Inspiration can only get you so far…


In the case of Gael Monfils as far as to round three…

After a rousing victory over Thomas Berdych, where, having won the first two sets, Berdych pulled back to level the match but using the crowd to lift him, Monfils found the inspiration to break Berdych and win in the fifth.  Two days later, Monfils dropped the first set against Gulbis but went on to win in four.

Today, the delightfully entertaining Monfils came up against Tommy Robredo, an experienced and talented Spanish player, who, like Monfils, has also had his day in the top ten and is at home on the clay.  Again Monfils was inspired in winning the first two sets but, tiring, he dropped the next two.  This time there was no reprieve for the clearly drained Monfils.  Despite having match points and serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth, the tenacious Robredo broke serve and leveled the match.

Despite a return to form for Monfils in the run up to Roland Garros, winning  a challenger and being runner up in Nice, spending most of the last year out with injury is no preparation for a series of best of five sets and Monfils eventually ran out of steam, dropping the fifth 6-2.

 “I have to give him credit because I think I wasn’t shy,” said Monfils. “I went for my shots. I missed maybe some, but some he played good points. It was very close. And when you lose a match, you’re not happy. But you can always find something positive in the match.

“Maybe today he was physically fitter than me. It is frustrating, because I don’t like to lose matches for physical or fitness reasons. But today I have to admit he was stronger.”

The 31 year old Robredo is no spring chicken himself and has been on something of a comeback march, rising from 114 at the start of the year to 34 currently.  However, an advantage he clearly had over Monfils was fitness, or endurance.  While Monfils was visibly struggling during the final set, Robredo was able to take advantage.  The physically better prepared Robredo held firm.

Are banks like the club hacker when they should be more like Federer?


French Open day four and another sublime performance from Federer, dispatching Somdev Devverman for the loss of just four games.  Federer was in no mood to hang about, breaking Devvernan in the first game, though Federer, in going for his shots was also making unforced errors.  With many of his points coming from Federer’s mistakes, it is tempting to liken the Indian to the professional game’s equivalent of the club hacker, though probably unfair.

For those who play tennis, facing the club hacker can be something of a nightmare.  He or she is the one who runs everything down, aiming just to get the ball back into play – they seem to make few mistakes, mainly because they don’t take risks, frustrating many a seemingly better player into making mistakes.

The COO of a major investment bank a few years ago likened many of his directors to club hackers – in the cultural environment they were in they were frightened of making mistakes and therefore of taking risks.  Of course the environment has got progressively worse, with increased regulatory pressure and continual rounds of cost cutting, the fear of raising one’s head above the parapet is common in many large firms.  Unfortunately banking is about taking risks but not only are many frightened of any risk, accompanying this is an increased unwillingness to take ownership for results or deliverables.

Such environments do not foster growth, in contrast Federer, particularly among the top players, gets the results, accompanied by more errors than the other members of the top four, because he takes risks.

Roland Garros – the first three days


Well, we’ve had three days of Roland Garros, with some great clay court tennis, the odd upset or two and my Tennis for Free dream team isn’t doing too well.

A history of achievement builds confidence and the reverse can also be true – two impressive performances from players ranked just outside the top 50, one playing the greatest clay court player in history, in Rafael Nadal, the other taking on the world number one, Djokovic.  In yesterday’s match, Daniel Brands, a German ranked 59, played sensational tennis to win the first set against Nadal, and was up 3-0 in the second set tie-break, before Nadal finally ran out the winner in four sets.

Djokovic was also pushed by the Belgian, David Goffin, taken to a tie-break in the first set.  With Goffin playing exceptionally well, Novak managed to win the critical points and ran out a winner in three relatively tight sets. When faced with a lower ranked opponent playing out of their skin, particularly as happened with Brnads against Nadal, going for big forehands at every opportunity, the top players don’t panic.  Occasionally, it the lower ranked player causes a major upset, as happened for Nadal against Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last year.  However, more frequently, the experience and ‘having been there’ many times before pays off.  Federer said earlier this year that over his career of over a dozen years in professional tennis he had faced most situations possible on a tennis court so never panicked and focused on working out a strategy to overcome the challenge in front of them.

While it may be nice to have a quick win and get back in the locker room, the top players thrive on the challenges that opponents provide them.  Witness Tommy Haas, still playing amazing tennis at 35, loving being out there, whether he’s playing another experienced pro or using his experience to counter an up and coming ‘young gun’.

On the other hand, players like Goffin and Brands may find it easy to motivate themselves against one of the world’s famed top four opponents but they also have to learn to play at that level and win consistently.  Without that building that consistency, when facing the top players doubt is always not far away, particularly in tight situations.

There seemed to be no such doubt in the performance from Gael Monfils, in overcoming Berdych yesterday.  Monfils, having been out with injury for most of the last year and a ranking down at 81, was one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw.  Unlike Brands and Goffin, Monfils has proved himself against the top players, with a career high ranking of seven.  He took the first two sets against Berdych, playing some amazing tennis.  Berdych, being the competitor he is fought back to take the next two sets, both on tie-breaks.  A lesser player may have been dispirited but Monfils used a partisan French crowd to lift him towards the end of a tight final set, winning 7-5.  Monfils did not lack doubt and it was a memorable battle between two big hitting players, even if Monfils has a worse sense of colour co-ordination than I do.

