Lessons from Tennis in Life – Part 2

Left to Right: Nilofar, Naseem (Asad’s mom), Hamza, Asad, Tashi (Asad’s better half)

As mentioned before, more matches are won because of fewer unforced errors than because of more winners.  So, if you keep doing your job diligently, success will come.  Shooting star success is rare and over-rated.  Most successes in life come from hard work and perseverance.  Look at players like Nick Kyrgios or Grigor Dimitrov who was once called Baby Federer due to his immense talent.  They are good showmen with great skills but will never rise to the same level as the three contemporary greats.  Why?  They do not want to work hard and do not have the mental strength or the perseverance to succeed.  Watch the play on crucial points, see how a Federer, Nadal or Djokovic plays that point and how the rest of them do.  A keen observer of the game will notice that they will focus on their strengths and wait for the right opening to go for the kill.  Others will also go for it but often choose the wrong ball for the kill as they did not have the patience or the confidence in their game to wait for the right opportunity.  You have to stay in the game and step it up just at the right time.   The same applies in life. I once read a comment from Wilander about Nadal.  He said that if I enter a stadium in the middle of a tennis match and don’t know the score, just by looking at the body language of the players I can tell who is winning and who is losing.   But for Nadal I can never tell, he maintains the same level of intensity whether it is the first point of the match or the last one.  This is what has made him so succesfull

By the way, what is success? While the world likes to see a winner and a loser after every tennis match, in reality both can potentially emerge as winners.  My definition of being a winner is to emerge as a better player at the end of every match that you play, irrespective of the outcome.  We must focus on what we have learnt from that experience which will make us a better player the next time we play.  The learnings from todays win/loss will help you to achieve a better outcome in future.  You can see how corporates these days like to hire entrepreneurs who had a failed startup.   It’s not a taboo anymore to have failed in a startup, it is a valued experience instead. There is a lot one can learn from failures in life just like one can learn from a poor performance in a tennis match.  Failure is the best practical experience one can get.  Similarly, in life we can emerge as a better person after every experience, good or bad.  I am reminded of a funny but apt definition of “Experience”, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted to get.  

To get better experience you have to push the envelope.  You have to try out new shots not only in practice but also during matches so that you are comfortable enough to use them in crunch situations.  I am reminded of a quotation from a previous boss of mine who had also been a test driver for racing cars earlier in his career.  He once wrecked a pretty costly sports car on a testing track.  When questioned by his superior on this loss he said,  “ I would not be doing my job properly if I did not push to test the limits of the car and when you do that there are bound to be some accidents”.  The same applies to tennis as well. Try out new shots and strategies in match situations as well.  Ofcourse choose the situation carefully! Not on a match point or a breakpoint.  When you are 40-0 up in a game, go for it.  Unless you try the new big serve or the killer shot in such situations you will never be comfortable in executing these shots in a tight situation.  I can guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised with your new found capabilities.  This is the out of the box thinking that one needs to apply in situations in life as well.  You are trained to respond to certain situations in a certain way but what if we tried a different response if the regular response is not getting the desired result.  When you are pushed on your backhand deep in the corner you might end up slicing the ball and the opponent might be up at the net to kill the ball and he might use this strategy often.  What do you do?  It would be my suggestion to go for a hard hit down the line or cross court shot that would surprise the opponent.  Not only might it help you win the point but also create that doubt in the mind of the opponent whether he should continue with that strategy.  That is all the opening that you might need to push back on his game.  If you end up with an error it does not matter as you were going to lose that point with your normal shot anyway.  But you must try and gauge the consistency, strengths, mindset and grit of the opponent before trying out these strategies.

