The Ghost of Nadal and Failing Forward.

Lessons for Companies and Athletes from Carlos Alcaraz’s Wimbledon Victory

Sunday’s Wimbledon final was ripe with emotion and exceptional tennis, but as my wife always says, when I watch sports, especially tennis, I see a whole other level of mental play and momentum. This final was a treat, because of the mental journey both players travelled over the 5 hour epic battle.
The first thing I couldn’t get out of my head, was the “ghost” of Rafa Nadal’s 2008 victory over Roger Federer. Let me share an insider’s view about the game, considered by many as one of the greatest tennis matches ever, and you’ll see how it ties perfectly with yesterday’s match, like a masterfully written movie where apparently unrelated storylines converge for a powerful climax.

First, the history lesson

[This account was shared with me while on tour by a ver respected ATP coach, and given his proximity to everyone in the Spanish tennis world, I’m pretty confident that it is accurate. Any variations may come from my recounting of the tale, but the essence remains unchanged]

The Place: Wimbledon, Center CourtThe year: 2008

Roger Federer, then world number one of the ATP rankings during almost four years, and defending champion of the Wimbledon men’s singles title during the same period, found himself in a battle with upcoming sensation Rafael Nadal, who had established himself as a clay court specialist, but was now becoming a threat on all surfaces. Federer had narrowly beaten Nadal the year before to retain his Wimbledon title, and the two legends were again battling for the title in 2008.

The rain, as usual at Wimbledon, had forced suspension of play several times. The players were waiting in the dressing rooms for mother nature to clear the skies and allow the battle of titans to finish. The scoreboard had been frozen at two sets apiece, five-five in the fifth set. The match was completely tied.

The young Spaniard from Manacor, who was keeping alive the dream of achieving what no other Spanish player had managed since Manuel Santana, ie winning the title on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, was facing the greatest pressure situation of his career up to that point. The slightest error would allow Federer to gain an advantage, win the set, and retain his title, replicating the disappointing result from the previous year for Nadal.

To win, either player only needed only to win two consecutive games; eight points! The title would be decided by just EIGHT POINTS!

Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and still coach at that point, entered the dressing room, expecting to the historic impact of the situation, and the haunting memories of the narrow loss on this same court just twelve months before, to be weighing heavily on his pupil and nephew.

Much to his surprise, he found a different Rafa Nadal than the previous year, one who had meditated long and hard on what he could have done differently in 2007, and who had come to identify the only formula that could possibly allow him to win the match.

In a show of his now famous mental strength and indomitable fighting spirit, Rafa looked his coach in the eye and said that he could not say if he would win or lose, but he could guarantee that if Federer wanted to defeat him this year, he would have to comb the lines on each of those eight points, because that’s how Rafa was going to play when he returned to center court.

Nadal understood that the fear and slight hesitation he had felt in the fifth set in 2007, had marked the difference between potential victory and defeat...and he vowed to not lose by his own hand again. “Eight lines” meant Nadal would be brave and play aggressively, and to beat him, Federer would have to do the same. The outcome was out of his hands, but he was going to own the process.

The final outcome is well known: Rafa played valiantly, broke Federer and held onto win 9-7 in the fifth.

Now cut to 2023, the final between Alcaraz and Djokovic. Hanging over the head of Alcaraz was his loss just a month earlier in the semi-final of Roland Garros to the same player. That night, the pressure had gotten to Alcaraz. He did not play with his trademark power and spectacular shot making. He had become scared and took away his own power.

NOW HERE’S where both storied merge. On Sunday, Djokovic began by leveraging the same strategy he’s successfully used to slay the giant killer version of Alcaraz inParis. And it worked, for the first set..and part of the second set. Then, as the second set progressed, the ghost of Rafa Nadal’s 2008 heroics seemed to infuse Alcaraz and he appeared to make the same decision as Nadal had 15 years before: he was going to play loose and with all his power, and, in the purest style of Julius Caesar, lea iacta est (“Let the dice be cast”). He won the second set and then the third, and most importantly, he learnt that he had to trust himself and trust his tennis. He had to focus on what he knows how to do, and let the score, as Bill Walsh, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers famously said, “take care of itself”.

Djokovic has not won 23 grand slams by accident, so he wasn’t going to roll over easily, and he leveraged a micro drop in Alcaraz’s game in the 4th to equal the scoreboard, and plant the seed of doubt in his rival’s mind. And here is where Alcaraz stepped into the most heroic version of himself. He played the fifth set, not with the fear and hesitation which cost him the loss in Paris, but with complete conviction and focus on being in “flow”. Nowhere was that more evident than during the last game, where Alcaraz was serving for the match, and Djokovic hit a deadly angled backhand. Alcaraz valiantly lunged for the volley and masterfully dropped the ball just over the net. That shot broke Djokovic’s spirit and Alcaraz let him know that he was not going to wrinkle under the pressure this time. Carlitos had learnt from his defeats and rose as a better, more mature version of himself. And this is what champions do: both in sports and in business.

So here’s the lesson for businesses and business leaders: you need to fail (a lot) to be successful. And you need to look at those failures, those defeats, not bury them or try to write them off to back luck. You need to examine them in all the gory detail and take note of the cringe-worthy mistake you made. That’s the only way you can hope to identify what you need to improve, and go to work on improving those millimetres that can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Make no mistake, Sunday’s final came down to a few key shots that made all the difference. When Djokovic uncharacteristically shanked a smash in the 5th which would have broken Alcaraz, that changed the tone. And when Alcaraz made shots like that masterful volley in the final game, he earned his victory and proved he’s on the right road to growing mentally as a great competitor, which was the one weak area he had left.

So, if you aspire to take your business to world class levels, ensure that you create a culture that not only tolerates failure, but studies it and extracts lessons from it, and NEVER uses it to shame the team. Business have trouble with this, but remember: no one remembers the journey, they only remember if you succeeded in the end. That’s true in business and it’s true for those who become legendary athletes. Micheal Jordan, by his own admission, missed more than 9,000 shots, lost almost 300 games and failed the game-winning shot 26 times, but no one remembers that, because he kept going.

Amazon did not become a world power in it’s early days as a book reseller. However,the company continued to explore, fail, and experiment until it has become one of themost admired and dominant companies in the world.

So the bottom line for business: failing is necessary to succeed, and the bigger your aspiration, the more you will have to fail along the way. It’s logical: the more difficult whatever you try to achieve, the more you’ll have to work (and fail) to develop the skill(if it were easy, everyone would be doing it).

However, the best of the best create cultures where failure only counts if it’s the last time you try. Otherwise, it’s just data on what not to do and what you need to improve to eventually win...and WIN BIG!

Remember our motto: “Impossible just means no one has done it...YET!”

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