Kevin Anderson and GD Jones first met in 1999 while competing at an international junior tennis tournament in France.
Tennis wasn’t the only sport that bonded this pair of newly acquainted 13-year-olds.
“We played cricket trivia games for hours,” Jones recalled recently.
“I would ask sports questions to GD and another person who was with us,” said Anderson, who quickly figured out that “GD’s sporting knowledge is way more than mine, and anybody else I know, for that matter.”
It was the start of a friendship that time and distance could not separate, even after these two ultra-competitive athletes squared off a few weeks later in another tournament.
“Unfortunately for me, I lost,” Anderson said. “Our only competition match (ever). GD has bragging rights.”
Neither could have known then that they would become teammates at the University of Illinois. Or that years later still, New Zealand native Jones and South Africa native Anderson would enter into a new phase of their relationship — that of coach and player on the pro tour.
That development took place in December, when Anderson and Jones agreed to team up once more.
“GD is an incredibly thoughtful and hardworking individual,” the 28th-ranked Anderson said. “I know that he is always thinking and looking for ways to help me improve as a tennis player. He has had similar ambitions to me when it comes to tennis, so I feel he can relate to me very easily, and vice versa.
“Having one of your best friends work with you makes it a lot of fun, as well. We have a lot of respect and understanding for one another.”
Each received a glimpse of their current working relationship while they were Illini teammates. In 2006, during the fall of his senior season, Jones was sidelined while recovering from groin surgery. To UI coach Brad Dancer, it only made sense to put his knowledgeable veteran to work as an unofficial assistant.
“I valued his insight, and in addition, everything he had done leading up to that garnered tremendous respect from his teammates,” Dancer said. “He is a natural leader, so the players on the team his senior year looked to him for guidance on many matters, but especially his understanding of the game of tennis.
“He helped guys with technique, tactics, and especially (an) individual’s emotional makeup during competition.”
In the process, Jones made a discovery.
“I really started to enjoy (coaching),” he said.
Although Jones’ own playing career was far from over then, it was on the clock.
In the spring of 2007, he and Anderson helped 10th-ranked Illinois march all the way to the NCAA championship match before No. 1 Georgia finally derailed the Illini’s title hopes.
Following that tournament, Jones and then-junior Anderson both turned pro. The former played on tour for about two years before an all-too-familiar malady struck in the summer of 2009.
“I hurt my groin again very badly and was basically forced to retire,” Jones said.
The UI speech communication major returned to school, but this time closer to home. It was while earning his MBA at a university in Australia that Jones began to coach his younger sister, Sacha, who was playing on the Women’s Tennis Association tour.
When Sacha was idled by injury in 2010, GD worked with Anderson in an unofficial coaching capacity during a few tournaments. Even when Jones resumed coaching Sacha following her recovery, he stayed connected to Anderson, serving as occasional practice partner and, in Jones’ words, “an unofficial tennis adviser.”
Then, last December, Anderson made a major career decision, parting ways with his coach — fellow South African Louis Vosloo. During their collaboration, the 26-year-old Anderson won two ATP World Tour titles and cracked the top 30 in the world rankings.
“I learned and improved a lot with Louis as my coach,” he said. “We had a great run together. At the end of the last year, though, I felt that a change could be good — having a few different ideas, a different voice, if you will.”
That voice would be a former teammate.
“I had worked with GD for bits and pieces in the prior three years, and I knew that we worked well together,” Anderson said.
So far, it’s been hard to argue with the results. Anderson won seven of his first nine matches in 2013 while attaining a career-high ranking of No. 28. After finishing second in the Apia International at Sydney, Anderson became the first former Illini to advance to the round of 16 at a Grand Slam event.
Anderson’s Australian Open run included a five-set battle against 24th-ranked Fernando Verdasco in which he twice rallied from a one-set deficit to pull out the victory.
It wasn’t until Anderson met No. 6 Tomas Berdych that he was ousted.
Remarkably, the right-hander accomplished what he did in Australia despite an injured right elbow. In December, an MRI exam showed loose bone fragments in the joint. Shortly after the Australian Open, Anderson underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove the pieces and smooth down bone in the elbow.
He currently is rehabbing in Auckland, New Zealand — Jones’ hometown — and hopes to return to competition by no later than late February for the Delray Beach (Fla.) International Championships. Anderson is the defending champion, and it’s the site of one of his two career ATP titles.
It’s clear that Anderson’s and Jones’ time together at the UI provided the cement to a relationship that goes beyond most coach-athlete ties.
“I think we bonded over our love for the game of tennis and our mutual work ethic,” Jones said. “More importantly, though, is that we were a part of a team that created friendships that will last over the course of our lifetimes, and that was a very special experience.”
Those experiences created a hefty helping of unforgettable memories. Jones’ favorite regarding Anderson occurred during the 2007 NCAA tournament.
A Sweet 16 match between Illinois and Mississippi was tied 3-3, with Anderson and his opponent still locked in a three-set battle on a steamy day in Athens, Ga. The first two sets were decided by tiebreakers. Then, with Ole Miss’ Erling Tveit noticeably tiring, Anderson seized the deciding set 6-3.
It’s then that things really got interesting.
“Kevin was so strong in the third set that when the match ended, the Ole Miss coach demanded that the referee test Kevin’s Gatorade bottle for some sort of magic potion,” Jones said.
Anderson’s favorite recollection of Jones’ Illini career happened in the 2005 USTA/ITA Indoor Championship. Matched against No. 1 Baylor in the semifinals, Illinois trailed 3-2, with Jones facing defending NCAA champion Benjamin Becker. Jones came through with a two-set victory, winning the second in a tiebreaker. It was then that Anderson truly comprehended just how competitive Jones was.
“What sticks out in my mind is the passion and determination GD played with,” Anderson said.
At the time, Jones was under the mistaken impression that the outcome of his match would decide the team winner. In fact, another match was still unfolding and the Illini would end up losing to the Bears 4-3. Still, Jones’ reaction immediately after knocking off Becker still sticks with Anderson.
“I could see in his celebration how much it meant to him, both from a personal side and a team standpoint,” Anderson said.
Competitiveness is one of the traits that Anderson has long admired in Jones. And it’s one of the attributes Anderson took into consideration when he decided to ask his ex-teammate to be his coach.
“He is a very ambitious, deep-thinking, hardworking person,” Anderson said. “We relate to each other on many different levels. I’m always looking at improving. G has helped me along that road, both physically and mentally.”