Once you reach a certain level of skill in tennis you realize that tennis is as much a mind game as it is a physical game.  Even if you look at the very best in the business the skill level is not hugely different, they all have big serves, they also have a killer forehand, they all have excellent court coverage.  What is different is the mental strength and the consistency.   How well they play the crucial points under pressure.  The tennis players will know how they feel the tightness in the muscles when they serve on crucial points.  Those who give in to that pressure end up with more unforced errors especially on crucial points but the ones who win often are the ones who channel that anxiety and tension to become more focused and step up on those big points.  Have you seen how many times Djokovic bounces the ball before a crucial serve?!  It is him focusing his mind on the next point. Nadal’s routine of adjusting his hair and shorts before every serve is also just this, helping him to focus on the next point by relaxing his body.   When you go through a fixed set of actions the body tends to relax and the muscles loosen giving you the best chance to play your natural game.  Some of the best public speakers do breathing exercises just before an important speech. Same reason, relax your mind and body to be in your most mentally and physically alert state.

Fear of losing can become a potent weapon as well.  In my belief it is good to have a healthy fear of losing every time you step onto the court.  This should not be a phobia but more like an anxiety.  This helps your mind to stay alert and removes any kind of complacence from the game.   This fear can manifest in many forms.  Have you observed how Nadal has these superstitions about how the water bottles must be kept and how he does not step on some lines while crossing over?  I believe all this comes from his inner fear of losing.  He is able to channel this fear into aggression on the court.  His shaking of the legs in the breaks between the games reflects his nervous energy.  He fears losing because he hates it so much. Everyone likes to win but the real champions are the ones who hate losing more than their opponent.  But there is a difference between hating to lose and being a sore loser.  When the last point is played all this aggression on the court must be forgotten.  Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  Remember, the next time you play the outcome might be different from this time and if you behave in a negative way it will come back to you with interest.  What goes around comes around.  

So how does tennis teach you humility? Just when you think you are playing at the peak of your abilities there will be a day when suddenly everything stops working.  The serve does not work, the forehand is off, the backhand is iffy.   You thought you would beat your regular opponent easily but he sees the opportunity and steps it up.  His game becomes more attacking and you go into defensive mode and it becomes a vicious spiral.  Your pride and self confidence is shattered!  Believe me it has happened to the best of the tennis players.  The huge upsets and the first round exits for the top seeds are a proof of this. From such experiences they understand that while their skill level is important there is always this element of chance in sports and you will not always end up on the right side of the coin.  So don’t get too caught up in your glory.  The same thing holds in life. We sometimes attach too much self-importance to the successes that come our way in life.  Ofcourse you need to have the skills and put in the hard work but that is not a sure shot recipe for success.  There is the element of luck that is always there.  Some of us are luckier than the others. So if we are successful we should have the humility to understand that there were equally or more capable people who did not achieve the same success as this element of luck did not favor them.  As long as we keep this in mind we will never be arrogant.

But we have also heard the term luck favors the brave. By the very nature of the sport there are days when a tennis player is not at his best.  You get sucked into the vicious whirlpool of unforced errors and consequent passive play but the successful players know how to come out of this trap.  They are brave, they try new things. They change their game to adapt to these conditions and wait for the moment when it all snaps back into place.  If you ask them which victory is most satisfying you will find them remembering those days when they were not at their best but kept their focus and waited for the opportunity.  Look at Federer’s game, he is one of the most attacking payers in the history of the game but look at some of his matches when his timing was off but he still managed to win the match.  What is the difference?  You will find him slicing the ball more often and keeping the ball in play hoping that the other guy makes a mistake.  Somewhere in this process he finds his rhythm and suddenly steps it up and gets a stranglehold on the match.  What can we learn from this in life?  There will be periods where things are not going for us but we must know that this is just a passing phase.  Have confidence in our abilities and back it up with determination.  Keep the ball in play, don’t give up and success will come.  One must also have a plan B, an insurance or a fall back option.  This is your safest game and when nothing else works you can switch to this to maximize your chances.  

