Nadal – King of Clay – Experience & timely breaks delivers again!

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So, two of the greatest tennis players of all time continue to roll back the years.

Having renewed their rivalry at the start of the year – with Federer winning in five sets, coming from a break down in the fifth in the Australian Open final. Federer went on to win again against Nadal in Indian Wells and Miami.  Federer has since been out of action but returns this week to grass ahead of Wimbledon.

Nadal has come back to dominate on clay, undoubtedly his best surface, on which he holds a 13-2 head to head with Federer.  Winning 10 titles at a single slam is unprecedented. At the age of 31 he dominated every opponent – not since Borg in 1978 has anyone conceded so few games in winning a slam.  Nadal conceded 35 games through the seven rounds, compared to Borg conceding 32 in 1978. Both players are/were masters of the defensive game.

Nadal does a number of things that set him aside.  His preparation, which appears OCD, is meticulous.  It’s seen on the court in the way he arranges his kit, drinks, etc, together with his step pattern from change overs. It starts before the match in visualisation not just of how he might play the math but of the walk to the court.   Spatially Court Philippe Chatrier is larger than any of the other courts – his experience of it is clearly greater than any and in facing a younger opponent like Thiem, in the semis, he had a significant advantage here in his familiarity with the surroundings.  However, where he’s not familiar he has dealt with that in the past by actually doing the walk to the court and spending time on the court before a match to familiarise himself with his surroundings.

For great performers meticulous preparation is critical – a question for all of us as we go about our daily performances at work, is how much do we prepare, particularly for meetings, or key interactions?

Like all top tennis players Nadal is also an expert at managing his own energy and time – legendary (as with Djokovic) for the amount of time he takes between serves. While this led to a warning from the umpire in an earlier round, the routine he goes through is designed to help him stay present – tuning out of the last point and allowing complete focus on the next.

Additionally, both Federer and Nadal have taken chinks of time off in the past year.  Both acknowledge that this has been a key element in their resurgence.  While my work, as a consultant has allowed me to take breaks (some longer than intended), it’s not the norm in a working life.  Our working patterns don’t readily facilitate the effective management of energy – I often see senior managers go from meeting to meeting throughout the day with little preparation, no breaks and hence little or no time to reflect on outcomes.  It’s a pattern of work that is highly ineffective yet persists.  Jim Loehr, in working with senior executives, observed productivity dropping relatively early in the day as a result of this pattern – rarely do those involved even recognise it.  Long days rarely have a positive effect on output!

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Nadal Record Roland Garros Win Was Well Planned

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We saw one of the culmination of one of the remarkable comebacks in sport on Sunday.  Rafael Nadal lost in the second round of Wimbledon last year and didn’t play competitively again until February this year.  Winning on Sunday was his 12th grand slam trophy and his eighth at Roland Garros, a record at one tournament.

It is difficult to determine who is the greatest, given that the comparison is of players of different eras.  Though among the top players currently, as a result of their achievements, both Federer and Nadal are undoubtedly among the greatest players of all time.

Nadal has picked his come back route deliberately with a focus on this fortnight.  He has only lost once on the clay of Roland Garros, since his debut win in 2005 and ensuring he performed well there would have been one of his key goals for 2013 when he planned his return.  Every tournament he has played, bar Indian Wells (Hard) has been on clay.  Amazingly he won on the hard courts of Indian Wells, beating Federer, Berdych and Del Potro en route. His thinking forward and planning is a lesson for all of us, in determining goals and working out what is the best preparation and route to get there.

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised how Nadal has achieved this.  He is a meticulous planner and also probably the most effective player at managing both his own and his opponents tempo through a match.  It starts from before he arrives on court but is visible from the fussy placing of his bottles on court to the very particular routine he goes through before he serves, all designed to allow him to stay present and focused.  However, he also uses the 25 second time allowance between points to the full, or more!  However, the way he manages this time can also impact the other player.  It was interesting in his semi final against Novak Djokovic that during the third set Djokovic seemed out of it and said afterwards that he felt drained of energy for a time.  It’s not unusual when your natural rhythm is disrupted and Nadal is the expert at disrupting his opponents.

