Once upon a time, South Africa was a nation rich in tennis players. They had their legends - Cliff Drysdale, Johan Kriek and Kevin Curren - who on any given day could rule the tour. For South Africa it was the best of times. On their heels came the 'Super Squads', wolf pack teams of the country's elite players, who were sent on missions to conquer the tennis world. Soon, there were 14 players ranked in the world's Top 100. Tennis was so good in South Africa that they even had a tour called, The Sugar Circuit, a series of ATP Challenger tournaments, strung out along the South African coastline, where a man could strike gold in the form of ranking points, without ever even boarding a flight. Then, one day, change swept across the nation.
"When I was around 14 years old, I remember watching local televised events in South Africa, which had the likes of Lan Bale, David Nainkin, Piet Norval and Neil Broad," recalls Kevin Ullyett. "They were all still in the juniors then, but competing with the top South African men of that time. From that came the likes of Wayne Ferreira, Marcos Ondruska and Grant Stafford."
"Their life was a dedication and commitment to tennis day by day"
But the Tennis gods would not rule in favour of South Africa. Rather than continued blessings, a curse would rain down on the country. The rand, South Africa's currency, would begin to devalue making international travel for its players extremely difficult. Tournaments began to disappear and so did the rich supply of tennis players.
But a new day has dawned on South Africa, and all things considered tennis fans have reason to smile again. A new breed of players like Rik de Voest, Izak van der Merwe and Raven Klaasen are making their mark on the ATP World Tour. One standout star is Kevin Anderson. Armed with a hard-work ethic and a big-gun serve, Anderson has climbed his way up the ladder into the Top 30 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings. The big man from Johannesburg has made it known that he is a clear and present danger at the majors.
His story features a familiar plot in tennis; a driven father who dreams that his boys would use tennis as a vehicle to prepare them for a better life. In the words of Anderson's mother, Barbara, "their life was a dedication and commitment to tennis day by day."
Greg and Kevin in 1994The Anderson family story of success is one that never tires the true tennis fan.
It all started with a simple piece of string and an old tennis ball. A contraption that they called appropriately, Swingball. Quickly, the two little brothers became experts. They would soon outgrow the primitive game, so their father, Michael, went to work building a wall for his two sons, Kevin and Greg. It was the countless hours - no, days, weeks and months - of hitting against the wall that the dream was borne.
"(Mike) was their constant companion and coach on the tennis court," says Barbara Anderson. "Often there were times when Mike had to literally pick them up off the court as each brother had wanted to hit the last winning shot."
It is late Christmas Eve in the Anderson home and Michael Anderson is thumbing through the pages of a tennis instruction book preparing the next days' practice session.
"I remember that dad had this book that was falling apart and he had cellophane tape holding the pages together he had used it so much," remembers Anderson. "It was Total Tennis Training, by Chuck Kriese. That was the book that he read the most."
And total tennis training his boys surely got.
Next morning, Christmas Day came early for the Anderson boys at 7 a.m. Except they did not look under any trees for presents, but rather across the net from each other. Any gifts that they got on this morning would come in the form of a tennis ball.
"College tennis was one of the best times of my life"
"The children used to practise at their school, Saint Stithians College," remembers Barbara Anderson. "It was Christmas Day and Kevin, Greg and Mike were on the court. Their grandmother and I were on the sidelines picking up balls. Then, all of us sat down to our Christmas lunch, courtside, of watermelon. The day finished at about 4 p.m. Then we enjoyed our Christmas dinner in the evening."
"My dad used to play a bit himself," says Kevin Anderson. "He was self taught, read a lot of books, watched a lot of videos. He has played the biggest part of my tennis career. Growing up if the practice was two or three hours, we would often spend the first hour just doing footwork and shadow strokes. We spent a lot of time swinging in front of the mirror. I still do it today. Especially, if I want to work on a few things."
The years would pass and by all estimates Kevin had a solid junior career. But he was not ready to make the jump to the professional tour. So he took a safer route and accepted a college scholarship from the University of Illinois, where he was coached by fellow South African, Craig Tiley.
Anderson would earn various honours in the US collegiate system, but the real goal for the Anderson was to make his mark on the ATP World Tour.
"College tennis was one of the best times of my life," claims Anderson.
