I wrote this analysis right before the 2011 US Open.
It provides an insight into Kevin Anderson’s journey to the 2017 US Open Final.
It is never an easy conversation to talk with a player after they lose a match.
Emotions get involved, judgement is clouded and opinion seems to take on more importance than fact. But after a loss is actually the most fertile time that change can occur.
The road to becoming a successful tennis professional is a long and winding one, but quite often you can trace the real success back to a moment in time, and nearly always that moment is after losing a match.
The first round of the 2010 $50,000 Challenger of Dallas seems an unlikely starting point for the recent rise up the rankings of South Africaʼs Kevin Anderson, who is currently ranked #35 in the world and is a genuine dark horse at the 2011 US Open starting next week.
Kevin was ranked #133 in the world in Dallas, and drew #458 Bobby Reynolds in the first round. There were a few factors in Kevinʼs favor that made him a solid favorite to win this match. At 6ʼ9”, he is the 3rd tallest player on tour, and Dallas was an indoor event – an obvious advantage for a tall, big-serving player. Bobby had not played a match in 6 months as he was coming off wrist surgery. Bobby was definitely not at the top of his game, and this was not the kind of opponent that was going to give him the rhythm his game desires.
Somehow, someway, Kevin found a way to lose the match.
It was one of those weird sporting contests where Bobby was behind for 99% of the match, but stuck his nose in front right at the finish line to get the win 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3). The whole match felt like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Bobby kept hanging on for dear life, and Kevin always seemed a point or two away from a comfortable victory, but kept sabotaging himself. Kevin looked lost, unsure of the best way to maximize his talents and Bobby knew that if he get one more ball back in play, extend the rally just one more shot, he would always be a chance. Make no mistake about it, Bobby did not win this match – Kevin lost it.
I first met Kevin in 2004 at Wimbledon, where he was competing in the juniors. We touched base again during his college career at the University of Illinois, and I had followed him closely once he arrived on tour. I had seen him underachieving for a couple of years, and this match confirmed what I felt – he had no idea how to construct points. I talked to Kevin after the match against Bobby and suggested we meet the following morning for breakfast before he flew out to the next tournament to lose the next Bobby Reynolds.
Breakfast with Kevin provided all the answers to my questions.
I asked him to talk about the match against Bobby and explain why he lost. He started talking about himself and his shots – Strike 1. He then talked about not knowing the right way to play Bobby – Strike 2. Lastly, he could not specifically identify why he lost the match – Strike 3.
Within 5 minutes, it was easy to identify why Kevin was struggling so much with his career. He had no patterns of play, he did not understand the percentages of the game, and he had no clue what the strengths of his game were. I could see it during the match, but he clearly confirmed over breakfast a career in serious trouble. Tennis is part chess and part poker, and Kevin didnʼt know the rules to either one.
The truth is that most professional tennis players are just like that – great hitters of a tennis ball, but very poor students of the game. One thing I have learnt from the pro tour in the past 16 years is there is a massive disconnect between a playersʼ ability to hit a ball, and their understanding of where it should go and why.
I thought for a few moments, and figured out the best way to direct the conversation about his tennis career. It was time for a “come to Jesus” talk.
“Kevin, you donʼt have to be good at everything, but you have got to be good at something,” I said.
“You have got to be good at serving, returning, and getting to the net, and to hell to everything else. If you excel in those three areas, thatʼs enough to take you wherever you want to go.”
He sat silent and listened.
“You have no idea what you are doing out there. What I saw yesterday was a disaster. Things have got to change, and they have got to change right now otherwise you are going to be permanently stuck outside the Top 100, and thatʼs not fun.”
He nodded, and knew more was coming.
I said I was going to grade him on the only three areas that mattered in his game – serving, returning, and getting to the net.
“With serving, I give you an F,” I said.
“Come on now, thatʼs a little harsh,” he responded.
I said I could not identify his serving patterns, and that he was continually chasing low percentage targets on big points and giving Bobby looks at his second serve. He was not serving to locations to open up other spots later in the game. It was obvious he gave no consideration to where Bobby thought he was serving, was not serving to a spot so it came back to his strength, and did not consider the score nearly enough when deciding on speed and location.
“You get an F with serving.” I said again.
“With returning, you get another F,” which was met with mild hostility. I explained to him that he did not step up into the court and attack second serves, which was critical to breaking Bobbyʼs serve. “Your backswing is too big, you are standing too far back, and you are going for low percentage targets. There is nothing I liked about your returns in this match.”
