From Centre Court to the boardroom. What businesses and management can learn from one of the greatest strategists of all time

Dec 5, 2023
Davide Sola
From Centre Court to the boardroom. What businesses and management can learn from one of the greatest strategists of all time

Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt and now I must recognise when it’s time to end my competitive career.

With these simple but eloquent words, last week saw the end of one the most successful, captivating and envied sporting careers of all time. Federer’s swan song during the doubles session at the Laver Cup on Friday may have ended in defeat, but the memories of that evening will always be focused on the celebration of a sporting icon, who changed their particular field of expertise for the better whilst achieving truly world class outcomes.

Roger Federer’s illustrious career is one that has spanned four decades, more than 1500 top level matches, 20 Grand Slam titles and countless awards on and off the court. He has won fans’ hearts around the world and broken opponents’ dreams across the net in equal measure, inspiring a generation of tennis players along the way. Roger Federer has achieved a level of success in his chosen field that only very few will ever experience; but what were these achievements built upon, and what can we – those who are not looking to win Wimbledon titles, but grow businesses – learn and apply in our everyday business and entrepreneurial lives?

We have all been privileged to watch the Federer display float its way effortlessly across the tennis world year on year. We have seen the devastating forehands, marvelled at the ballet-like movement and celebrated those epic moments against all-time rivals. Now, let’s lift the lid and – driven by the words of the athlete himself – analyse the fundamentals of a tennis career that speaks volumes for how we can strategise, collaborate and succeed in our own areas of expertise.

The tip of the iceberg doesn’t tell full the story…

Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt and now I must recognise when it’s time to end my competitive career.

So often when we view a successful athlete, academic, company or any other of countless examples – we accentuate and eulogise what’s in front of our eyes – the triumph – and disregard what we can’t see – the cold, hard grind. This week, tributes have been flooding in from all corners and all industries for Roger Federer, but one quote stuck out more than many.

Pete “Pistol” Sampras, a former tennis world number one and arguably one of the greatest players of all time said the following when sending an official congratulatory video to Federer –

A special player, 20 majors, world number one for years, dominated our sport, basically did it all – and you sacrificed, dedicated yourself to the maximum, got your body right. People didn’t see that side of you because you made the game look so easy; but you’re the ultimate person when it comes to preparing.

Federer did make the game look easy, perhaps more than anyone else. But his was a success not borne out of natural ability and talent; this was a legacy built on hard work, training, pushing himself to the limit and always striving to get more out of his career.

Too often in life, sport or business – we look at the outcome, whilst forgetting that it’s the 99%; the work you don’t see, that makes it all happen.

Product development or company scaling for example is no different. The success of any endeavour is developed and earned through the consistent and relentless application of good practices and desire to always be willing to outwork the competition.

Start with what you have – done is better than peRFect…

I didn’t have the temperament growing up, I was the opposite of cool. But I learned to mix that fire and ice approach.

Inevitably for someone who went on to have such a storied career, Federer was – in the late 1990’s – one of the games up and coming stars. However he was a long way from the finished article that would eventually go on to dominate men’s tennis. Often, when developing a strategy for a business or a new product, we believe that it must be honed, must be perfect, and must be ready to take the market by storm. In business as on the tennis courts that Federer cut his professional teeth, this is not the case.

At the start of his career the Swiss maestro was tempestuous in his demeanour and unrefined in his actions. However rather than taking a step back, seeking coaches or psychologists to fix these behaviours; he committed himself to the art of learning and transformed this period into the most transformative of his career. Federer embraced that it is better to start with what you have – the basis for something more – and put it all on the table; competing, growing and learning.

In a few short years Federer took what he started his professional journey with – a hot head attitude and immensely powerful but raw game – and used each training session and match to refine and improve. From on court tantrums in 2001 and 2002, to the first of an eventual eight Wimbledon titles in 2003; Federer used his skills and approach, twinned with feedback from his opponents and coaches, to mould his game and mindset into something that would take the tennis world by storm for the next 20 years.

Just as on the tennis court, the same lessons can be applied to launching new businesses, products or services. Perfect does not exist, it’s only by starting with what we have – an idea, an MVP, a concept – testing it on the market and learning from the feedback we receive, that we can develop something that will have true positive impact, and form the basis for a successful future.

Build the right team – excellence is a team effort…

I always felt that I was a team player at heart. Singles doesn’t really do that a whole lot, but I have had a team, you know, that travelled with me around the world. It’s been amazing with them. So, thanks to everybody who made it work for so many years.

