I think we all know how young tournament players would answer this question: "Would you like to win the US Open one day?"
While aspiring players all want tennis greatness, it's not desire, but the willingness to do whatever it takes that's extraordinary. Almost every young player would love to be the very best, but very few are willing or even knowing of what it takes to be number one.
In my career, I have coached 11 players ranked number one in the country, and I've learned from each of them. Upon reflection, it's clear that they all shared and excelled in certain qualities. Below is my list of the common attributes that these players used to rise above the competition. It's useful to view these questions as a test and consider: Do you, your child or your student display the following?
1. The best players follow directions with attention to detail, with precision and with perfection.
Cognitive intelligence is commonly displayed by the efficiency by which we learn and the best players are highly skilled at learning and improving. The very best players are extraordinarily "coachable." They love to learn and improve. They often question directions, but they inquire out of thoughtfulness, not inattention or defiance.
2. The best players do the easy things well.
A great ready position is relatively easy to display as compared to great backhand volley. Walking with poise and managing your racket well in between points is a lot easier than sprinting to a difficult shot. Great players excel at perfectly executing the easy, small intangibles. Sure, they are the small things, but the small stuff is the difference between “good” and “the best.”
3. The best players value fairness.
Out-preparing the competition is empowering. The best believe they will win because they are ready and deserving of victory. Such thinking places strong faith in the value of merit with no shortcuts to the top. The best players believe that it's fair that they win because they will always outwork the competition and they give less value to the shortcuts designed to cheat the system. Of course we all know great juniors who are tennis rules cheaters, but I strongly believe that such behavior is a corruption of a top players’ integrity by needless external pressures. It's also a shame.
4. The best players love to compete, but are motivated by performance discipline.
We all play our best when faced with an outside challenge, but the biggest challenge in tennis is to remain motivated by an inner desire to be the best. Show me a player who refuses to lose focus and discipline even when they can easily dominate, and I suggest you are witnessing a vital skill that will help ascend that player to the top. A great coach needs to motivate lesser players, but great players can motivate even a lesser coach.
5. The best players expect to win.
Most players believe they can win. The best players believe they will win despite the fact that they are often wrong. Such belief is the result of unyielding performance optimism.
It takes courage to believe in your ability to win because the more emotion you invest, the greater the disappointment of failure. The best players are especially brave because they hate to lose a lot.
6. The best players leave nothing to chance.
The best players are both macro- and micro-oriented. They focus on both the big and small picture, and they see details that most players miss. They bring extra food, extra drinks, extra clothing and extra equipment on the court just in case. They will bring an extra pair of shoelaces because, while they rarely break, such an event could be a real problem. They train hard, get rest, eat well and strive for excellence always because to do anything less is an unnecessary risk.
7. The best players love to solve problems.
I often challenge players to "get the ball from me and they can't punch, bite, scratch, pinch or tickle me." The players who fight me fail and often get frustrated, but some players are not fooled. They simply ask for the ball because they think outside the box and they love to creatively solve problems. Each match is a unique problem-solving opportunity and the best players love to seize the moment to find a way to succeed.
8. The best players never give up.
Every achievement study indicates that success is like buying lottery tickets—the more tickets you buy, the better your odds of winning. The best players buy more tickets and fail more, but are unrelenting. They keep going until they succeed. The expression is: "The expert has failed more times than the beginner has tried."
9. The best players hate to lose, but hate not playing even more.
Losing can be awful, but for the best, not playing is a guaranteed loss. The best tennis players play tennis, period. They are opportunists and they view every match not played as a missed opportunity to succeed.
10. The best players are students of the game.
There is so much to learn and know about tennis to be the best. Knowledge is power and the best players want to learn and know everything. They are never complacent, as they recognize that it is never too late to learn what is always helpful to know. They watch matches, break down mechanics and study tennis history because to understand where they can go, they want to know where others have been.
On a scale of one to 10 for the above qualities, a score of nine for each, is the minimum threshold for the useful embodiment of these attributes because at a rarified level, you need to own these qualities to use them. Further, to be the best, you need all 10 of these qualities because they are a chain of performance synergies working together to produce greatness. Imagine locking your bike with a 10-link chain having nine links of galvanized steel and one link of a paperclip. Any chain, like any performance personality, is only as strong as its weakest link.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.