When he exited March’s Miami Open in the second round, Kevin Anderson realised it was the right moment to call time on his 15-year professional career.
He may have taken a few more weeks before announcing his retirement but the 35-year-old South African revealed he had been mulling over the idea for a while.
“For many months I was continuing to play even though I felt my sheer passion and determination weren’t maybe quite there as they had been before,” the two-time Grand Slam runner-up said from his home in the American state of Florida.
“After Miami I realised it had been slow progression over the last few months. It’s been a tough couple years for me. I’ve had multiple knee surgeries, but not just physically – mentally and emotionally, it’s been challenging.”
However, Anderson toyed with the idea of making a last appearance at a Grand Slam – where his best run was when finishing as a runner-up at both the US Open, in 2017, and Wimbledon, a year later – before bowing out.
“It crossed my mind to play one more big tournament but my whole career has been focused on training professionally, being prepared for tournaments and wanting to do well,” he said.
“I knew it was time to step away. For me not to be fully vested in the competition and prepared and just to go and play at, say Wimbledon, for the sake of doing it one more time would not be who I am as a tennis player and I’m okay with that.”
A succession of injuries and operations eventually took its toll on the big-serving South African, who reached a career-high ranking of number five in July 2018 – the highest by an African since the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) started their ranking system in 1973.
A combination of inactivity and early exits from tournaments saw him slide out of the top 100 in April last year.
The big rise of ‘Big Kev’
Having come through the US college system, Anderson turned professional in 2007 at the age of 20.
During his career he won seven ATP titles, starting with the South African Open in his home town Johannesburg in 2011 and ending with the Newport Open title in July 2021.
Without detracting from his ATP victories, his biggest achievements were undoubtedly reaching two Grand Slam finals within the space of a year.
First he lost to Nadal in the 2017 US Open decider after becoming the lowest-ranked player, at number 32, to reach the men’s final.
Ten months later, he succumbed to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final after eliminating the eight-time champion Roger Federer in the quarter-finals and John Isner in an epic semi-final that lasted six and a half hours before Anderson prevailed 26-24 in the final set.
While he may well have gone on to win a few more titles had he not played in the same era as some of the game’s all-time greats like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Anderson feels privileged to have competed against the trio.
“It’s been challenging playing against them – both my Grand Slam finals were against Nadal and Djokovic, two guys who had been in that position many, many times before,” he said.
“It was definitely a hurdle but it’s been great to be part of this, being able to take the court multiple times against some of the best players to ever have played our sport.”
Backing the next generation
As the long-time flag bearer of South African tennis on the international circuit, Anderson feels comfortable about handing over the baton to 25-year-old Lloyd Harris, who has been a fixture in the world’s top 40 since reaching a career-high 31 last September.
“I’ve always felt it’s a great honour to be the number one player and to be my country’s representative,” Anderson said.
“Now that I’m on the outside I’m a big fan and supporter of Lloyd. He needs to do it for himself and when he takes care of that, he has the added benefit of being the country’s flag bearer in tennis. Hopefully he’ll be able to do that for many years to come.”
As for the next chapter in his life, Anderson sees himself coaching juniors. Taking a long-awaited break from the punishing travel schedule of the professional circuit precludes him, for the immediate future, from thinking beyond working with young players.
He is also keen to help the growth of the game in his home country.
“I will be looking at finding ways to give back both to South Africa in general, but also to the tennis programmes there,” he added.
“I’m involved with being the ambassador for the Rising Star Challenge so hopefully, we’ll be able to continue to grow that. I guess with my schedule being a little bit more free I might be able to get even more involved in the programme. Having initiatives like that in the country means a lot to me.”
Launched in July 2019, the Rising Star Challenge aims to increase youth participation in tennis via a national primary school’s challenge that includes schools in historically disadvantaged communities.
With Anderson’s input, perhaps South Africa will not have too wait too long for its next Grand Slam finalist.