The much cliched saying that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration can be seen in tennis all the time.  There is no substitute for spending time on the court.  You can have the best skills, the best mental strength but if you have not put in the hours on the practice court, success will evade you.  The importance of hard work in life is similar.  There are no shortcuts.  If you want something desperately in life you must work hard to get it.    Gallup has done extensive research on the basis of which they have concluded that if you want to become truly world class in any field you must work on your strengths to make them better, do not waste time in trying to convert your weaknesses into your strengths.  You can try and minimize the handicap or the disadvantage by working on your weaknesses but that will not make you world class.  Similarly, in the game of tennis not everyone is blessed with a rocket serve or a killer forehand or backhand or excellent movement but if we focus on our strength, we can still win a lot more matches.  It is incredible how much the mental state of the player can affect his game. The same player can sometimes look like a shadow of himself in a critical situation in a match.  Have you seen club players who look so impressive when they are practicing but when they play a match, they become nervous wrecks?  This could happen due to two reasons; one is that they lack match practice so when they actually play a match their muscles tighten and they do not play their natural game.   The other reason is that how you hit the ball depends to a great extent on how your opponent is returning the ball.  You are forced to adjust your game to make if effective against your opponent.  You will not get nice juicy balls right in your hitting zone everytime.   You need to reach out and get into the right position to hit every ball.  Life will throw many curve balls at you, the odd net ball, the odd bounce, the slider on the lines, the weird spin on a mishit, but if you are in the right position through anticipation and agility you give yourself the best chance of returning them.

To draw another parallel in life there are people who perform and behave very well when things are going smoothly but when there is work pressure or crisis they panic and are unable to perform even simple tasks.   Have you seen smart students who sometimes end up not doing well in exams due to the time pressure?  They can avoid such a situation by taking practice tests.  Those who have cracked SAT or CAT or other similar exams will know what I am talking about.  When you take many practice tests performing under pressure becomes second nature for you.  When you play more matches in tennis you learn how to handle pressure.  You know what your plan B can be when your A game is not working out.  The gifted ones have a plan C, D, E and an F.  I am reminded of Captain Keith Malory from The Guns of Navarone by Alistair Maclean.   They said about him that some people are gifted with a sixth sense, he had a seventh, eight and a ninth! 😊 

Downtime is also very important in life. After a stressful tennis match the player needs to relax mentally and physically.  Get into recovery mode with a relaxing hot water shower and ice packs or hot water bottles and occasional massage.  One extreme is the much-famed ice bath recovery method of Nadal but that is not for the faint hearted.  The same way in life we need vacations or time off from work to rejuvenate and recuperate, else we will have a burnout.  Picnics and outdoor activities or adventure sports work quite well to recharge the batteries. But skydiving for relaxation is also not for the faint hearted 😊.

Then there are the armchair critics.  These are the loud, brash guys who do not have any real experience on the court but have strong views on everything and advice for players based on their limited understanding of the sport.  The same types also end up as life gurus who promise moksh or nirvana by following their philosophy but who themselves sometimes end up in prison as their philosophy itself was malicious and misguided.  But at the same time there are these quiet, unassuming, solid characters as well who have such a deep understanding of the game or life in general that they turn out to be excellent coaches.   They nurture not just the physical but also the mental skills of the disciples.  They are low profile characters who typically don’t come into the limelight.  Think of Marian Wajda, Severin Luthi or Toni Nadal. The Wall (Rahul Dravid) in the cricketing world also epitomizes this breed.

Finally, one must not lose cool when one makes a silly mistake as this shows your weakness to your opponent.  See how Federer matured as a player over his career.  He used to be a brash young man smashing his racket when he got angry on the court.  Over the years he learned to control his emotions.  I can guarantee that inside he still feels the same way when he misses an easy volley or nets an overhead or messes up an easy put away shot but he never (or very rarely) shows that emotion now.  When he does, you know that he is letting the opponent get to him and he is under extreme pressure.  As an opponent how do you feel when your opponent behaves like that?  You actually feel quite amused as you believe you are getting inside his head now.  On the other hand when your opponent is cool as a cucumber when he makes such silly mistakes or double faults it’s kind of eerie feeling that this guy is really confident and I had better watch out.  We see this kind of behavior playing out in negotiations in real life.  I am reminded of the words of Don Corleone in Godfather when he finally gives up trying to convince someone, he does not start shouting he simply says ,” I am disappointed that despite all my efforts you were not able to see my point of view”.  This dialogue is enough to send a chill up the spine of the person as he knows what’s coming next.  The other way is the McEnroe way where you start shouting at the umpire or linesman.   He could channel his anger to raise his level of game.    But very few people are capable of this.  Most people play badly or make more mistakes when they are angry.  This is the reason for sledging against the batsmen on the cricket pitch as well.  The choice is yours, do you want to play into their hands and lose your cool or irritate them by staying nonchalant and simply pretending that nothing untoward has happened.