Through a more than 20 year career, one consistent factor that has been on Federer’s side is the high performing and value adding team around him. From the late (great) Peter Carter – arguably one of the greatest influences of Federer’s career – to illustrious names such Tony Roche, Paul Annacone and Stefan Edberg; Federer has always known the value of surrounding himself with the best in the tennis business.

However, just as for any business who seeks high performance gains, Federer’s approach was not only to seek input on his core strengths, but to also strengthen and seek contributions from specialists in each key area of expertise across the spectrum of a professional athlete. Through the years big gains were made in the macro areas of opponent scouting, strength and conditioning and nutrition, but equal attention was put into harnessing marginal gains through experts in flexibility and racquet stringing, for example. No stone was left unturned in accentuating strengths and minimising weaknesses through collaborative effort and consultation.

No athlete, C-Suite executive or entrepreneur has the ability to do it all, and it’s through recognising our own limits and applying the input of experts, that high performing teams are formed who can together achieve truly memorable results. A key component of this – just as it was for Team Federer – is recognising the areas which will add the most value for us as an organisation, and utilising expert, motivated and “bought in” individuals who are knowledgeable, motivated and collectively believe in our same vision and mission.

Innovation is key to success as you mature…

I think it’s good to test racquets, test frames, test new technology, because all of a sudden you realise that something is working better for you.

Just as within any industry market or competitive landscape, the environment in which Federer began his career was a vastly different one to that in which he ended it. To stay not only relevant, but an industry leader on the ATP Tour, the indefatigable perfectionist always sought to adapt and innovate to stay ahead of his opponents.

In terms of his on court style, Federer was willing and eager to adapt his approach to best suit the era he was playing in and opponents he was facing. A stat which bears this out considerably is when Federer won his first Grand Slam title – at Wimbledon in 2003. During this event he serve and volleyed on 81% of his deliveries, compared to adopting a more offensive baseliner approach in his 2012 victory, serve and volleying only 9% of the time. This adaptation in approach to the same events was partly enforced by changes in the environment around this enigmatic player. Events were slowing down the courts, technology was changing how tennis balls were struck, and younger more physically imposing players were presenting new challenges. Federer however, stayed flexible and alert, taking these shifts into his stride and matching them with his own approach to innovation and preparedness.

In response to challenging moments and accepting that change is indeed a rule, Federer adapted his racquet in 2014/15, shifting from a 90 square inch head to a 97 square inch. What followed was a run of seven grand slam finals and three victories all in the following three years. In 2021 the man himself stated

I think it’s good to test racquets, test frames, test new technology, because all of a sudden you realise that something is working better for you.

Finally, Federer was never afraid to not only think outside of the box, but indeed challenge the concept of what the box is – or the perceived limitations it has. In 2015 Federer surprised opponents and inspired the tennis world in equal measure when he used the aptly named “Sneak Attack by Roger” or “SABR” on the match court for the first time. In a tactical move never before seen on the professional circuit, Federer began rushing in and half-volleying his opponents second serves, taking the net and killing off the point. Some labelled this “disrespectful” – but they were mainly the opponents who struggled to contain this fresh new approach to returning serve…

Key lessons can be learned from Federer’s approach to adaptation and innovation. In business strategy, just as in sport – it’s vitally important to respect that no situation, no market and no environment remains constant. Challenging and volatile changes are essentially a rule of law, and are becoming increasingly common in an increasingly disrupted world. Those who are able to accept this and accentuate their strengths through forward thinking innovation stand the best chance to ride these waves, grow further and scale to increasing levels of success.

Business strategy in 2022 is much like Federer’s journey over his career. Competitors are consistently looking to usurp us, technology and external factors are challenging and changing the status quo, and unexpected challenges are always around the corner. A consistent and flexible approach to strategy, combined with a mindset to innovate enables the best caveat to overcome these.

Roger Federer’s tennis career may be finished – but there are clear signs he is applying his strategic prowess on the tennis court to the wider world. Truly impressive and burgeoning charitable efforts, diversifying and successful business interests as well as the growth of his own brands are proving that core competencies in strategic approaches enable successful outcomes.

As the mantle passes to the younger generation of stars on the ATP Tour, we can all look back on and enjoy a truly wonderful on court career from one of sports all time greats – whilst applying some of his lessons for our own personal and business successes.

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