Kevin Anderson: London Calling at Last

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Victory over Nikoloz Basilashvili in the first round in Vienna did not come easily for second seed Kevin Anderson. That cannot have been a surprise for the South African; Basilashvili was arguably the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw and won ATP 500 titles this year in Hamburg and Beijing, where he beat Juan Martin del Potro in the final. He also gave World #1 Rafael Nadal a real match in the fourth round at the US Open last month.

In short, he had the quality to give Anderson a serious test and that is exactly what he did. In the first set, Basilashvili’s penetrating hitting kept Anderson from deploying his own big groundstrokes as effectively as he usually does and exposed his slightly lumbering movement and the Georgian deservedly won it 6-4. The pressure did not let up in the second set either as Basilashvili forced a match point up 6-5 in the tiebreak.

But Anderson held firm, winning three points in a row to wipe out the match point and then claim the set. That seemed to break Basilashvili’s spirit and Anderson controlled the decider to emerge a 4-6 7-6 6-3 victor and take another big stride towards securing qualification for the ATP Finals for the first-time in his career thanks to another excellent win in what has been unquestionably the best year of his career.

The highlight was, of course, his run to the final at Wimbledon, which marked his second appearance in a Grand Slam final (US Open 2017), but that was just one of many fine results Anderson has delivered. He also won his fourth Tour-level title at the inaugural New York Open and reached finals in Acapulco and Pune, as well as semifinals in Madrid and Toronto and quarterfinals in Indian Wells, Miami, and Shanghai.

It might be assumed that it has been his serve that has fired him to such success and there is no doubt that it is a major asset for Anderson. He has served, on average, 16.7 aces per match this season, which is the fifth most on Tour, and he has won 88.9% of his service games, which puts him in sixth place on Tour. But to reduce Anderson to just his serve would be to dismiss his considerable abilities from the back of the court. Abilities that separate him from the Tour’s other big men.

For example, the ATP ranks Anderson as the 82nd best returner on the Tour, having taken into account the number of points won against opponent’s first and second serves, the percentage of return games won and the percentage of break points taken. Unsurprisingly, the top of the return rankings are dominated by Nadal and Djokovic, and Anderson is not even close to touching their numbers.

But he does have a noticeable advantage in every returning category over the his fellow giants, such as John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, who are 94th and 95th, respectively, and the only players with an overall return rating lower than 105. Anderson, in contrast, has an overall return rating of 124.2, putting him at the lower end of the pack, but still comfortably inside it–unlike Isner and Karlovic who are someway adrift of most of their colleagues.

That serves as evidence of Anderson’s impressive versatility and his ability to beat opponent’s with more than just his serve. Indeed, one might fairly argue that he has much in common with the big-hitting and dependable former World #4 Tomas Berdych as he does with Isner or Karlovic. Much like Berdych, he is capable of summoning fearsome power from both his forehand and backhand, whilst also being able to rely on both as trading shots.

That is not to say that his game is complete. His movement, though impressive for a man who stands 6’8” tall, can be exposed and his volleys leave much to be desired. And against the best returners and defenders such as Djokovic, who has won seven of their eight meetings, Murray, who owns a 6-2 advantage in their head-to-head, or Nadal, who Anderson has never beaten in five attempts, the South African tends to struggle badly.

But that should not takeaway from the many upsides to Anderson’s game nor the impressive work he has done to establish himself as a top ten player at this late stage in his career. That is a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he missed much of the 2016 season through injury. Hard work, grit and quality have turned Anderson into a force to be reckoned with on the ATP Tour. And as a result, sooner rather than later, he will claim his spot at the O2 Arena in London for the last big show tennis has to offer in 2018.