Bad line calls can be an irritant in tennis and in life as well. But I strongly believe that one will never lose a match because of a bad line call, unless it is match point ofcourse 😊.  And if your opponent is a compulsive cheater, then you are better off not playing with him! Even if you know that the call was wrong you should give the benefit of doubt to your opponent.  Everyone makes mistakes, but do not assume that they did it deliberately.  We should use this philosophy in life as well.  No one is perfect, including you.  Presume that others are innocent until they are proved guilty.  We do have hawkeye in ATP matches to prove the line calls but there is also someone BIG watching over all of us in life who has a perfect vision and does not miss anything, anywhere.  He is the best judge and will never make a wrong line call.  You must take it one ball at a time, one breath at a time.  Play your strokes and have faith in his wisdom and decisions.  Give it your best and accept the result with a smile.   Every match will come to an end, as will life but in the end if we come out a better person then we will be a real winner.

Late Squadron Leader Zafar Abbas Zaidi (Asad’s Father)

hazāroñ saal nargis apnī be-nūrī pe rotī hai

badī mushkil se hotā hai chaman meñ dīda-var paidā

He left us very early, much before we could enjoy and assimilate his buoyant presence and effervescent companionship. A live wire, he excelled in every sphere and charmed young and old with loving care, understanding, solitiousness and consideration. Personally I saw in him a towering personality who forever was present to extend a helping hand.

He earned glory by participating in the Asian Games in 1978 at Bangok in the Rifle Shooting competition. I had the privilege of watching his prowess in skeet shooting at the rifle range. It was an awesome experience. Badminton was his pastime sport in which he excelled; it also proved to be his nemesis when he suffered cardio vascular attack while playing. May his soul rest in peace in heaven.

The Anecdote

I had left it to my parents to choose my life partner. They invited me to meet the parents of the girl, I took a few days leave while on course in College of Military Engieering and travelled by train to meet them. Both sides agreed, the girls parents saw me, my mother saw the girl and I returned without seing her as permission was not granted; the marriage was decided at a date which was two months later.

A month later I received my marriage card by post. To my surprise I noticed that it had a different girl’s name from the one that was mentioned to me. The girl’s parent’s name was also different.

Flumoxed and agitated I called up my mother, who was extremely apologetic and mentioned that the girl’s father had informed them that her mother was not in favor of her daughter marrying an Army person.

My father and Sqn Ldr Zaidi were serving in the same Air Force station and met frequently and they discussed my marriage problem. My parents promptly agreed to Sqn Ldr Zaidi’s suggestion without keeping me in the loop. The girl mentioned in the marriage card was the neice of Sqn Ldr Zaidi.

I had earlier mentioned to my mother that besides other qualities the girl should be beautiful and charming. While travelling in the car to the marriage location my mother told me that they had not seen the girl wth whom I was going to get married. My heart missed a beat and despair seized me. I told her that in case the girl does not come up to my expextations, I will spend rest of my life in field areas. The girl would remain with her.

Well, rest is history, Nilofar, the lotus of my life spent 52 glorious years with me before deciding to enter the heavenly abode. May she enjoy all the heavenly delights in peace.

From Asad’s Album

Thank you Asad for the great article and Thank you so much uncle for bringing joy in my life!


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

  1. Asad’s ability to bring out life’s lessons from the game of tennis is simply amazing. Philosophy is an essential skill in life. It helps to draw correct lessons from even mundane activities in life. Tennis is only one such activity.


  2. That’s life. Indeed.
    Actually seems it just happens. Not much by individual will or design.
    Yes the only thing for one to do is to do one’s best – whatever. Sometimes it works another time it doesn’t.
    Infinite factors from the eco around affect the outcome.


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