Management – culture comes from the top


So we’ve had the send-offs, even if the Premier League season is not quite done – we’re not yet certain who the third team to be relegated will be and who will be the fourth team to qualify for Europe.  However, we’ve had the send-offs for Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and his replacement David Moyes at Everton.

On the other hand, a year after winning the Premier League, finishing runners up in the League and the FA Cup has cost Mancini his job at Manchester City.  Expectation, when the club has wealthy and impatient owners is, as has also been seen at Chelsea, impossible to satisfy continually.

According to some, Mancini’s man management style cost him his job.  Former City defender, Danny Mills, told the BBC “There wasn’t the togetherness between player and manager. Basically, he just ignored players from day one. He was the manager, he made decisions, he made no attempt to have any sort of relationship with the players, didn’t take them under his wing.”

Mills added: “You need to understand the players, you need to know what makes them tick. You have never heard the players come out and back their manager and that sticks in the mind. You cannot come out and criticise your players publicly. Arsene Wenger doesn’t do it at Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t do it at Manchester United. We know he kicks boots, or gives them the hairdryer, he might even have had the odd punch-up, but in public he protects his players.”

Former City player, Dennis Tueart, also castigated his man management style, again talking about his tendency to hang the dirty washing out in public.

Despite a wealth of talent there has been a lack of consistency at City this season, the players have performed exceptionally on odd occasions but far too many times, including the FA Cup Final on Saturday, they have looked disjointed.  What a contrast with the performance of Everton on Sunday, with a limited budget David Moyes has developed a team who play with fluency.  His biographer states that “Moyes wants to know the individuals he manages, and he requires them to play as a team.”

We’ve talked about the ability to adapt recently, where the focus has been on individual ability to adapt.  However, for Ferguson and Moyes their ability to see the importance of team cohesiveness and to develop it has been critical to their success and may be one of the key reasons why Ferguson recommended Moyes as his successor. Their ability to adapt the team, both in the context of setting up the team for a particular opponent, or during the match by altering the shape of the team, has been key to success and those notable occasions, in the case of United, that they have gone on to win with late goals.

Moyes keeps lengthy dossiers on players. When buying players, Ferguson does extensive research on target players.  The reason for this depth of research is simple: when bringing someone into the heart of the team, the manager needs to know who that person is, and what type of impact he might have on those around him.  Their may be an existing team culture but each change to the squad impacts that to some degree, so if the cohesiveness of the team is to be maintained the manager needs to know what the impact of the change is likely to be.  In the case of United, when players have threatened to disrupt that culture negatively the manager has shown them the door.

Raise a Glass to Sir Alex and Learn from his Management Skills


So, like a bolt from the blue and having recently written about his adaptability, Sir Alex Ferguson has finally decided to call it a day. Given his unparalleled record in football, with a 38 trophy haul over the last 26 years at Manchester United, what can we learn from his management skills?  Here are ? qualities that stand out:

1.     Adaptability

As it was put in one of this morning’s many articles, despite his age, “Ferguson was never a managerial dinosaur”.  We may never see the like again in English football but his longevity and success during that period speaks volumes for his ability to adapt to the changing face of the world game.  When he first took charge at United in 1986 it was before the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent Taylor report and the onset of all seater stadia, before the onset of Sky and the money from satellite television.  In an era where top flight footballers were well paid but not the global celebrities that now exist, earning many times more than their manager.

United, like many football clubs had a drinking culture among players, who traditionally trained in the morning and had the rest of the day free.  Footballers are now highly trained, fit athletes, who train longer and are kept fit and healthy by the use of the latest in sports science and medical knowledge and technology.

2.     Never Stop Learning

As with health and fitness, tactics and performance are analysed relentlessly.  From sending Brian Kidd off to investigate what football clubs were doing in other countries early in his tenure, Ferguson has continually looked to learn and gain whatever advantage he can in what he gleans from others.

3.     Humility and Putting the Team First

It might be thought unusual to talk of Ferguson as humble but without humility it is difficult to learn.  It’s also been the cornerstone to the way he always puts the team first.  When they perform well he praises the team and individuals, he virtually never singles out players for public criticism but keeps that to the dressing room.

4.     Making the Difficult Calls (with consistency)

Putting the team first has also led to him ensuring that everyone knows who’s in charge. As far as he’s concerned the buck stops with him, so he has to be in charge.  When anyone disrupts the team spirit, or goes against him they rarely last long, however, high profile – ask David Beckham, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Ruud Van Nistelroy! It’s a team game and no individual can be seen to be bigger than the team.

5.     Building a Culture of Ownership

In doing this Ferguson has also built a culture of ownership of their performance – when they have a bad day there are no excuses – the players and the manager own up.  Excuses limit the ability to put things right.  This season United had a very poor defensive record early in the season, Ferguson frequently spoke about it and talked about putting it right and they have – they have had twice as many clean sheets from January to April as they did from September to December last year.

So this evening raise a glass of the good old vin rouge to Sir Alex, as he’s about to enter his retirement. (And maybe Ole Gunnar Solsjaer is an outside bet as the next manager!)