A few notes from Djokovic vs. Federer

I watched a full tennis match after a really long time yesterday. And, it turned out to be a fantastic game to watch. Djokovic beat Federer to win his 10th grand slam. Here’s what I took away –

1. Adapt and reinvent. The first lesson I was reminded of was from a recent post titled “Adapt and Reinvent.” I wrote, then

“There are, however, a handful of legends who did manage to stay true to their status as the “next big thing,” And, every single time, they did so not just because of their incredible technical abilities but because they were willing to adapt and reinvent themselves. They understood their physical make up and changed their game to suit them as they grew older. Many changed positions and styles. And, what is telling is that they found new strengths as they grew older. If they were pacy in their youth, they impressed with their reading of the game a decade later.

Careers in sport at the highest level are rarely longer than 15 years and, yet, top players probably reinvent themselves 2-3 times in that period.”

That post was about soccer legends but could just as easily have been about Roger Federer. In the last couple of years, Federer has changed coaches, switched to a more forgiving racket and adapted his game. He has been surprising people by charging forward during his opponents’ second serve (nicknamed SABR or “sneak attack by Federer”). This isn’t a nice-to-have at Federer’s age. The Open Era has produced fitter tennis players than ever before. For a 35 year old to make it to the finals of two consecutive grand slams, it is a necessity.

2. Heightened self awareness. it is impossible to adapt and reinvent if you don’t understand your own strengths and limitations. Heightened self awareness is a pre-requisite to succeeding as you mature. I’m sure that applies beyond sport.

3. At the highest level, it is largely a mental game. At the risk of simplification, the biggest reason for Federer’s loss yesterday was that he only converted roughly 1 out of every 6 break points. Djokovic converted 1 in 2. Federer is usually a fantastic clutch player. However, Djokovic was better yesterday. These games are all decided by small margins. And, mental strength is an incredibly useful ally to have. Djokovic’s mind is more conditioned to winning these big games than Federer’s.

Learning aside – I thought I’d indulge in two interesting questions –

First – will Djokovic beat Federer’s tally of 17 grand slams? I think it will be tough. Federer had 15 grand slams at Djokovic’s age. However, Federer also had a 22 and 23 year old Djokovic and Nadal who were beginning to peak. Djokovic doesn’t seem to have that sort of competition. So, he might actually get very close.

Second, what of Federer? How can he be the greatest player of all time if Djokovic and Nadal consistently get the better of him? Just remember that Federer is 35. Between 22 and 28 (usually considered a tennis player’s peak), Roger Federer won 13 out of 24 possible grand slams. To do what he is doing at 35 is nothing short of incredible. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Great game. Hats off to you – Novak and Roger.

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