Getting The Basics Right…


I was hoping an end to this tennis year would result in a final at the ATP tour finals between the two outstanding players of the year and possibly of all time, Federer and Nadal.  Especially as I’ve got tickets for the final!

However, while Federer continues to show that at the grand old age of 36 that he can still outsmart the new kid on the block, Zverev, it was sad to see a Nadal, half a yard short on pace on Monday lose to David Goffin and end his season.

One of my rants this year has been to see top players, particularly amongst the women, playing drop shots and staying back. It’s not only the women but some of the men.  When you play a drop shot, good or bad, unless the other player has no hope of getting there, following it in to the net is the smart play.  It’s something that Federer and Nadal just about always do.  In doing so, if the other player only just gets to it you’re likely to have an easy put away and if it’s a poor drop shot at least by coming forward you reduce your opponents options.

Watching some of the matches at the US Open earlier in the year I was shocked at how many drop shots  were played and the player stayed at the back of the court, particularly in some of the later rounds in the women’s singles.

Of course, how we play is contextual, determined by the style of play of our opponents, our own capabilities, whether we are playing singles, doubles, etc.  It was great to see Melo and Kubot awarded the year end doubles number one trophy after their win on Monday night. It followed a routine but well executed win against Granollers and Dodig.

When next watching top doubles players, observe player positioning and serve placement. The vast majority of serves are played down the middle or into the body of the receiver.  Serving out wide in doubles, unless it’s an ace, gives the receiver too many options, particularly exposing your partner to being passed down the line. Top players will, most of the time, aim to control the play when serving by compressing play down the middle of the court.

I was asked on Monday why doubles players touched each other between points. It’s not congratulatory, as it happens whether the point has been won or lost but it’s a routine  and, like many that are now taught in tennis, it has a purpose.  In doubles it primarily emphasises the connection between the players and hence the team element, the players are in it together and the best doubles teams retain constant communication and contact.

While running a large programme team at a large investment bank a few years ago a young technical analyst asked me, referring to some of the senior management of the bank, why such seemingly bright people seemed to lack common sense! The programme had been a basket case and we subsequently turned it around despite the behaviour of some of the people round us.

There was a telling interaction between myself and the analyst not long afterwards that revealed something of the cockeyed culture of the environments we sometimes have to work in. I was on a rolling three month contract and, having restructured the programme and overseen successful deliveries, I informed the bank that I would not renew the next time.  The analyst in question indicated a certain amount of dismay at my imminent departure. When I pointed out that my replacement was highly capable and things were in much better shape he said he understood but that he was bothered because I cared! Now I consider myself a normal human being but not significantly more caring than the next individual, so I asked why he thought that.  He said that every time he saw me for the first time in the morning I said ‘good morning’ and asked how he was and also said good night when he or I left.  I was a little startled, as to me this is normal human behaviour but on questioning further it appeared that previously team members rarely spoke, communicated mostly by email and pleasantries were rare!

It’s not the only time I’ve encountered poor basic communication at all levels in a work context but without getting such simple basics right how can we ever expect to build cohesive teams?

Like players making brief contact with each other in doubles between points, these may seem trivial or minor points but they are an element that can make a significant difference to the functioning and cohesion of a team.

Federer’s Losing It – Because He’s Failing to Stay Present!


Well, for some time folks have been writing off the legendary Swiss, yet he’s still battling the sands of time.

McEnroe once said it wasn’t the physical elements that were the major problem as you got older but the ability to maintain concentration.  Henman, on the BBC last week disputed this, saying that it shouldn’t be a problem, even for Federer to get up for the ATP Tour Finals.  The problem here, however, is that ability to maintain focus is, like any other, something that needs to be practiced and once you start to lose it, it can be habit forming.

The signs are now increasingly ominous for Federer, while Nadal has a far superior head to head record against him (22-10), Federer had never lost to Nadal indoors before yesterday.  That has now gone.

However, while there have been occasional signs of Federer being a tad slower, the lapses have been far greater.  In the last week he’s continued to play some outstanding tennis but the unforced error count has been high.  More telling has been the muttering when things are not going well.  Something that I believe plagued Andy Murray, until Lendl became his coach (it still emerges occasionally) was something that never occurred with Federer.  A mistake or a winner from his opponent and he just got on with the next point, almost with Borg-like serenity at times.

This trait is something that Gallwey, in the Inner Game of Tennis, talks about as a major inhibitor of performance and is often common amongst club players and lesser competitors but rarely seen at the very highest levels of elite sport.  Staying focused on the present, playing point by point, is what makes Nadal and Djokovic exceptional as the top two players in the world currently.  Federer may have another year in him at the top physically but mentally he needs to get back to being able to stay present.

Playing for Perfection


Well, for the first time in his 12 years of qualifying for the ATP Tour Finals it was not until this week, the last possible week, for Federer to confirm his qualification for the season ending tournament.

In Paris the final four almost had a familiar ring, with the top three ranked players plus Federer (down at seven).  Number three, however, is Ferrer, with Murray having slipped to four and taking time out following back surgery.  So Federer, at the tender age of 32 keeps rolling back the years and is still able to compete at this stellar level.  As one of the greatest players in history and with a record indoors second to none, can he be discounted at the season ending finale? And what has made him such an enduring talent?

Firstly, while all four players will want to win their semi-finals and the tournament, they will all have more of an eye on next week at the O2 and will want to make sure they are in the best possible shape.  However, the match between Djokovic and Federer will be interesting to see how they match up at this stage.  While Djokovic and Nadal (back at number one) will be the favourites for next week, Federer, with his impressive record in the Tour Finals and especially at the O2 should not be discounted.  The breaks he’s had this year, together with coming back to something of his best form indicate that he’s likely to get through the group stages to the semis.

So when so few top athletes stay at the top into their thirties, what has made Federer so enduring?  In Rene Stauffer’s  book on Federer, published a few years ago, he made a couple of observations on Federer which are significant.  As a young player, Federer saw his journey as one in which he sought to achieve perfection but realized along the way that this involved taking risks and hence making mistakes.  One may never achieve perfection but by taking such a course e would continue to improve.  Such mentality has also enable him to bounce back and face the challenges that the other members of his golden generation emerged.

The other critical observation was that he also saw others as fellow journeyman, presenting challenges and enabling him to improve along the way.  As such he has relished the competition, seeing it as a means to improve his own game, as his competitors present challenges to overcome, rather than a war in which the person on the other side of the net is the enemy.

As such it provides a pattern for improvement at work also, we all face challenges and the need to improve continues throughout our lives.