With Memorial Day on the horizon, so too is the start of the big-time tennis season. Three major championships will be played as the pros jump from surface to surface, starting this Sunday on the clay of Roland Garros in Paris.
But come July, some of the world’s best will bring tennis to Philadelphia – albeit on a much smaller stage.
For the 18th consecutive year, World TeamTennis will return to Philly as the Freedoms are set to play a half-dozen matches at St. Joseph’s Hagan Arena. And as in years past, WTT will feature several top-ranked professionals, both male and female, playing alongside some younger and less experienced teammates as they all transition from the grass courts of Wimbledon to the hard surfaces they’ll play at the U.S. Open.
In 2017, the Freedoms featured Hall of Famer Andy Roddick and Americans Sloane Stephens and Donald Young. This time around, the 10th-ranked Stephens is back, but Philadelphia’s WTT team will have a little international flair with South Africa’s Kevin Anderson joining for a pair of matches.
Although Anderson, 32, has never visited the city, he is already looking forward to the chance to get away from the usual monotony of solo competition.
“It’s something different,” Anderson said by phone from Europe. “Tennis is an individual sport, so playing in a team environment, I’ve actually enjoyed. … It fits in nicely with my schedule, too. Transitioning from the grass to the hard courts and doing so in a competitive environment like World TeamTennis is good, and I think I’m just excited to do something different.”
It wasn’t until 2004 that Anderson first visited the United States. The then-18-year-old took a tour at Illinois, where he later played college tennis, and competed in the U.S. Open juniors tournament. In January 2005, he joined the Illini and eventually helped the team to a runner-up finish in the 2007 NCAA tournament.
At that point, Anderson made the choice to turn pro, and now, 11 years into his career, the 6-foot-8 righthander has reached his peak. Anderson is ranked No. 7 in the world and seeded sixth at the French Open, and he made it all the way to the U.S. Open final last September before falling to Rafael Nadal in straight sets.
“When I got back on the practice court [after missing the Australian Open last year], I felt like I was hitting the ball great,” Anderson said. “It was tough for me to find that sort of confidence and rhythm on the match court. It was only at the beginning of the clay-court season when I finally started putting together some results.
“Going into the summer, I felt things pick up quite a lot. I made the finals in Washington, the quarterfinals of Montreal. I felt really confident with my game. You never know what’s going to happen at a Grand Slam — there are a lot of matches, a lot of tennis; it’s a two-week event. All you can do is deal with what comes your way on each and every single match day.”
In many ways, World TeamTennis is nothing like the usual professional match. Beyond just the complicated scoring system, the unique combination of singles and doubles and quirky little rules, there are also the gaudy multi-colored courts on which matches are played.
Yet one familiarity for Anderson is the team atmosphere, something he thrived in at Illinois.
“The reason I went to college was to further develop my game and get ready, so I feel like the whole time I was at Illinois was preparation and setting the groundwork for me to turn pro,” he said. “Right off the bat, college is such a great training ground for so many people, and that’s why I’ve been such big advocate of college tennis. … It was a huge stepping stone for me.”
After playing one season with Sacramento and then two with Washington in the following years, Anderson hasn’t participated in WTT since 2014.
Now, he’ll get the chance to play for an “icon” in Billie Jean King – the Freedoms’ owner and tennis legend – while preparing to better his best-ever Grand Slam finish and keep his recent rhythm rolling.
“It’s a special time of the year,” Anderson said.