Lessons from Tennis in Life – Part 1

By

Asad Zaidi

About the Author in his own words:

B Tech from IIT Kanpur followed by MS from University of Utah, USA and MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. Worked as a management consultant with Accenture post MBA and moved into line function roles subsequently. Spent 18 years in Dubai where I worked as Chief Procurement Officer for Al Futtaim Group in my last role. Moved back to India this year to co found and launch a startup under the brand LaundryMate which offers online laundry services. The application is available in android Apple under the same name.

Have been playing tennis since 1991. Won U of U intramural tennis tournament for three consecutive semesters. Won Nos of Champs tournament organized by Salt Lake Tribune in 92. Played club level tennis in Dubai and won Al Nasr Open 2 times. Continue to play tennis three times a week in Bangalore.

My son Hamza after passing high school is studying at Imperial College, London and has chosen Maths and Computer Science and is a Tennis addict.

Asad and Hamza

If we look at the crests and troughs in life, the thrilling moments, the setbacks, the periods of growth and the periods of slump I cannot help but draw an analogy with a game of tennis.   There is a lot of similarity between the two and there is much to learn from tennis that can be applied to life in general and vice versa

Let’s start from the very basics.  What is the first thing you need to become a good tennis player?  By being a good tennis player, I mean maximizing your potential i.e. the best that you can be.  I am not referring to becoming a grand slam champion, though the same principles would apply there as well albeit on a different level.   What is the minimum requirement or the hygiene factor?  Fitness!  What is the first thing one needs to succeed in life?  Education!  (Fitness: Tennis :: Education: Life) You cannot become a successful tennis player until you are fit, no matter how talented you are or how good your tennis acumen, reflexes or hand eye coordination is.  You need to get to the ball again and again to give yourself a chance of hitting it over the net to the other side.   The same way you need an education to get yourself started in life.  Now the definition of education is a bit more flexible.  I don’t necessarily mean a degree from a top-notch university; real life experiences can sometimes give the best education one can get.   But one must learn from the experiences, not just live them. So the hunger to learn is an important prerequisite for effective learning.  In a book GRASP written by Dr. Sanjay Sarma, a college friend, he talks about curiosity creating the right conditions for learning.  This curiosity or hunger is a key differentiator among learners and a good coach in tennis or a good teacher in studies or a good mentor in life can effectively harness this to maximize the potential of their disciples. 

Even at club level tennis fitness is extremely important.  Some people play tennis to stay fit but keen tennis enthusiasts stay fit to be able to play tennis better.  Regular exercise is important.  Same way just finishing education in school or college is not enough, you need to continuously learn throughout your life.  Learning is not just about reading books, it could be from practical experiences.  But for this one must find time away from daily routine to ruminate and look at the bigger picture.  Same way in tennis one must step back and think about one’s game.  A good strategy is to get your video taken while playing, you will yourself observe multiple opportunities to improve your game.   Alternately, one can ask a friend to watch and advise on your areas of improvement.

Talking of friends, some of the best friendships that you build in life are on the court/sports field.  Now why is that?  Let’s talk about team sports and individual sports separately.  The teamsport based bonding is more intuitive and easier to understand as you share the victories and defeats together and the individual successes are linked to the team success.  When you go through highs and lows in life with people there is an emotional bond and empathy that is automatically built which lays the foundation for a strong friendship. But what about tennis? When you win the other guy loses and vice versa, so how does that build a bond?  I would urge the reader to listen to the interviews of Federer and Nadal on this subject.  They have a great rivalry on the court but one thing that both keep saying is how the other one has pushed them to become a better player.  If you become a better player in tennis or a better person in life as your opponent pushes you to stretch your limits then you owe some part of your success to them.  Had such a worthy opponent not been there they might not have reached the peak of their skill level as others might not have pushed them out of their comfort zone. This is the foundation on which the relationship builds.  There must be healthy respect for your opponent. I was fortunate enough to be in the O2 arena to witness the last professional game of Federer where he partnered with Nadal for doubles and seeing Nadal cry at this emotional farewell was a confirmation of above.

