked with sports psychologist Alexis Castorri, whose past clients include Murray and Ivan Lendl.

“The mental component is huge,” Anderson admits. “The muscles in your forearm don’t know if you’re two sets to love up or down. It’s only your mind that’s trying to make sense of it, and the messages that it sends. So I’ve learned that the more you can be quiet in your mind, the better. It’s all a big balancing act.”

***

Anderson was just 7 years old when apartheid was officially abolished in his homeland. He and his younger brother, Greg, were raised in upscale Hyde Park in Sandton, an affluent suburb of Johannesburg. His parents, Mike and Barbara, owned a successful accounting firm and were club-level tennis players who introduced their boys to the game on a backyard court. Though a bit rusty and worn down, it would dry in 10 minutes after a rainfall because of the many cracks in its hard surface.

Coached mainly by their father, the boys would play against each other and then hit against a big concrete wall, pretending to be Andre Agassi, whom they saw on video hitting against a wall at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in faraway Florida. They would eventually rank among the top in their age groups—“Kevin was always better,” Greg notes—and were both recruited to play college tennis in the U.S. Greg went to the University of Kentucky and then Morehead State; Kevin followed fellow South African, coach Craig Tiley, to the University of Illinois.

“Kevin has always kept an unassuming, low profile,” says Greg, now the director of the Armonk Tennis Academy in New York. “It’s an innate personality type. He has an old-fashioned, disciplined game style and always plays within himself. That’s why his progress has been steady and gradual.”

Anderson thrived in the two-and-a-half years he spent at Illinois. He was named an All-American three times, won an NCAA doubles title and led his team to a runner-up finish at the 2007 NCAA Championships. Off the court, Anderson studied liberal arts and business, and he met Kelsey O’Neal—a golfer who was majoring in finance and accounting—during a mandatory athlete study hall. They hit it off and were married four years later.

Kelsey now travels full-time with her husband on a team that includes Castorri, coaches Neville Godwin and Jay Bosworth, and physio Carlos Costa. Kelsey is responsible for such tasks as booking flights and accommodations to managing the budget. She and Kevin, along with his former coach, G.D. Jones, also recently launched a website, realifetennis.com, that uncovers training techniques and tactics used by top pros, and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the sometimes secret lives tour players lead.

“There is a big side of Kevin that people, except those closest to us, don’t get to see,” Kelsey says. “He is a lot more intellectual than people give him credit for. He likes to get to the bottom of things and see how they work. He picked up the guitar and was playing it within a month. He reads all the time. There is a definite disconnect between his on-court persona and his real-life one. He’s not a dumb jock.”

That’s a fact not lost on Anderson’s tour colleagues, who voted him to be a member of the ATP Player Council. As such, he is responsible for helping to sort out some of the sport’s biggest messes, including the recent match-fixing scandal and the ongoing issue of performance-enhancing drug use.

“Regarding match-fixing, I have a strong viewpoint that it’s pretty black-and-white, and there’s no room for leniency,” says Anderson, who says he was once approached to throw a match at a low-level tournament, which he refused to do and immediately reported it to officials. “With drug testing, there are a few more gray areas, and that’s where it’s tricky.”

A few months ago, Anderson was at a pharmacy looking for something to quell a nagging cough. The over-the-counter medicine he almost chose contained an ingredient that could have forced a positive drug test and gotten him banned from competition. As such, Kelsey checks every ingredient on every label, even the powder on a can of protein used to make smoothies at a tournament concession booth.

Anderson, who has lived in the United States for 11 years, is in line to receive his U.S. citizenship later this year. But he has already decided that he will not represent his adopted land in either Davis Cup or the Olympics, both of which he has already played under the South African flag. Despite his time away from Johannesburg, he still feels very much tied to his homeland, preferring to watch cricket to baseball and even importing such native delicacies as Biltong, a salty dried meat similar to beef jerky—only better, he insists.

***

Anderson acknowledges that there are disadvantages to not being an outgoing, overly popular player on tour, like being assigned to outer courts or getting less desirable playing times.

“The top guys play every single match on center court, which plays different and which has Hawk-Eye,” he says. “I’m on the outside courts, and then when I do get on center court it’s a very different feel, and that’s a bit of an unfair advantage for the top players.

“Then, when I’m at the Grand Slams, instead of being in the big press room, I’m in a little cubicle with just a few people,” he adds. “At times I feel like there should be a big interest [in me], but it’s never been a goal of mine to act in such a way as to get that attention.”

There are those, like Gilbert—and even Anderson’s brother Greg—who would love to see Kevin let loose every once in a while. It’s not likely to happen, at least not on court.

“I’m definitely more personal and interactive than what people see on the tennis court,” says Anderson, moments before zipping off in a white Porsche 911 GTX, part of a sponsorship arrangement with a local dealer. “Maybe I’m stoic in my expressions, but I want people to know that I really enjoy what I do and I take it seriously.

“But, off the court,” he adds with a smile, “I’m really friendly and I enjoy my time with family and friends. At home, I can be quite a goof.”


Originally published in the July/August issue of TENNIS Magazine. 

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