Three Powerful Lessons on Performance from Alcaraz’s RG Choke

Friday, in one of the most anticipated tennis matches this year, wunderkind Carlos Alcaraz faced off against Novak Djokovic, a living legend in tennis and one of the remaining “big three” (Nadal and Federer being the other two). The match provided some very powerful lessons that Carlos Alcaraz should heed if he wants to step up to a level anywhere near the legendary big three. Readers, pay attention: these lessons are equally important for athletes and companies alike that aspire, like Alcaraz, to be one of the rare-breed that attains legendary status.


Firstly, I’ve said it many times before, but one of the worst things to happen to Alcaraz is the incredible success he has had in such a short time. Too much success too fast leads one to believe all the hype.As Annie Duke stated in her book Thinking in Bets, the human tendency when we have success is to attribute the lion’s share of

the credit to ourselves and our skill, yet when we lose, we attribute a disproportionate weight to circumstances or bad luck. In reality, timing and circumstances always play a significant part, even when we win. Alcaraz has been vocal over the last year about wanting to be the best ever, and thus he wanted to “beat the best”. His tone and demeanour made it clear that he fully believed he would, based on his success to date.

What has become clear is that Alcaraz is lacking a key component that helped forge the big three into what they are: struggles, losses and frustration. More often than they would have liked. You see, Alcaraz is clearly a special talent, but his meteoric rise, and relative“dominance” over the competition, has to be seen in context of the unique circumstances of that period. His rise occurred during a time when tennis was in transition. The big three were away from the game during long stretches of time, and several of the new generation of players, the so called Next Gen, were also suffering exceptional circumstances. Specifically, Alcaraz’s rise came without significant resistance from:

  • Federer, who was removed from the game for a year with an injury, that eventually led to his retirement
  • Nadal who was injured on and off again
  • Djokovic who was forbidden entrance to major events due to his non vaccination status
  • Zverev who suffered a severe ankle injury which knocked him out for about a year
  • Thiem, who likewise is trying to recover from his own wrist injury
  • Kyrgios who has been on and off which knee problems and mental health/motivational issues

During this time, Alcaraz has won one grand slam (where all big three were absent from the draw). During the same period, Nadal and Djokovic have won two and three respectively (last year’s Australian Open andRoland Garros for Nadal; Last year’s Wimbledon and this year’s Australian Open and Roland Garros for Djokovic).

So, lesson ONE is clear: confidence is great to have, but be careful not to let your success make you feel unbeatable. Stay humble, recognize your hard work, but understand you probably had some help from luck or circumstance to help your achievements. If your company has been growing, surely your team has worked very well, but check if the market was also growing, if market factors (eg low interest rates) provided fuel to grow that may not be available in the next economic cycle, etc. Most of all, don’t expect it to be “easy”, or as straight forward as you may have enjoyed in the past...which takes us to ...


Alcaraz has had such success in “blowing his opponents off the court”, that he seemed completely lost when this did not occur in his match with Djokovic on Friday. The elder and more experiencedDjokovic understood that to win, he needed to take Alcaraz out of his comfort zone, and that meant breaking his

rhythm. As a result, instead of being able to sit back and hit the ball with his trademark power shots, Alcaraz was forced to scramble up towards the net, and from side to side, never getting a chance to up and unload on the ball as he likes. The speed went from hard baseline shots to soft drop shots to high defensive shots, all forcing Alcaraz to change gears, which he clearly was not mentally prepared to do. Alcaraz seemed to have no plan B when he was unable to use his power to win.

All great athletes, and successful companies, understand that their mission or ultimate goal will not change, but they surely will have to make adjustments along the way. Even if you have a relative advantage (like Alcaraz’s power), competitors will rapidly figure you out and devise creative ways to off set your advantage. If you don’t know how to adapt, you may have short term success, but you won’t realize your maximum long term performance potential. Amazon and Facebook (now Meta) are examples of very successful companies that needed to pivot from their original strategies in order to survive and grow. Similarly, the Big Three in tennis have shown the ability to adapt in order to keep improving:

  • ✓  Federer modified how he played his backhand vs Nadal later on in his career, stepping in earlier to lessen the impact of     heavy topspin which had hurt him so often in their earlier matches
  • ✓  Nadal figured out early that he needed to improve his serve and net play in order to win on faster surfaces like grass
  • ✓  Djokovic lacked stamina early on and worked on his diet and training to become one of the toughest competitors in long,     physically draining matches

Alcaraz’s hubris lies in thinking he could beat everyone without making any adjustments. His confusion became apparent when he unraveled mentally because he could not win with his trademark power strategy.He began complaining of severe cramps, but I think it’s obvious the main cramp was in his brain. Unable to pivot to a new strategy, he froze, and his performance plummeted.

Lesson 2 should be at the top of your mind always:You need to be prepared and be able to modify your strategy to keep moving forward when circumstances change and competitors figure you out. As MarshallGoldsmith says, “What got you here, won’t get you there”. It is never pleasant when our previously successful strategies stop working, but top performers know how to work through that discomfort, which leads us to our third lesson....


When I travelled the ATP tour with my players, I noticed a trend. The best of the best would almost never quit a match, even if they were injured. It was part of the code of honour. They would even try to hide it, because they did not want it to be seen as “an excuse”. Moreover, whenever a reporter asked about court conditions (wind, heat, etc), they would typically point out that their opponent had the same conditions, so that is not a discussion worth having.

I heard a phrase from a pro coach I worked with that I never forgot. He said “Everyone plays well when things are going well, but it’s only the great ones who know how to compete well when they are not feeling great and not playing their A game”. Great champions know how to move past discomfort and less than ideal conditions and continue to be competitive.That’s the grit and focus that is the mark of legendary champions. Alcaraz onFriday showed he still has a way to go to become legendary (I believe he can continue to grow but he needs to realize that he has to step up his mental game if he wants to go to the next level. Physical prowess alone won’t get him there, as was evident on Friday against a rival 16 years his senior).

Great companies also display this characteristic.All too often I see companies who find their market share or stock price dropping or their growth slowing, and they enter into panic mode, launching spastic cost cutting programs that do more to demotivate employees than to drive impactful savings. Panic is never a good response to pressure.Constraints are real, but the greats use them to improve performance in new and innovative ways.

Thus, Lesson 3 is critical to your success: You need to be prepared and able to perform even when things are not always going your way and when what brought you success in the past is not enough to breakthrough to the next level.


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