Reflections on an Old Codger!

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Well, several days after Fed won his 18th grand slam singles title I am still awe struck by the achievement.

Two old codgers got to the final, perhaps aided by early exits of the top two players in the world, Murray and Djokovic.  However, they both had to play some amazing tennis, including numerous, draining, five set matches, only to end up playing a final over five sets with tennis of exceptional quality.

So, how do measure Federer’s achievement?

Nadal is five years younger than Federer, a youthful 30, however, with his recent injury problems he struggled for form and consistency in the second half of last year but found it at the Australian Open, getting to the final.  This is unsurprising, in most sports you would expect players coming back from injury to take time to build form and consistency.

Federer, at 35, is nearly five years older than Nadal.  He hadn’t played a competitive tournament since Wimbledon in mid 2016 – so over six months out, following a knee injury.  He has managed on his return:

  • To win a slam, winning seven matches over two weeks, with three of the last four matches going to five sets!
  • Became the oldest winner of a grand slam singles title since Ken Rosewall won the Australian in 1972 at the age of 37
  • He overcame a player, in Nadal, who has had the psychological edge on him since at least 2008 and who, despite struggling with form last year, at least has had competitive time on the court in the last six months, as well as being significantly younger.

All this having just returned to competitive tennis having had six months out. Whatever the quality and experience of Federer, his achievement is remarkable.

History must have weighed heavily on Federer’s mind as Nadal came from two sets to one down and break Fed in the first game of the final set and as he failed to break Nadal in his next two service games, despite having numerous break points.  On a number of occasions in the past Federer had played out of his skin, only for Nadal to get under his skin and come back to win.

Federer persisted in playing positively and pushing, ending with him winning four games in a row from 3-2 down to come back and win the final set and the trophy.

At an age when many players would have settled on their laurels, or hung up their rackets and moved on, Federer is still competing at the highest level.  He has had to continually adapt and innovate – rather than following the trend and stepping back on the court to give himself more time, he has stepped in with the aim of taking time away from his opponents.  In 2015 the sneak attack by Roger appeared (SABR), as he stepped in, using his remarkable racket head control and reading of the serve to attack the serve of top opponents – in the main this was successful, other than in the US Open final of that year, when he encountered an inspired Djokovic, who he had beaten with similar tactics in the previous tournament.  He continues to use the court as well as any player, with a variation and invention matched by no other current player.

 

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The Edberg Effect…

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The Australian Open has seen some great matches and some interesting developments.  Following Murray winning two slams with Lendl in his team, Djokovic has taken on Becker and Federer has hired Edberg.

Thus far Djokovic fell earlier than expected and Federer, while getting to the same point as last year fell in straight sets to Nadal.  At 32 Federer taking on Edberg is indicative that he is still looking to improve and in one interview was quoted as saying that he still expected another big thing around the corner.  Is it blind ambition, not recognizing that advancing years are limiting his ability to deliver wins against the very best, or can he really win another slam?

I have my doubts that he can maintain the levels of mental and physical energy required to win seven matches over two weeks that is required to win a slam, however, the hiring of Edberg has helped in a number of ways.

Edberg won all four junior grand slam events in 1983 and Olympic tennis gold when it was an exhibition event for under 21s in 1984, illustrating his potential as future slam winner.  While he won his first two slams in Australia in December 85 and January 87, it was at a time the Australian was seen of lesser importance than the other three (which led to the change from end of year to start of year).  Edberg was seen as mentally suspect by some, Becker for one voiced it prior to Edberg beating him at Wimbledon in 1988 (ironically against Becker).

One of the things that changed with Edberg in the late 80s was his body language (physiology influencing psychology perhaps).  Watching Edberg immediately after the conclusion of a point it was often impossible to tell whether he had won or lost it.   It is a classic way of managing your mental energy and staying present.  Top players use a number of techniques, having routines between points to ensure that they tune out of the last point and focus on the next.  In recent years the current golden generation of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, were all good at this, other than Murray, until he took on Lendl.  Murray could, at times, be seen to get distracted when things were not going, something that has improved since he’s worked with Lendl.  It was something that seemed to be impacting Federer last year, his worst year since he came to prominence over a decade ago. I believe this was something that led to Federer not being effective in staying present.  So what is the benefit of Edberg to Federer?