Kevin was clearly not expecting a disection of his loss over a glass of orange juice and a breakfast burrito.
“Lastly, you get an F for approaching, which was the easiest to grade,” I said. “You were not looking to approach at all against Bobby. He is better than you from the back of the court, but you kept looking to outhit hit from the baseline. You should have come to the net 50 times in 3 sets, but you would have been lucky to come in 10 times. An easy F there.”
Kevinʼs relaxing, pre-flight breakfast had just been turned upside down.
Itʼs not often a player will get such a straight-forward assessment of their career, but since I was not his coach and risked losing my job, it was easy to let him know where he stood with his game. To Kevinʼs credit, he took it well and wanted more.
I started to drill deeper into his psyche to figure out why his game was such a mess. I said he needed to hit a lot more forehands in rallies instead of backhands, especially as the first shot after his serve – which I call Serve + 1.
Kevin was not so agreeable in this area. In fact, he argued that his backhand was his stronger shot and that he should definitely not be running around it to hit forehands. He was willing to accept that his game should revolve more around his serve, return and approach, but he was ready to defend hitting his favorite backhand at all costs.
Unfortunately, Kevin had not done his homework.
This was a discussion I had had hundreds of times previously with players at all levels of the game, and one that I was well prepared for. For years I have been compiling data on the effectiveness of forehands versus backhands, and the evidence could not be more black and white. Kevinʼs view was about to dramatically change.
“So you really like your backhand?” I said.
“Yes I do,” he defiantly responded.
“Ok, letʼs see how much you like your backhand in 5 minutes,” I stated.
I opened up my Mac and showed him the research from 200 matches from the pro tour. These were matches from the top 10 players in the world – lots of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Soderling, Ferrer, Berdych, Fish etc.
“These statistics come from the best players in the world,” I told him, “and even more importantly, the best backhands in the world.”
Then I let him have it. His backhand was under serious fire.
The first statistic showed that 75% of all baseline winners were forehands. It clearly gave the proof and evidence that forehands were the more dominant shot from the back of the court, and backhands only accounted for 25% of baseline winners.
The second stat showed forehands account for 53% total errors and backhands 47%. You can basically call it a 50-50 wash, since there are more forehands hit and the numbers are so close anyway.
We then looked at total forehands. On the last shot of the point, 66% of the time it will be a forehand error and 34% of the time it will be a forehand winner. That may not look so good for forehands, but if you put it in baseball terminology, batting .340 makes you a major league all star with a multi-million dollar contract. The forehand is exactly that.
Our last stat was total backhands. This was where Kevinʼs ship was ready to sink. On the last shot of the point, the backhand produces an error 84% of the time, and a winner only 16% of the time – less than half that of the forehand. Ouch.
I sat there in silence and let Kevin absorb the numbers. I had completely taken the guess work and opinion out of the conversation. What he liked no longer mattered.
I then said “how do you like you backhand now?”
He looked at the computer screen for a few more seconds and then smiled and said “not as much as I did five minutes ago.”
We both laughed and then discussed the statistics that would shape his current run into the Top 40 in the world. We finished by highlighting the importance of hitting a forehand as the first shot after the serve. The data I was analyzing all pointed to this as a major tactic from the best players in the world. Kevin was currently accepting a ball hit to his backhand off the return as a backhand.
I said that had to stop that immediately and he had to run around it where possible to turn it into a forehand. I told him it would turn a neutral backhand into an offensive forehand, it would double to triple his target area since he could now take it down the line, and it would freeze his opponent like a banana daiquiri – giving them no anticipation to where the shot will go.
A few months later, Nadal would hit 89% forehands as the first shot after his serve in winning the 2010 Wimbledon final against Tomas Berdych in straight sets. Nadal only hit a backhand 6 times in 3 sets as the first shot after his serve, and it was a major tactic for him to keep control in the rally and win the final.
Kevinʼs recent climb up the rankings can be contributed to many small improvements in his game, but our breakfast conversation was the catalyst that started the climb. I worked with Kevin all of 2010, and he hired Louis Vosloo as his full-time coach, which was desperately needed. Louis has done a magnificent job of nurturing Kevinʼs rise up the rankings.
Sometimes breakfast fills your stomach. Other times it fills your mind.