This rivalry can and sometimes does become unhealthy as well and to a great extent it depends on who you are on the inside.  I will not give examples of that as it might become controversial, but we can all identify some such tennis players and most certainly some individuals in our lives who suffer from such negative attitude.  In life we must look for friends whose heart is in the right place else the friendships will not be sustainable.  This should be a high priority.

In life we should have our priorities clear, career, family and health.  Do we track how we are spending our time between these three?  I once read a great quote given by a corporate honcho.  He said, in life we are continuously juggling with three balls, career, family and health.  The career ball is made of rubber, the family one is made of metal and the health one is made of glass. If the career ball falls it can bounce back and you can continue juggling.  If the family ball falls it gets deformed and you might be able to continue juggling but it will never be the same again.  If the health ball falls it shatters and you cannot juggle anymore.  So keep your eye on the right ball! 

Talking about keeping your eye on the ball.  Have you seen the slow motion of a forehand or backhand shot of Federer?  Look at his head position.  Where is he looking when he hits the ball?  He is focused on the ball and not looking at the opponent.  He knows that if he strikes the ball well it does not matter where the opponent is, he will hit a winner.  Of course, before he starts his swing he has already seen the court position of the opponent from the corner of his eye.  We must focus on the matters at hand.  Its good to forecast and do projections but if we do not execute our day to day activities efficiently, we will not get to our long-term goals.   Keep the goal at the back of your mind but the eye must always be on the ball, the task at hand.  

Keeping the focus during the match is also very important.  I don’t mean that you should be serious all the time. I mean that just before every point is played you must cut out all the noise from your surroundings and focus only on the game.  It’s like the focus of Arjun on the eye of the fish in the archery contest.  There will always be some distractions around you especially when you play at a club but you have to find a way to compartmentalize your brain and shut those things out else it starts affecting your game.  It is somewhat like the ticking of the clock or the sound of the fan when you sleep.  It is constantly there but you train your mind to shut them out.  You realize that they were there only when they suddenly stop for some reason.  Your level of preparedness also sometimes contributes to this.  Many of us would have had the same experience while writing some exams in school or college.  When we are well prepared and focused, we simply ignore all the distractions around us as we are too busy writing our answers.  On the other hand, when we are not well prepared, we can hear the teachers chat, we can hear the murmurs from the corridors outside or the sounds of the shifting chairs and desks.  We try to justify our poor performance by assigning too much importance to these distractions.  The truth is that we were ourselves not prepared and focused and these are just excuses.  

Also, there is that fraction of a second before you execute your shot which I call the moment of truth which is very crucial.  It is how you react in that moment and the decision that you take at that instant that can make the difference between hitting a winner or making an unforced error.  All tennis players will be able to relate to this.  There are days when you are so focused that you know exactly where you are going to hit the ball before every shot and the ball behaves obediently.  Then there are those other days when you are unsure or confused or sometimes your mind is overactive, and you keep changing your mind as to where you want to hit the shot and end up messing it up.  The same way in life there are these moments of truth when just before you act your inner voice will tell you whether what you are going to do is right or wrong.  Sometimes we stop listening to this voice or repress it as the right thing might be inconvenient and we end up doing the wrong thing as it is the easy thing to do.   My advice would be that if you are confused about which shot to hit, go for the safer option, even if the opponent is expecting that shot it is better to hit a well-executed shot than to try and change it at the last minute as you are likely to make an unforced error.  Do the right thing in life, listen to your inner voice. Don’t get swayed by momentary distractions that seem attractive.  Stay focused on your end goal and execute your actions in a steady game plan.