1   While Federer may have been beaten by Nadal in straight sets in the semis, it was a Nadal playing out of his skin.  Federer did not play badly.  Indeed Federer played some of his best tennis for some time (he maintained ever but I’m not sure about that), in getting to the semis, beating Tsonga and Murray on the way.

2.     Edberg’s experience of changing his demeanour to enable him to focus more effectively and stay present would have been a valuable help to Federer, given his problems last year to enable him to get back on track mentally.

3.     Reminding Federer that his natural attacking instincts have repeatedly reaped rewards, from somebody who has won in every major arena other than Roland Garros provides a level of support that may well have provided additional psychological help – Edberg got to the final at Roland Garros playing serve and volley, even if he didn’t win.

Having the right support is critical and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the tennis year pans out.

Managing Momentum…

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So another Aussie Open has come to an end, with good, if not great, finals in both the men’s and women’s events.  In the women’s final Azarenka prevailed after dropping the first set against Li Na, while on Sunday Djokovic beat Murray in a hard fought battle, also after dropping the first set.

For Djokovic and Murray two hard fought tie-break sets, with Djokovic prevailing in the second after Murray had won the first, were followed by two more straightforward sets for Djokovic, as he gained the ascendancy and closed out the match 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-2.  Murray had had his chances early in the second, where playing some magnificent tennis he moved Djokovic about and created opportunities to break serve but was unable to convert them.

In both finals the loser had an injury time out, Li Na needing two after falling, Murray taking one at the start of the third set for a blister.  Neither player attributed their loss to the injury and indeed their is a challenge for both players in a match when there is a time out to maintain momentum. Tennis at this level is a game where the players rhythm is a significant factor and an injury time out or a bathroom break can disrupt it, the danger is for both players and often it is the player who manages their own momentum following a break that disrupts the normal flow of the game  that prevails.

Famously, in the 2011 French Open men’s final Roger Federer was playing phenomenal tennis and leading 5-2 in the first set when the king of clay, Rafael Nadal called for the trainer.  Following the time out Federer’s level dropped slightly and Nadal won the set 7-5 and the final in four sets.

It is not uncommon in the professional game in a hard fought match for a player to take a bathroom break after a set, when in the heat of battle and the heat of an Australian summer it is potentially likely that they don’t have a physiological need for it.  It serves as a time out, a longer version of the use of time between points and games, to allow them to re-focus for the next phase of the match. However, it can also serve to disrupt the other player, it becomes a challenge for the player not taking the break to use that time productively, in order to maintain their momentum.  Nadal is an example of a player who is the master of managing his own time as well as being able to disrupt the momentum of his opponents.

Managing our time and momentum is a challenge during the working day, particularly when we’re at the behest of others.  There are numerous tactics we can employ, including staying in the present, using time productively within the constraints of the situation and recognising what elements of the situation we can and cannot control.

Challenges improve performance…

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Today we saw another great match in the men’s draw, as Andy Murray battled to a hard fought win over Roger Federer, for a place in Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.  In the build up there was some discussion as to whether the relative challenges that both men had faced as they advanced through the draw would play a part.

Murray was seen to have had the easier route and had sailed through to the semis without losing a set.  On the other hand Federer was seen has having a challenging draw, Davydenko in the second round, Tomic in the third and Raonic in the fourth.  The first of these an experienced campaigner who has been playing well of late, the other two up and coming young guns keen to make their mark and, in the case of Tomic, a local favourite happy to get into mind games with Federer.  In each case Federer had dispatched them all in straight but competitive sets, coming up against an in-form Tsonga in the quarters who he beat in five sets.

On the other hand, while Murray’s first round against Robin Haase was a potential banana skin, one he overcame straightforwardly, he faced a series of players he was expected to beat.  Even former top ten player Gilles Simon in round four was visibly fatigued, having come through a long five setter in the previous round, and was easily brushed aside.  So when it came down to it Federer was the first big test that Murray faced.

Of the two Murray was clearly the stronger for much of the match but it was interesting that the two tie-breaks Federer won and when Murray stepped up to serve for the match at 6-5 in the fourth Federer was able to raise his game to break. Incidentally, Federer has the highest career tie-break win ratio at .655, though without hard figures I would take a guess that it’s higher in slams.  Federer, at 31 must surely have been impacted to some extent by the five set match in the previous round but was still competitively sharp in the tie breaks and managed to take an in form Murray to five sets.  Agassi had commented before the match that he doubted that the 31 year olds legs would carry him past Murray and so it turned out.