This is something that we can learn from, particularly when running meetings.  How often do meetings we’re involved in drift and the tempo drops – ensuring they are focused and the tempo is managed is one of the keys to keeping people engaged.

Start Fast … Have a Plan

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Nadal does it, Djokovic does it, Federer (on his day) does it better than anyone.  So what is it? Well, the ability to get off to a quick start.  We saw it today with Nadal against Wawrinka and Djokovic against Haas.  Both should have been more competitive, after all Stan had played phenomenal tennis in coming back against Gasquet in the previous round.  However, given he had a 0-9 head to head record against Nadal (now 0-10), I suspect he was always going to struggle mentally to generate enough confidence to compete.

In whatever area, both in sport and business, don’t be like the club hacker and pitch up at the court, hit a few ground strokes, a few volleys, overheads and serves then, without a plan, try and work out how you’re going to win. Be more like the top players, they have already warmed up before they go on court, both having a hit earlier in the day and preparing mentally for the opponent they are about to meet.  The very best, like Nadal, prepare rigorously, planning how they’re going to win before they even step on court.

In “Winning Ugly”, Brad Gilbert covers this subject in the first chapter, ‘The Early Edge’, describing the time when he first emerged on to the tour and he was just doing exactly that, pitching up without a plan, until he learned. “it became obvious to me that for the best players in the world their match had begun a long time before the first serve.  They came ready to play and wanted to grab me by the throat as soon as they could.”  I’m not suggesting that Stan was like the club hacker, far from it – with his coach, Magnus Norman, they would have worked out a strategy for today’s encounter with Nadal.  However, Nadal is better at preparing and then adapting when things don’t go his way.  In this case he put so much pressure on Wawrinka in playing, as he put it in his post match interview, ‘his best match of the tournament so far’.

So be prepared  like Nadal and get off to a fast start.  If it’s in a work context, make sure you know what you want from your day, or meeting and how you need to go about achieving it.

Gone for a Tsonga!

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Well it’s going to be some semi-final.  Tsonga, or Jo-Willy, blitzed the former Fedex in three sets that were not even close.  While against Simon, Fed was able to raise his game, here Jo-Wilfred just kept on hammering away, breaking Fed twice in set three.

While Federer has a record of over the last 36 grand slams reaching the quarter-finals or better, only five of those occasions has he failed to get past the quarters.  On two of those occasions he has now been beaten by Tsonga, the others twice by Berdych and once by Soderling.  All are big hitting, high risk players.  If their game comes off with few unforced errors they are extremely hard to beat by anyone but Federer seems to have had more problems with them than the other members of the top four in the last three years. Indeed all three sets felt a little like the last three in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2011, when Federer was beaten by Tsonga having been two sets up. Three sets in which, it seemed, Tsonga could do no wrong and Federer could not find an answer.  Today there was no lifting of the Federer game in the way he managed in the last round.

So Tsonga goes on to meet David Ferrer, who is quietly cruising through the draw.  Today he met his countryman, Tommy Robredo and dispatched him with ease, 6-2 6-1 6-1.  Ferrer realises that he’s also going to have the crowd against him – “I think it’s quite normal [that] the crowd is going to be supporting Jo,” said Ferrer. “He’s French and I am very happy he’s made it that far. I’ll do everything I can to make it to the final. I have to remain focused.”

Of course Jo-Wilfred is so amazingly popular and continually seems to play with a smile on his face, that even someone as popular as Federer will have the crowd against him.  While watching Jo play Djokovic last year one of my kids mused that he was so popular that even Novak’s coach was cheering him on!

And so to the women – Serena advanced but with a hiccup, losing the second set to the experienced Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Kuznetsova was rolled over in the first set and using her experience she took a time-out – a visit to the bathroom.  Unusual so early in a match but it worked, quickly rolling off the next four games and winning the second 6-3.  What had threatened to be over quickly turned in to a classic, with two experienced campaigners raising their games and Serena running out the eventual winner, 6-3 in the third.

