This year, we will be focusing on the traits of the top seven greatest tennis players of the modern era: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King. After discussing the single most important trait they possess, I will show you how you can learn this trait. I will rely on insights given to me by some of the most gifted coaches in the nation. The first coach I interviewed was Steven Kaplan, director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center right here on Long Island. Steven coaches elite players and is one of the most articulate coaches there is. It’s no surprise that he attended Columbia University as a post-grad student.
Our first player to analyze is Roger Federer. Every 100 years or so, a sport will produce a transcendent athlete, one who changes and transforms their sport. Roger Federer, like Tiger Woods in golf, single-handedly elevated his sport to a whole new level. He moved tennis from a sport that grunted, cursed and screamed, to a sport which took on the look of grace and ease. He let you believe that tennis was an easy game. This is the mark of a true genius. His peers uniformly praise him. Connors described him as “fluid and elegant.” Becker called him, “the best of his generation.” Agassi said, “Roger is the only player I have ever faced that had no weakness.” The press called him “The Maestro” which references his artistry. The fans call him “Fed Express.”
His career stats are astounding. He has won more prize money than any tennis player in history (over $78 million to date). He was world number one for a record 302 weeks. He has won 17 Grand Slam titles. In short, he is invincible and incomparable, and made winning look easy, graceful and inevitable … while barely breaking a sweat.
I asked Steven Kaplan the impossible. I asked him to choose one word to describe Roger, a word that would describe his most important trait. He told me the word would have to be “PERFECTIONIST.” Steve said, “When you watch Federer, you can see how meticulous he is in appearance. He is totally put together. His technique is perfection and totally efficient and effortless. He has the softest landing force of the top 100 pros.” I then asked Steven what accounts for his perfection, and he told me, “Perhaps it is cultural. He is Swiss and they are known for being highly organized and wonderful craftsmen. Look at the watches they produce.”
As I researched Switzerland’s history, I found that they are a pluralist nation with equal numbers of Germans, French and Italians. They have a reputation of being politically neutral and never taking sides. They are not a warring nation. They are multi-lingual and multi-ethnic, are tolerant and have successfully integrated all their diversity. Roger appears to me to also be tolerant, kind and not overly aggressive. This may give him his ability to focus on his game rather than on killing his opponent. This may be why he has been the recipient of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award a record nine times.
But his winning ways are more than just cultural. Yes, he is most certainly gifted genetically, but he also has two supportive parents with an intact marriage. His mother is his business manager. He was lucky to have met tennis pro Mirka Vavrinec in 2000 and has been with her ever since. She retired from the tour in 2002 and has been at his side ever since. In other words, he has a trusted and steady team around him.
Perfection is any sport is a rare occurrence. It always takes a multitude of factors to remain in place for at least 10 years to bring it about. You will need great genes, a supportive family, a caring and mature spouse, and a culture that reinforces certain traits such as meticulousness and tolerance. He has remarked that he owes his hand-eye coordination to playing a variety of sports growing up, including badminton, basketball and cricket.
What can you learn from Roger? I asked Steven about how he deals with perfectionism in a person. Steven said, “You must gently help students recognize their mistakes and then offer corrections. It takes a lot of learning to become perfect. To admit to flaws is painful, but flaws must be faced in order to improve as a student.”
And this may be the real issue. One must be forgiving or have a forgiving coach so that flaws can be admitted to and then corrected. And the average person who has never picked up a racket can also learn from The Maestro. Roger Federer’s secret included:
1) Having a good team;
2) Forgiving yourself for mistakes and learning from them; and
3) Having a variety of interests rather than being too focused on one thing.
These three things produced this transcendent warrior, this Maestro, this piece of perfection that is the Federer Express. Next issue, we will take a look at Rafael Nadal.
Dr. Tom Ferraro
For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.