In the women’s draw there is another interesting observation about how challenged some of the competitors have been.  The two women who won most 6-0 sets, Serena Williams (4) and Maria Sharapova (5) both lost before their seeding (and many pundits) suggested – Williams in the quarters (though she did get injured) and Sharapova in the semis.

In looking at Sharapova’s draw it’s interesting to observe that she did not have any significant challenge until the semi-final match she lost to Li Na.  Before losing to Li Na in the semis she beat the following:

R1 Olga Puchkova 6-0 6-0

R2 Misaki Doi 6-0 6-0

R3 Venus Williams 6-1 6-3

R4 Kirsten Flipkens 6-1 6-0

QF Ekaterina Makarova 6-2 6-2

The lack of challenge in previous rounds may well have been a factor, despite losing 6-2 6-2 in her post match interview Sharapova said that she had her fair share of opportunities but when games went to deuce or she had break points she wasn’t able to take them.

We all need to be challenged, or exercised to improve and it is not always pleasant.  There is actually a Biblical principle of being exercised unto Godliness, which involves learning from the Bible how to deal with situations.  It’s also true in the work place that we need to be challenged in what we do to improve.   Growth, or improvement , takes place in incremental steps, we don’t suddenly become a different person.  While for tennis players they can assess their performance by the score, how they hit the ball and move around the court, in order for improvement to take place in other environments we need to get feedback and reflect on our performance in challenging circumstances. We need to determine what our measure is and assess ourselves against it.

It may be seen to be like any other form of exercise, for example using muscle builds it and if it’s not used it wastes.  We need to seek those challenges that stretch us little by little to improve our capability.  However, you can’t leap to world beater from beginner in one go – don’t expect to go on the tennis court any time soon and compete with Andy Murray – unless you’re Novak Djokavic of course!

Play the point you’re in …

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So yesterday we witnessed one of the great matches of this years Australian Open, as Roger Federer was taken to five sets by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.  It was the first time Federer had his serve broken in the tournament (he was broken five times during the match) and the first time he had dropped a set (Andy Murray now remains the only player left in the men’s draw not to have dropped a s et). This was not because Federer played poorly.  Indeed the quality of tennis remained high from both players for most of the 3 ½ hours plus of the match.

After a previous match, in the on court interview, Jim Courier asked Federer whether he was a player who came to the match with a plan or was a point by point man.  Federer responded along the lines that he believed in playing to his strengths and that he played each point as it comes.  In fact, like all top players he does come to the court with a plan but in execution he recognises that you can only win the point you are in, so you can only play the match point by point.  So the key to great performances is to stay present.

How do top players like Federer do this so effectively so that he can play at such a high level for a sustained period of time?

Jim Loehr observed in the 70s that the difference between those at the very top in tennis and lower ranked professionals was not their playing technique but what happened between points.  The very top players had rituals between points that helped them stay focused and in the present.  Today these are taught at all levels but what happens between points is still critical.  For example when preparing to serve many of the top men will take three balls from the the ball boy/girl and give one back, they then embark on a pre-serve ritual, which in some cases (Djokovic for instance) can seem to take an age and involves bouncing the ball umpteen times.  Often after a point a player will play with his or her racket strings.  So what does this do?

In short, the purpose is to tune out of the previous point and then to re-focus for the next point – back to the mantra “you can only win the point you’re in”.  Players may walk back to the baseline to prepare for the next point and play with their racket strings or have some other device that helps them tune out fo the previous point.  The pre-serve ritual or receiving ritual is about re-focusing for the next point.

How can this help us – well in sport and particularly tennis, most of us find that making a mistake impacts the next point.  Often the score impacts our mental state – 15-30 down we might be worried that losing the next point will leave us break point down.  Of course we need to focus on the point we are about to play, not on the consequences of winning or losing the point.  We also need to ensure that if we’ve just made a mistake we recognise it has passed and we now need to focus on where we are now.

This is similar to lots of situations we face that cause us stress, where we are not focused on the present but future situations, which might not happen.   Or when we have made a mistake and we spend time worrying about and its consequences, rather than recognising that it’s done and we need to move on recognising where we are now.  When the top players make a the mistake, in the main they get it out of their system straight away, they don’t spend time blaming themselves or others.  It is part of their ownership of the situation that allows them to do this.  There is no time for blame.

So how can this be helpful for us?

