Is Kevin Anderson Developing Into an Elite Player?

With his upset win over Andy Murray on Monday, Kevin Anderson reached his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal. At age 29, he’ll ascend to a new peak ranking, and with a bit of cooperation from the rest of the draw, one more win could put him in the top ten for the first time.

Anderson has been a stalwart in the top 20 for two years now, but this additional step comes as a bit of a surprise. Despite the overall aging of the ATP tour and the emergence of Stan Wawrinka as a multi-Slam champion, it’s still a bit difficult to imagine a player in his late twenties taking major steps forward in his career.

What’s more, Anderson’s game is very serve-dependent. With an excellent backhand, he isn’t as one-dimensional a player as John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, or perhaps even Milos Raonic, but it’s much easier to categorize him with those players than with more baseline-oriented peers.

In today’s game, it is very difficult to reach the very top ranks without a quality return game. Tiebreaks are too much of a lottery to depend on in the long-term; you have to consistently break serve to win matches. As I wrote in a post about Nick Kyrgios earlier this year, almost no players have finished a season in the top ten without winning at least 37% of return points. Anderson has achieved that mark only once, in 2010. Entering the US Open this year, he was winning only 34.2% of return points.

The only top-ten player this year with a lower rate of return points won is Raonic, at 30.2%. Raonic is a historical anomaly, and as his tiebreak winning percentage has tumbled, from a near-record 75% last year to a more typical 51% this year, his place in the top ten is in jeopardy as well. In other words, the only servebot in the top ten has to rely on plenty of luck–or outstanding, perhaps one-of-a-kind skills in the clutch–to remain among the game’s elite.

Anderson is a more well-rounded player than Raonic, and he wins more return points than that. But he still falls well short of the next-worst return game in the top ten, Wawrinka’s 36.7%. The 2.5 percentage points between Anderson and Wawrinka represent a big gap, almost one-fifth of the entire range between the game’s best and worst returners.

The less effective a player’s return game, the more he must rely on tiebreaks to win sets, and that’s one explanation for Anderson’s success this season. His 62%(26-16) tiebreak winning percentage in 2015 is the best of his career, and considerably higher than his career tiebreak winning percentage of 54%. Again, it sounds like a small difference, but take away three or four of the tiebreaks he’s won this year, and he no longer reached the final at Queen’s Club … or might not be preparing for a quarterfinal in New York.

Very few players have managed to spend meaningful time in the top ten while depending so heavily on winning tiebreaks. Another metric to help us see this is the percentage of sets won that are won in tiebreaks. Entering the US Open, just over 25% of Anderson’s sets won were won in tiebreaks. Only four times since 1991 has a player sustained a rate that high and ended the year in the top ten: Raonic last year, Andy Roddick in 2007 and 2009, and Greg Rusedski in 1998.

In fact, between 1991 and 2014, only 17 times did a player finish a season in the top ten with this rate above 20%. Roddick represents five of those times, and almost all, except for Roddick at his peak, were players who finished outside the top five. Wawrinka’s and Raonic’s 2014 seasons were the only occurrences in the last decade.

The one ray of light in Anderson’s statistical profile this season is a significantly improved first serve. His 2015 ace rate is over 18%, compared to the 2014 (and career average) rate of 14%. His percentage of first-serve points won is up to 78.8%, from last season’s 75.4% and a career average of 75.8%.

This is a major improvement, and is the reason why he is one of only five players on tour (along with Isner, Karlovic, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic) winning more than 69% of service points this year. In many ways, Anderson’s stats are similar to those of Feliciano Lopez, but the Spaniard–another player who has long stood on the fringes on the top ten–has never topped 68% of service points won for a full season.

If Anderson can sustain this new level of first-serve effectiveness, he will–at the very least–continue to see a bit more success in tiebreaks. A tiebreak winning percentage higher than his career average of 54% (though still probably below his 2015 rate of 62%) will help keep him in the top 15. However, even for the best servers, tiebreaks are often little more than coin flips, and players don’t join the game’s elite by relying on coin flips.

As his quarterfinal appearance at the Open shows, Anderson is moving in the right direction. It’s easy to see a path for him that involves ending the season in the top ten. But to move up to the level above that, following the path of someone like Wawrinka, he’ll need to start serving like peak Andy Roddick, or–perhaps just as difficult–significantly improve his return game.

One thought on “Is Kevin Anderson Developing Into an Elite Player?”

  1. It’s funny, but here is one case where I wonder if anecdote doesn’t trump stats – or at least offer a conventional but still valid insight into what will lead to success or failure for a particular player.

    Anderson’s first serve percentage – okay, important. But watching him, it’s painfully clear the biggest obstacle he has faced to date is his tendency to choke, and not just choke a little, but choke very badly. Steve Tignor’s column on his win over Murray focused on exactly this historical issue. Tignor’s story mentions that Anderson attributes part of his recent success to having worked with a sports psychologist.

    So the stats crunching reveals, perhaps, the nature of a player – the particular strengths he or she relies on to compensate for particular weaknesses. But the psychological story may tell more about the player’s capacity for success.

    Take Raonic: Yes he’s a servebot, alas. But when I saw him lose the Brisbane final to Federer, I was surprised to see that once he got down a set, his demeanor changed & so did his tennis. Normally he is a very uptight, rigid player & his groundstrokes express that tension. For whatever reason he loosened up & played great. What I see is a player who won’t succeed regularly until he knows how to limber up, emotionally, so as to limber up physically.

    And regarding Isner – his big wins over Djokovic and Federer involved his willingness to go for broke on returns. When he lost to Federer a day or so ago at the Open, nothing was working for him and his returns did not play a factor. One possibility is that Federer, after the Davis Cup match, has learned to serve differently to Isner to prevent Isner from returning big on his forehand side. Or we could just say Isner was zoning in Switzerland & Indian Wells – but that isn’t saying anything meaningful. What I would rather say is that Isner simply does not have the psychological capacity to sustain risky aggression in his return game; thus he doesn’t practice it often enough to learn what will work & won’t work & hone his return game over time. Compare him to Wawrinka, who many believe has embraced a riskier attitude toward his ground strokes (don’t know about his return game) & accepted the up-and-down results that go with that.

    But anyway thanks as always for the interesting analysis.

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