Pune: Kevin Anderson can be the poster child for late bloomers in sport.
The South African reached his first Grand Slam final at the age of 31, broke into the ATP Top 5 at 32 and capped a career-best year at the age when many players would be considered past their prime.
He is also the anomaly in a sport where the achievements are measures in terms of trophies, not ranking.
He has two Slam runner-up plates but is yet to make a final at the Masters 1000 and his biggest title is an ATP 500 won in 2018. He qualified for the year-end ATP Finals last year, the first when he won more than one trophy. He has won only five titles in his career, finishing as the runner-up 13 times, including at the Maharashtra Open last year where he went down to an unseeded Gilles Simon after winning the first set.
Yet, Anderson is perhaps the most improved players in tennis today, and has the potential to win a lots more. While he showed that he can be consistent throughout the season in 2018, the 32-year-old has a long way to go to start winning more trophies.
Talking about his season, the top seed at Maharashtra Open said that while he was happy to tick off the goals he had set for himself, the time is now to aim higher.
“Highlight for me during 2018 was to achieve some of the goals I had set for myself, specifically making London year-end finals, winning more than one tournament in the year, winning a 500, and of course making another Grand Slam final.
“In 2019, I hope to continue pushing the boundaries. A big goal of mine is winning the Masters series, being in the finals there, and giving myself a shot at another Grand Slam... I am right there and I feel like I am ready to take the next step,” he said in Pune.
The next step, is of course, a Grand Slam title. Yet, it is the unlikeliest in this era of tennis where only five people have won more than one Slam in the last decade.
Anderson himself has faced two of these behemoths in the two finals he has played: losing to Nadal at the 2017 US Open and Djokovic at the 2018 Wimbledon.
Yet, of all Slam runner-up players in the last couple of years, it is Anderson who has regularly shown the ability to dig in and win big matches, as we saw at Wimbledon where he stunned defending champion Roger Federer from two sets down. He would have had a better chance in the final, if not for a marathon against John Isner in the semis which eventually forced Wimbledon and also Australian Open to change their fifth set tie-break rules.
Can he win a Grand Slam title?
Can he cross the hurdle if he got a third chance? What does he have to do different to play, and win, more big matches? Anderson has a detailed answer to that.
“The biggest stage is where you have to treat it like any other tennis match, you can’t let the opponent or the occasion get the better of you.
“I feel like both matches I have played, I haven’t been able to play the tennis I am capable of playing. The closest I came was the third set against Novak at Wimbledon this year when I finally settled down and played the tennis I should have played from the beginning of the match. Not that it’s going to guarantee me a win by any stretch but is going to give me a chance of being competitive. Obviously getting there is a challenge in itself but once you’re there, just feel you need to be more comfortable,” he replied
The 2019 season is primed for change on the ATP Tour. While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic continue to occupy the top three spots, neither has had a strong end to their year and there is a chance that the hegemony at the top of tennis can be dented by a crop of ever-improving players.
Anderson believes that this is year for change and puts himself in the group of players who can effect it.
“It is going to be a tough competition but there are a lot of challengers who set high goals. I think I am in that group of players with the same goals as me who are trying to make that breakthrough. In terms of Grand Slam wins, it has been the same group of people but I wouldn’t be surprised if this year we may be see some changes,” he said.
At Pune, where Anderson is the top seed and the top draw after Marin Cilic pulled out, he has a strong chance to start his season with a trophy. He reached the final last year but lost steam against the then world No 89 Simon. Last week, he lost to Djokovic in the final of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, an exhibition tournament he was the defending champion at.
“Abu Dhabi is an exhibition but people are playing hard, very competitive matches, so [Pune] is a good transition and it worked out well heading down to Australia,” he said.
The top seed will open his campaign against Serbia’s Laslo Djere on Wednesday and has a relatively easy path to the semi-final, where he could get a rematch against third seed Simon.