TORONTO — Kevin Anderson was about to unleash one of his sizzling serves on a practice court at the Rogers Cup this month when a funk-jazz band about 60 feet away suddenly started blaring at a remarkably high volume for a tennis tournament.
Still wearing the hardened expression of a focused athlete, Anderson lifted his head and stared at the band. It appeared to be a look of disgust over a noisy interruption, but when asked about it later, Anderson said, no, it was actually an expression of admiration, not anger.
“They were really good,” he said.
Even though Anderson is a budding musician with a love of good tunes, it was hard to fully accept his explanation. The initial glare he aimed at the band seemed to speak for itself. Still, the whole episode was a good illustration of where Anderson, now 32, finds himself as a player and person on the men’s tennis circuit.
Long considered part of the second tier, Anderson has raised his level of play and narrowed his focus on the ultimate prize — a Grand Slam title — while retaining the thoughtfulness and graciousness that have helped define him in the world of tennis.
That distinct mix was on display last month in his historic victory against John Isner in their Wimbledon semifinal, one of the the biggest wins of Anderson’s career. After capturing a match that took 6 hours 36 minutes to complete and reaching his second major final, Anderson looked almost sad. He removed his hat after vanquishing Isner and frowned.
He was thrilled with the result, of course, but he knew the anguish that the loss would cause Isner, and instead of simply reveling in his own joy, he chose to show empathy for his opponent.
It was an act of true sportsmanship, but there was another element at play, too. Anderson is no longer satisfied in merely reaching a Grand Slam final. Now, it’s about winning one — when he can really celebrate. As he enters the United States Open with a career-high ranking of No. 5, his lifetime goal feels closer than ever.
“Projecting forward to the U.S. Open and next year, I just feel a little more comfortable saying, ‘I’m here to compete for the win,’” Anderson said. “I would have said it before, but now I can say it with more self-assurance.”
That belief comes at the end of a long, steady climb for Anderson, who has reached two of the last four Grand Slam finals, including last year’s U.S. Open.
Despite all the recent success, many aspects of Anderson’s life remain unchanged. He still travels with his wife, Kelsey O’Neal, and their little dog, Lady Kady, to most tournaments. As a longstanding member of the ATP players council, Anderson is actively involved in the issues affecting men’s tennis players. As a citizen of South Africa, he understands his role in the development of tennis there, too. And as an aspiring musician, Anderson often travels the globe with a small electric guitar stuffed into his racket case, and an ear open for any good jams.
In just a few years of playing the guitar, he has developed some strong moves, and during his stay in Toronto, he and Kelsey attended a Taylor Swift concert at the Rogers Centre.
He did not jump on the stage to jam with her band — he may not be at that level yet — but he does know that after his string of groundbreaking results, including a convincing win over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinal that preceded the Isner match, he now belongs on any tennis court in the world against any opponent.
“In this position, I feel quite comfortable,” he said. “I’ve always set my goals and aspirations really high and worked really hard systematically to get there.”
At 32, Anderson still has years left in his career, considering that the game now seems to favor veteran players. And after getting to the highest level, he feels he has shed the feeling of awe that he initially had in those moments.
“Last year, if you had said I’d make two Grand Slam finals, it would be amazing and crazy,” he said. “Once you do it, you realize it’s obviously a great achievement and a lot of great memories, but life and tennis moves on. I built it up a little bit too much in some aspects in my mind of what it would be like.’’
Still, he added, “it was interesting to go through those emotions.”
They were certainly new feelings for a player who has spent much of his career considered a secondary player — the kind that opponents did not want to face because of his booming serve and savvy court awareness but one who rarely advanced past the third and fourth rounds in tournaments. In his first 33 Grand Slam events, Anderson reached the quarterfinals only once, at the 2015 U.S. Open.
But on his 34th and 37th attempts, he was suddenly in unfamiliar terrain. Defying expectations, Anderson reached last year’s U.S. Open final, and less than a year later he was back at the same level at Wimbledon.
He lost both finals to two of the sport’s greats — Rafael Nadal in last year’s U.S. Open and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, and both times he fell in straight sets. Anderson said he always knew he had the game to compete with the best players in the world, but he had to prove it to himself first.
He has long been a dedicated worker, but he noticed that his constant efforts to improve every aspect of his game also sent a subliminal message to himself that he didn’t yet have the skill to win a major title. Now that is changing.
“I feel like in the last year or so, I was able to recognize just how good of a tennis player I am, without needing to constantly work to improve,” he said. “My mind-set shifted where I realized, I’ve got the game and I’m just adding pieces, as opposed to needing to work so hard that you wonder, ‘Is my game good enough to win these tournaments?’”
As he spoke, Anderson wore the clear, self-confident expression of a premier athlete.