In the other ladies quarter-final played today, the pocket sized and purposeful Sara Errani, came through 6-4 7-6.  At 3-1 down in the second it looked like Errani might be taken the distance but she battled back and took the match on the tie-break to set up another ‘little and large’ battle in the semis against Serena.

Meeting the challenge – again and again!

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Well experience delivers once again –Tommy Haas reached the quarter final at Roland Garros for the first time, in decisive manner against Mikhail Youzhny, at the tender age of 35!

Once seen as a boy wonder and future world number one (he got to number 2 in the world in 2002), a year ago Tommy was outside the top 100, yet here he is, at the tail end of his career, with his best ever performance at the French Open and ranked just outside the top 10.

Today he played extremely well.  Having his serve broken in the first set, he then reeled off six straight games to win the first set 6-1.  With Haas playing well, rather than respond by lifting his game, Youzhny did what so many of us do, in that reeling he looked out of sorts, got angry and making mistake after mistake, going on to drop the second set 6-1.  In the final set Youzhny found some sort of form, making it more competitive but continued to lack belief and Haas ran out the winner in a straightforward 6-1 6-1 6-3 to set up a quarter-final with Djokovic.

Djokovic himself did not looking too convincing, having come through his first three rounds straightforwardly, he dropped the first set in his fourth round match against Kohlschreiber, before running out the winner in four sets.

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Another outstanding match…

On the other hand, Nadal will be relatively pleased, after beating Kei Nishikori in straight sets, he sat back to watch his next opponent, Stan Wawrinka, battle through a five set match of the highest quality.

Richard Gasquet has now lost five grand slam matches having been two sets up but this was no capitulation in the manner of his loss to Murray at Wimbledon five years ago. These two players, ranked nine and ten in the world, gave it their all, with Gasquet winning the first set tie break, having looked second best throughout the set, he then looked more convincing in the second, winning it 6-4.  It was in the third, when Stan got angry after a dispute with the umpire over line calling, that he seemed to use to motivate him, winning the set 6-4 and getting the late break in the fourth to level and take the match into the final set.

Both players continued to go for their shot and managed to hit winners from the back of the court.  Despite the momentum moving firmly in Stan’s direction and Gasquet looking visibly tired by the end of the fourth set (requiring a medical tie out) it wasn’t until the fourteenth game of the final set that match Gasquet faltered and Wawrinka won it with a forehand down the line.

Gasquet will undoubtedly feel gutted but both men played their part in an outstanding match.  Can Stan recover sufficiently to threaten Rafa in a couple of days?

The Tougher the Challenge the Better the Performance Needs to Be

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Well what an amazing match!  Federer started in sublime fashion, moving Simon about and almost running away with the first set 6-1.  Simon has regularly given Federer problems in the past and, in the next two sets we saw why, as Simon pressed and almost everything he went for worked, winning the next two sets 6-4 6-2.

So how do you feel when you’re up against someone at the top of their game?  For Federer, his reaction was what you might expect of someone who has been at the top of the men’s game for the last decade – he lifted his game and in a set of outstanding tennis he leveled the match with a 6-2 set.

For Simon this was something of a body blow, he did little wrong and when he got to Federer’s drop shots Fed was there to put the next ball away. One of the things Federer does consistently is follow the drop shot into the net, despite it being taught and the obvious tactic, it surprises me how many of the top players stay back after playing a drop shot.

At one point in answer to a short Federer ground stroke Simon drove his forehand cross court, for what would in most cases have been a winner, only to see Federer take the ball off the bounce and pass a disconsolate Gilles down the line.

By the final set it seemed that Federer was almost into exhibition mode, playing a drop shot, following it in and then volleying a lob over the incoming Simon.  In the end Federer ran out a 6-3 winner in the fifth and extended his record of reaching the quarter-finals or better of the last 36 grand slams.

Inspiration can only get you so far…

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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.