So let’s say we are prepared and focused and now want to track our progress. Is it enough to track the scores in the tennis matches that you play?  No, not at all!   All tennis players will agree with me that there are days when you are playing awful, but your opponent plays worse and you end up winning.   It is not a very satisfying feeling.  Also, a set score does little to reflect the intensity or competitiveness of a match.  You could have a much closer contest in a 6-0 set score than in a 6-4 set.  So let’s look at some of the stats that they report in ATP matches.  While there are a number of aces, number of points won, distance covered, first serve percentage etc. for me the most important stat is the number of winners and unforced errors.  That is what we must track. Figure out a way to track that for every match you play.  Either ask a friend who is watching to take note or you make a mental note yourself.  I can guarantee that in more than 90% of the cases it will be the person who makes more unforced errors who will lose even if he has more winners.  In very rare cases will one win a match only by hitting more winners than the opponent, atleast at club level.   Actually, quite often in ATP as well!  So, what does that mean for us?  It means that you win the match more often by the other guy losing it than by you winning it.  Winners are a lot more exciting and good for viewership but there are very few Federer’s in the world of tennis.  Nadal and Djokovic style is a much safer bet! (No disrespect to them but they cant match the winners from Federer). Keep the ball in play, or as the coaches say try and return one extra ball in every rally. Lessons for startups right here.  Hang in there!

When we talk about the big three of tennis the nature vs nurture debate automatically creeps in. The debate is as important in tennis as it is in life in general.  Some people are born with a unique talent, a gift that cannot be taught.  Take Federer as an ideal example, you cannot train to be a Federer, you either have it in you or you don’t.  However, even if you have the gift you must still work really hard to get to the peak of your skill level.   Kyrgios and Dimitrov had it in them but did not optimize their potential.  There are so many bright students who do exceptionally well in junior grades as their high IQ is enough to get them good grades even if they do not work hard, but when they reach higher grades either their grades start to fall off as they do not work hard or they realize the importance of hard work to complement their talent and maintain their grades.  The few hundred tennis players that transition to ATP from thousands of exceptional performers in ITF or college level tennis is a confirmation of this.  The ones who work hard, more than make up for the difference in talent, if any.  Look at what Djokovic and Nadal have achieved with their hard work and dedication.  They may not have the talent of a Federer, but both have ended up winning more grand slams than him, which we must respect. 

Now let’s look at how the best tennis players prepare for a tennis match.  They study the game of the opponent.  Identify their strengths and weaknesses and then work out a strategy that utilizes their own strengths and exploits the opponent’s weaknesses.  Is it not the same in the corporate world? This is the bread and butter for the strategy consultants.   I am reminded of the launch of du, a telecom operator in UAE as I had the privilege of being a part of its launch team.  They came up with a masterstroke strategy, Etisalat the incumbent was a behemoth with huge financial muscle and strong network.  There was no way du could match its muscle power.  But du had an advantage, it was starting from scratch and was nimble.  They came up with a billing strategy which they knew Etisalat would not be able to match for at least a year, as changing the billing system is a long and complicated process for an established large telecom company.  It was the pay per second option which gave du a huge advantage, especially in the price sensitive segment of the market.  This allowed them to take a big chunk of the prepaid segment right away.   So, if you cannot match the baseline strokes of your opponent, then don’t fall into the trap of trying to outgun them.  If your strength is your movement then move them around and try and force errors out of them by making them that fraction of a second late in getting to the ball.  And if they still outgun you despite all your efforts, appreciate their game with a smile and move on.

Jack Welch wrote in Straight from the gut that top corporate bosses need to have a gut feel, a sixth sense which guides them in periods of uncertainty.  They need to have a vision, the conviction and the perseverance to pursue their objective unwaveringly.  Look at Nadal on the court, it is his doggedness that has earned him the nickname of El Matador.  But to a casual spectator only the commitment is obvious, what is not perceptible is his anticipation.   Look at the most gifted tennis player who many of us consider the GOAT.    I am referring to Federer here, not Nadal 😊.  Look at how he moves on the court.  Of course he is fast (fitness is a prerequisite) but there are others faster than him who are not able to get to as many balls.  Why?  The reason is the anticipation, the gut feel.  Federer starts moving towards the ball even before it is hit in many cases, as he is able to anticipate where the ball is going to be hit.  This needs a gut feel, a sixth sense or an anticipation.  It might not come naturally to people, but it can be learned through careful observation.  For this you must become a student of the game.  Watching the best of them play is the best way to learn.   As a student of the game, I felt that the week after watching Dubai Open Tennis every year, I had that extra bounce in my step on the court as I tried to execute things differently on the court 😊.  Unfortunately, the effect wears off soon and I got back to my original style of tennis.  The same way one can learn in life by observing great leaders or reading about them. 

