Nadal: The numbers and beyond. Business lessons we can learn from the new tennis GOAT.
March 16, 2022

Is there beauty in weakness? Rafael Nadal’s ascent to the top of the Grand Slam list offers up some valuable insights into this question — for tennis, business and life.

It was the retirement press conference of New Zealand rugby captain Richie McCaw, back in 2015. McCaw had just led the All Blacks to a second successive World Cup victory, and beside him was his national coach, Steve Hansen. Hansen spoke about recruiting McCaw as a youngster to a regional team, recalling that “he was very good at pinching the ball but couldn’t run, couldn’t catch and couldn’t pass.”

The press room responded with laughter, but Hansen was quick to correct them: “What I was trying to say is that there was actually one thing he did very well.”

This was fascinating. McCaw was arguably the greatest player of his generation. And the All Blacks’ system is probably the best in any sport in any generation — a conveyer belt of greatness for more than 100 years. Hansen was giving us an insight into their way of thinking. Look for diamonds in the rough — not polished gems. Judge players by their strengths, and believe in the system’s coaching.

I was thinking about that Hansen quote last Sunday when Rafael Nadal captured the Australian Open. This was huge, because while the fierce three-way debate regarding the GOAT of tennis cannot really be conclusively decided, one race can definitely be won and lost: the race to win the most Grand Slam tournaments. And Nadal had just edged ahead with his 21st major.

The relevance of the McCaw story to this situation is that in 2009 when Roger Federer won his 15th major by beating Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, this was a record that was not supposed to be approachable, let alone beatable, for the foreseeable future. Nadal, injured at the time, was in second place among active players with only six titles, and Novak Djokovic, with just one title, was not even an afterthought.

But it wasn’t just the numbers that made almost every pundit and his dog declare Federer the GOAT. It was the eye test: Federer was the complete player. Almost every aspect of his game was phenomenal. He was extremely versatile and could adapt to any surface, complete with slice shots, chips, drop volleys, between the leg shots on the retreat, and every virtuoso trick one can think of. Nadal, meanwhile, was a baseline grinder with arguably the best forehand the game had ever seen — but with seemingly little more to offer. His backhand was ordinary, his serve non-existent, and any form of finesse was beyond him. Despite defeating Federer at Wimbledon and the Australia finals, Nadal seemed to be confined predominantly to clay court success.

Well… hindsight is a wonderful thing. We should have seen things completely differently.

If Nadal, aged 23, was defeating Federer regularly utilizing a limited repertoire of shots, what level would he reach once he developed a more comprehensive arsenal of tennis weapons?

And based on that, why wouldn’t we have trusted that someone who, after just a short career, already possessed such a destructive forehand would easily develop other areas of his game?

After all, this is exactly what happened: By 2011 Nadal was back on track with a very solid first serve. Today, the player who served and volleyed only twice in the entire five hours of the 2008 Wimbledon Final is one of the most solid volleyers on the tour.

These are good lessons, applicable to so many aspects of business. For example, when assessing an investment, we look at weaknesses as areas of growth. Good companies — like good tennis players — can overcome weaknesses with the right process and management in place.

In recruitment, look not for the candidates that tick every single box. Instead, look for those that have something special.

Trust the process, and you will be able to define the outcome.

OK. So far, we’ve dealt with the perception and assessment of Nadal by the tennis public who overestimated his weaknesses and underestimated his strengths. But the process of improvement still had to be implemented and executed, and this process is another good lesson in itself.

2009 was a traumatic year for Nadal. It began with an astonishing triumph. He defeated Federer on the hard courts in Australia and became the first man ever to simultaneously hold Grand Slam titles on all three surfaces. But then catastrophe hit. He was defeated by Robin Söderling at Roland Garros in five sets, his first-ever loss on clay. He would go on to miss Wimbledon and was a mere shadow of himself in a defeat to Juan Martin Del Potro in the semi-finals of the US Open.

Nadal was seen as a spent force, his all-in-every-stroke style dismissed as unsustainable.

This was a moment for clear strategic thinking from Team Nadal — led by his uncle-coach Toni Nadal.

Nadal’s first success off of clay was on grass (the Wimbledon title he had won was in his 3rd successive final) and this was a bit of an outlier. On the tennis spectrum, the three surfaces are usually seen as clay and grass being polar opposites, with hard courts sitting in between. Many players have won multiple slams on grass and hard courts — notably Federer and Sampras who led the all-time standings. There have been other legends who are strong on hard and clay courts such as Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier. But in the larger racket generation, only one player — Andre Agassi — had won at both Wimbledon and Roland Garros. You may add Mats Wilander who twice won a diluted Australian Open (not a full 128-player field) on the old grass courts at Kooyong in the very first days of larger rackets.

The reason is known. While clay heavily favors topspin, grass “eats” it up, and hard courts are somewhere in the middle. So why was Nadal failing on hard courts while dominating clay and being very respectable on grass?

The reason was not the bounce of the ball but the impact on the knees. Clay and grass do have one thing in common — they are soft. Hard courts are more taxing on the knees and were supposed to be Nadal’s death kiss in 2009. He would never survive a long career on a tour played mostly on hard courts, it was assumed. The problem was not the way the ball behaved on hard courts but the hard courts’ grueling season, which starts late August.

I assumed that Nadal could improve every aspect of his game. It goes without saying, he had the talent and the work ethic to do so. But rather than going for a gradual all-around improvement of Nadal’s game, they chose to aggressively pursue an improvement to Nadal’s serve.

This came in 2010. In the 2009 hard court season, Nadal was 10th on hard court for 1st service point won, only 71st for points won on his 2nd serve, and 41st in aces per match. Come 2010, Nadal improved just slightly to 9th on the 1st serve but jumped all the way from 71st to 2nd on points won on his second serve. This dramatic improvement specific to the 2nd serve resulted in him being the first player to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in one season since these majors have been played on three different courts and the first player ever in the larger racket generation.

At this point, it was only a matter of health and time until he would overtake Federer. With the entry of Novak Djokovic, the story took many twists and turns, but Nadal would ultimately ascend the tennis Everest in 2022.

In business terms, this story is an ideal metaphor for investment. Nadal’s investment currency is training time, which he threw at his 2nd serve. Businesses regularly face the dilemma of where to invest internal resources — advertising, manpower or maybe technology. Accurately identifying your weaknesses and the solution is critical.

I have seen companies often make unnecessary investments. Advertising campaigns when customer support was in greater need. The purchase of unneeded technology just to follow a trend.

Ongoing investment should address specific weaknesses and specific goals.

Finally, a word on focus. In his victory press conference, Nadal elaborated on his desire to win a second Australian Open — a title that had eluded him several times under unlucky circumstances. He treated discussion of his 21st major as a pleasant afterthought.

This is not just a business lesson, but a life lesson. Dealing with the problem at hand. Strategizing and focusing on the immediate goal. The famous “stay in the moment mentality.” It really works.

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