Anderson, March 2008, Las Vegas"Kevin went the route that some South Africans take and that is to go to a US college for a couple years," says Ullyett. "I think most South African tennis players are late developers and have their best results in their career mid to late 20s. Kevin and Wes Moodie prove that well as when they hit the tour they seemed mature and had a good base from the college years."
John de Jaeger, South Africa's Davis Cup captain, has known Kevin since he was a teenager. "I knew when he was still in the juniors that he was going to be a great player," says de Jaeger. "He had the work ethic, the mind and the weapons."
It is the topic of work ethic that keeps coming up when Anderson is discussed.
"I feel that every day is an opportunity to get better"
"I remember, once, at a tie with the Netherlands, which we were in playing in Potchefstroom, South Africa," begins de Jaeger. "It was winter and very cold. The team had already finished practice and Kevin, the mental coach and I were walking back to the hotel when Kevin said he did not feel comfortable with his serve. He said he wanted to practise more. So we went back to the courts and Kevin practiced his serve for another 45 minutes. Kevin will go all the way to do any work that will make him a better tennis player."
Fellow South African and Davis Cup teammate Rik de Voest agrees with de Jaeger. "He (Anderson) knows what works for him and he gets it done," de Voest says. "He is extremely disciplined in his routines and practices. He knows that a serve alone will not win him matches, and he has worked a lot on his movement and ground strokes."
"I am pretty structured," admits Anderson. "I feel that every day is an opportunity to get better. I take pride to work hard. Overall, it is a fairly consistent balance between sharpening my strengths and improving my weaknesses. However, in matches I am trying to work on letting that creative side come out more."
Anderson celebrates victory over Roddick in Beijing, October 2011.It is the 2011 China Open and Andy Roddick and Anderson are set to meet in a couple of hours in the first round. Like most players before a match, Anderson is in the gym. But not the gym at the Beijing Olympic Green Tennis Center. Rather, the EyeGym, an online visual training program.
"If (Kevin) feels that it will get him just one per cent better, he will do it," says Anderson's coach Louis Vosloo. "His attitude for improvement is almost unparalleled. We have more of a problem with him doing less than doing more. To give you an idea of Kevin's dedication to tennis, last week in Auckland [at the Heineken Open], we were on a mission to find some special type of vinegar because it will help his digestive system. We were driving all over the place, in a little rental car, looking at several maps. What I would like to say is that Kevin will do whatever it takes to be the best he can be at every level."
These days, Anderson has found himself between a rock and a hard place. Embedded in his subconscious is the belief that only extreme hard work will produce improvement. Sheer hard work got him to this level.
"From a young age it was instilled by my dad that we need to work hard to achieve our goals," says Anderson. "But nowadays, I have to monitor my training and make sure I don't overdo it. But at the same time you have to put in the work. I don't think that there are any shortcuts. There is a fine line between continuing to work hard and also being smart with your body."
"Times like that you don't really need to say anything"
"He is used to practising four hours per day," says de Jaeger. "But now, with his knee problems, he is going to have to get away with two hours. He will have to be very smart how he handles his body."
"He does a lot of goal setting and has high motivations for achieving them," says Vosloo. "The best part of working with Kevin is his ability. It is gratifying when you do work on certain aspects of his game and over time and they become a reality. Kevin is still a way from his ceiling. He is more comfortable about where he is on the tour, and that he belongs where he is at. I don't think that he is someone who has overachieved his ability. I think that he is someone who will go much higher."
AndersonAnderson proved last year at his hometown tournament, the SA Tennis Open, how high he could go by winning the his first ATP World Tour singles title.
"There was so much time and effort when we were kids that winning the title was really gratifying," confesses Anderson. "My dad watched at home on the TV, only a few minutes away. We spoke immediately afterwards. It is one of those things where you don't have to talk a whole lot, because you know all the things that went on behind the scenes. So much time has been spent and the emotions were very high. Times like that you don't really need to say anything."
Says Ullyett, "South Africa is crying out for a tennis star and I think Kevin has a chance of revitalising the kids there to go and hit balls. He shows them that you don't have to be a world beater at 17 years old or bleeding your parents dry financially at an academy. You can work hard in your own time, finish your schooling normally, even study in the United States and still have 10 years out there on tour. Kevin epitomises the phrase, 'It's not how you start, it's how you finish.'"
It has been 18 years since Anderson won his first trophy in Playball, a balls skills and mini-tennis program, that little he was enrolled in with his brother. An infinite amount of hours and shadow strokes later, it is his father's turn to be proud of a job well done.