Look at some of the best returners of the serve in the game, Agassi and Djokovic.  What do they do better than others?  Ofcourse they are fast (fitness) and have a good tennis acumen and hand eye coordination (strategy and execution) but the main thing is that they take the ball early.  They take away that fraction of a second away from their opponents preventing them from getting into a comfortable position for the next shot.  Do they do this on all serves?  No, they wait for the right opportunity and then go for it all guns blazing.  Agassi in a famous interview once told about his strategy against Becker.  He observed that Becker used to take his tongue out before serving and the direction in which the tongue pointed was where the ball would go.  This gave him a huge advantage, but he did not use it for every serve, only on the crucial points lest Becker would figure it out that he was being read!  In life as well you get a few such opportunities and that is not the time to just punch the ball back and keep it in 

play, you have to take your chance and go for a winner.  You get half an opening and you push for it, as they say luck favors the brave. It’s OK if you fail, at least you tried.  The skill is in choosing when to push so that your conversion percentage is high.    By taking the ball early one has to be a leader not a follower.  You have to take calculated risks backed up by your gut feel.   Then if you fail it’s OK, you have to accept it and get ready for the next ball. Girtey hain sheh sawar hi maidan-e-jung mein. woh tifl kya girengey jo ghutno ke bal chale!! 

One of the biggest learnings in life from tennis is that it is the next step, the next ball that you hit that matters, nothing else.  You must forget about the previous one, good or bad.  Live in the moment!  If you hit the last ball poorly you cannot let that affect the subsequent plays.   There are bound to be failures in life, unforced errors in tennis, but the one who wins is the one who learns from that mistake and moves on and does not ruminate about it and let it affect his game.    

Another lesson from tennis is to treat every ball on its merit.  It doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net.  All you can do is hit the ball as best as you can and not get influenced by who is hitting it on the other side.  Martina Navratilova was once asked the secret of her success over such a long period of time.  She said, “The tennis ball doesn’t know how old I am. The ball doesn’t know if I’m a man or a woman or if I come from a communist country or not.”  She took every ball on its merit.  Quite often we get overwhelmed by the player on the other side either because of your past record against him or because of his achievements.  I remember a post-match interview of someone at Dubai Open (the fact that I forget who it was, actually supports the point that I am making here), when he lost to Federer he was asked how it feels to play a 17 time grand slam winner (at that time Fed had won only 17).  He responded, “you try to keep that out of your mind but when they introduce the players on the court and you hear his record it gets overwhelming!”.  Such players will be forgotten as they will never reach the same levels of success.   You must always respect your opponent but once you are on the court only one of you can win, and sure as hell you want to be that one!   Similarly, in life we often get influenced by personalities and make the mistake of judging statements or actions on the basis of who is involved.  We must judge on the basis of the actions or statements themselves and not get biased by our impression of our previous experience with the person. It does not matter who has made the statement or who has actioned it, what matters is whether the action is right or wrong.  Good people can say or do bad things and bad people can say or do good things, at least sometimes 😊.  Similarly, good tennis players can and do hit bad shots so take it one ball at a time and treat every ball on its merit.

Asad and Nilofar

To be continued in Part 2.

An anecdote of the major role of Asad’s parents in Nilofar walking into my life can be read after completing Part 2 which will be with you soon!

2 thoughts on “ Lessons from Tennis in Life – Part 1”

  1. Very interesting thoughts comparing achievements in life and in tennis. Well basically one must have the inborn qualities for excellence in one. This is a matter of one’s genes, nature and nurture. One can build up once you have it in you.
    One can make out that Asad has it in him by his educational achievements and application by starting a business venture. It is born out of one’s confidence in life to venture out just like venturing out into a tennis tournament.
    Can only wish Asad every good wish in all his ventures.

    Like

    1. Very well analaysed. Intelligence, honessty, humility, patience, dedication, and much more. These are very rare and Asad has these in abundance.The article is his personal observatoion and practice through his life so far. Wishing him a long fruitful, eventful successful and enjoyable journey ahead.

      Like

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