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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Kevin Anderson interview: South African determined to make his mark at Mubadala World Tennis Championship

South African’s last appearance in Abu Dhabi in January 2016 ended with two defeats

Kevin Anderson reached his first grand slam final in September at the US Open, losing to Rafael Nadal. Adam Hunger / AP Photo
Kevin Anderson reached his first grand slam final in September at the US Open, losing to Rafael Nadal. Adam Hunger / AP Photo

Kevin Anderson feels he has unfinished business with the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.

The South African will make his second appearance in the capital’s competition starting this week. His previous appearance in January 2016 ended with two defeats, in the quarter-finals in straight sets to Milos Raonic as well as the play-off match for fifth place to Feliciano Lopez.

Shoulder and ankle problems limited Anderson for much of 2016 and having began that year ranked 12th in the world, he would end it at No 67.

After a breakout year in which he reached a first grand slam final though, Anderson is determined lay down a marker when the action begins on Thursday.

"It was a tough week for me," Anderson said of his last visit to the International Tennis Stadium at Zayed Sports City.

"I had a few injuries I was battling through that year at the beginning of the year. So I was able to compete but not play the kind of tennis I wanted to play. So I am looking forward to this year, coming back and feeling a lot healthier and stronger."

If 2016 was a struggle, 2017 was a revival for the 31 year old. After missing the Australian Open in January, he returned to form with runs to the last 16 at both the French Open and Wimbledon. In September at the US Open, seeded 28th, he fought his way through to the final, becoming the first South African in 36 years to reach the championship match at a major. Although he was beaten in straight sets by Rafael Nadal in New York, it capped a remarkable turnaround for Anderson.

"It was a fantastic two weeks for me. It was something I was very proud of to put myself in that position,” the world No 14 said of making the Flushing Meadows final.

"I came up against a tough opponent in the final. I think I learnt some really valuable experiences and I am motivated to get another shot at that.

"You are dealing with a very experienced player," Anderson said of Nadal, who claimed grand slam No 16 with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory. "But that is the nature of our sport. You have to earn those positions against guys who are very experienced and it definitely makes an already tough task that bit more challenging.”

Did losing to the world No 1 and future hall of famer soften the blow of defeat?

"It was a tough match against him. I don’t know if it makes the damage easier [the fact Nadal was world No 1] but I mean, at the end of the day, you just try and treat it like another tennis match and I think there are some lessons I learnt from that and a couple of things I could have done better."

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A potential rematch with Nadal in Abu Dhabi was scuppered on Saturday when the Spaniard withdrew from the 10th edition of the MWTC saying he needed more time to recover from a punishing 2017 schedule. With the draw now wide open, Anderson is looking forward to fine-tune his preparations for the start of his 2018 campaign.

"Once our season finishes in November a lot of players maybe take a couple of weeks off and start training for the next year," he said. "You often usually have only a little time to work on your game and stuff.

"Making that transition from practice to matches, the only way you can really do that is by competing and playing matches so that is why this is such a good opportunity.

"You are guaranteed two or three matches and you know they are going to be high quality matches against some of the best players in the world, so I think that is what really appeals to players and it is obviously a great event and a nice way to start the year."

Nadal’s absence means this year’s field is headlined by Novak Djokovic, the 12-time major winner, with Anderson and three other players in the top 20 - Dominic Thiem (No 5), Pablo Carreno Busta (No 10) and Roberto Bautista Agut (No 20) - as well as promising youngster Andrey Rublev (No 39), all playing for US$250,000 (Dh918,138)

"People are very serious about it and given the timing of the event. Players use it as a key couple of days preparation and everyone wants to maximise it,” Anderson said. “I think a result of it, you could label it an exhibition-style tournament, but it is a very important part of the year and we as players are very competitive."

While Anderson plans to use MWTC to iron out any wrinkles in his game ahead of the first major of 2018, the Australian Open, on January 15, the South African says his main aim for the next 12 months is staying free of injuries.

"No 1 is definitely staying healthy," he said. "That is always going to be the biggest priority. I think when I am healthy it gives me the opportunity to go out there and play the tennis I know that I can play. That was why 2016 was so frustrating, constantly battling small injuries. You also can’t build any momentum or consistency.

"That is definitely the first priority and if I can achieve that then there are a lot of important lessons from the year that I can add to my game that should help me play better tennis.

"I am definitely very excited to continue and even though I will be turning 32 next year I feel I am playing my best tennis and I definitely feel my best results are still ahead of me.”