Well, to perform well we need to stay present.  To do that we also need time to be able to reflect and de-tune from situations and have time to prepare to focus on what we are about to do.  Often in corporate environments people rush from meeting to meeting, playing catch up, with little time to prepare and focus on the aims of what is happening and then fail to take time to reflect on the outcome before the next meeting.  Attendees, particularly of meetings by conference call, are often “attempting” to multi task.  Consequently, the vast majority of corporate meetings are far less productive than they could be.

Remember to stay present – play the point you’re in!

Belief is critical…

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So today in Melbourne Nicolas Almagro (world number 11) stood on the verge of his first grand slam semi-final, up two sets to love and serving for the match at 5-4 he failed to close it out.  He also had two more chances to serve for the match in the fourth set, yet lost to David Ferrer in five sets.

That Almagro  had a 0-12 record against Ferrer and had missed match points against him in Madrid and Cincinnati previously might well have been playing on his mind.  The 12-0 record was almost certainly a factor in Ferrer being able to come back and win, despite his play being error strewn through much of the match.

Belief is such a major factor in determining outcomes, just as is fear, uncertainty and doubt (but more of that in a later post!).  A Spanish tennis coach provided an anecdote last year of when he was working with an up and coming player and came with him to England for the grass court season.  He invited a friend who was coaching in Germany to accompany him.  After a couple of weeks the friend observed “how is he going to believe he can win against the top players if you don’t?” The coach agreed that he had been guilty and subsequently was able to change and the player made substantial and rapid improvement in his ranking.  So it is not just our own belief but those around us that affect us.

Last week, after losing to Federer in the third round, Bernard Tomic commented in his post match interview that he had tried to put out of his mind who was on the other side of the net but that it was extremely difficult, especially as in introducing the players they mention all the slams that Federer has won.  The very top players almost always believe they can and will win.  There are exceptions, clearly at times Nadal has got into Federer’s head, even when Federer is playing exceptionally well.  Going back to Ferrer, his persistence is a factor against most players.  His opponents know that he is phenomenally fit and will run down every ball and not give up until the last point is won.

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Going back to Almagro, it is difficult when a player has such a record against another player – Vitas Gerulaitis never beat Borg in competition but with a 0-16 record against Jimmy Connors going into their match at the 1979 Masters he finally turned it around and won, famously saying:

“And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

So things can be changed around but the participants/players need belief.  It is sometimes difficult in today’s corporate world.  Jim Stoddart observed in a recent Linkedin forum (Programme Managers/Directors) that “It seems to be expected now that big programmes will fail, particularly big change initiatives, so it is discounted from the start.”

If there is this underlying belief then it is difficult to get teams to believe that they will and should deliver on time.  Though it can be turned around but only if those leading the change believe what is planned is achievable and convey this regularly to team members and stakeholders, ensuring all are aligned.

Experience Delivers…

I may be thought of as talking my own book here, as someone with mostly gray hair on my head! However, it was interesting to hear Federer following his win over Davydenko in the week and prior to his third round match with Bernard Tomic.

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When asked to comment on his upcoming match with Tomic he provided some interesting insights as to why, even in the world of professional sport an age old veteran in the twilight of his career still delivers both in performance and result.

While he said that younger players can improve quickly and he indeed he expected him to  be more of a challenge than his meeting with him last year, he stated that he had so much more experience than Tomic.  His experience going back over a dozen years playing at the top level and having completed over 1000 tour matches meant that he had faced just about every circumstance on court, including the intensity of a night session at a slam and the pressure of a five set match.  No variation in length of rally or match would be new to him, he’d been there.

He was acutely aware of the things he could do now against an opponent that he couldn’t do previously.  When thought of as potentially physically weaker a few years ago than the emerging Nadal he had worked on this so that he built an aura of getting stronger through matches. Despite at 31 being considered at or near the end of his career, he said “I would hope I’m a better player today”.  Indeed during the Tomic match commentary on Eurosport, Mats Wilander offered the opinion that Federer’s half volley backhand was definitely one stroke that had improved.

So back to talking my own book in a business context, as someone of mature years, in leading major change programmes my observations are that experience delivers.  Though to clarify, it is a certain type of experience and character – certainly those who’ve seen a range of situations over the years but also continue to learn and innovate to become more effective, to use that experience to meet the challenges that come along, as well as to challenge oneself.  The desire to continue to improve at whatever stage of career is a common characteristic of great performers.