In the year 2020, it’s become cliché to call Rafael Nadal, “The King of Clay.” He’s dominated the French Open for so long, we’ve been calling him that since the release of the iPhone 4S.
After collecting his 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires this past October, his cache of titles dwarfs the smooth Swede’s stockpile of six. Here are 13 reasons why he has so many damn titles:
Nadal never surrenders. He’s tenacious. He’s the definition of dirtballer. The Spanish System’s mantra is to embrace suffering—and no one embodies that better than Nadal.
Nadal’s professional career started at 15 in 2001. Still in prime shape at 34, Rafa dispatched Djokovic in straight sets—leaving him befuddled and without an answer. Many pundits predicted that due to his grueling style of play, Rafa’s career would be cut short by injuries. Welp, it looks like they were wrong.
Nope, not core stability—although he’s got that too—but emotional stability garnered from sticking to routines, surrounding himself with loyal and supportive friends and family, and spending quality time at his beloved island home of Mallorca.
We might all collectively snicker when Nadal lines up his water bottles just so, incessantly picks at his wedgie, scampers around and leaps like a frightened field rabbit after the coin toss, or jumps like a kangaroo in the stadium’s underbelly—but these routines bring him comfort and provide stability.
Rafa’s Uncle Toni was a stalwart in the player’s box for so many years—coaching Nadal from childhood until eventual retirement in 2017. On the surface, the hiring of former World No. 1 Carlos Moya to replace Uncle Toni, might seem to be yet another trendy superstar coach hire, but upon further review, it fits the typical Nadal pattern. The fellow Mallorcans have had a relationship that spans two decades—Moya serving as a mentor during Rafa’s youth. An overwhelming percentage of Nadal’s team are hometown hires—think of Nadal as tennis’ version of Vinny Chase.
If Nadal took the Dominic Thiem route and showcased his workouts on IG, we’d all collectively puke—right before we resume our search efforts for the next cute cat video.
Does Nadal’s humility—or his desire for privacy—prevent him from publishing his grueling workouts for the whole world to see on social media? It shall remain one of life’s many unsolved mysteries…
9. Groundstroke Height Over the Net
Rafa averages 90 inches of net clearance with his groundstrokes—and, yes gentlemen, height matters. By comparison, Nadal hits over two feet higher than his adversary Djokovic, who averages 63 inches. The RPMs he generates allows him to hit with such dramatic height while still keeping the ball inside the lines.
The higher trajectory helps him hit with depth and produces a higher bounce. It is with these high, arcing groundstrokes that Nadal pins his opponents back in a defensive position—both opening the court and giving him more time to attack.
Nadal’s forehand has been clocked as high as 5,000 RPMs, while on average he hits 3,200 RPMs. The tremendous amount of topspin he produces is as perfect a weapon for Phillipe Chatrier as a cross-bow is for the impending zombie apolcalypse.
Racquet geeks might belabor the importance of Nadal’s Babolat Aero Pro Drive, or his aptly named polyester strings—the 15 gauge Babolat RPM Blast—but without his explosive technique, all the fancy-schmancy equipment in the world would be as useful as a chocolate fire-guard.
On both the forehand and backhand, Rafa’s ridiculous acceleration originates from his powerful lower body, is stabilized by his rock-solid core, and then culminates with the crack of his long and loose whip-like arm(s). On the forehand, he drops the racquet head over two feet below the incoming ball—while most amateur players struggle to get two inches below the ball!
7. Performance Under Pressure
Pressure is arguably at its highest in tennis during tiebreaks and deciding sets. Nadal’s performance in both at the French is impeccable. With a match record at the French Open of 100-2, it might be super obvious that he’s won a high percentage of tiebreakers and deciding sets, but in these key moments, Nadal’s clutchness has been the difference between winning and losing.
6. The Lefty Slice Serve
Nadal is not known for dropping double digit aces, but his lefty advantage on the serve continually sets him up for success.
Both his slice serve out wide on the ad court and down-the-T on the deuce side target his right-handed opponents’ backhands. The deuce court serve funnels his opponents’ returns to the middle, while the the ad court serve pulls his opponents completely off the court.
In both situations, Nadal’s serve sets up his punishing forehand 79% of the time. On clay, Nadal executes what tennis tactician Craig O’Shannessy calls , “serve plus one,” better than anyone.
5. The Lefty Forehand
Nadal’s leftyness also enhances the effectiveness of his cross court forehand. Nadal’s forehand is so ferocious, it would undoubtedly still be a weapon if he were right-handed—but considering his massive lefty forehand bounces up high to his right-handed opponents backhands—it makes it damn near unstoppable on clay.
This is where the courts of Roland Garros provide their biggest assist to Nadal: the limestone base material is actually harder than the rubberized hard courts of Australia or New York, which causes the ball to bounce higher, while the friction created by the two millimeter layer of crushed brick slows the speed of the ball down.
High and slow is the perfect recipe for a crosscourt topspin forehand like Nadal’s. His opponents—whether one-handed or two-handed—struggle to find an edge against it.
4. Deep Return Position
At the French, Nadal stands so far back to receive, that the ball boys can practically reach out and get his autograph.
This deep return position works for him so well for several reasons: he’s got the speed and endurance to pull it off, the serve and volley play is more difficult to execute on red clay (as if anyone serves and volleys anymore anyways), and of course his ability to crank topspin on both sides helps.
Nadal’s positioning gives him more time to take a big, loopy cut at the ball—and somehow all the way from Row 17, he can still hit it hard enough to take the offensive. His deep return position coupled with the clay court bounce, also makes it tough to sneak an ace past the Spaniard.
While it’s a strategy that pays off for him on the clay, only three weeks later at Wimbledon, you’ll notice him standing much closer to the baseline.
3. Break Point Escape Artist
Nadal saves break points at a clip of 70% at the French. Not only does saving break points at this rate help Nadal for the obvious reasons, it also has what you might call a Sisyphus effect on his opponents—they get so close to the promised land, only to ultimately be denied.
2. Timing is Everything
Even though Rafa started competing professionally in 2001, he didn’t play the French Open until 2005, where he won it on his first attempt. Whether this was due to injury, dumb luck, or another Uncle Toni’s genius coaching—not playing the tournament until he was primed to win it has certainly allowed Nadal to develop a mystique at Roland Garros.
It might seem counterintuitive to list self-doubt as a positive attribute for a tennis champion, but self-doubt is in fact Nadal’s greatest superpower.
In his recent 60 minutes interview, Rafa revealed that his self-doubt is what keeps him alert and humble. He believes someone who thinks they can’t fail ultimately becomes arrogant and complacent—and it’s unlikely that an arrogant and complacent champion would have amassed 13 French Open titles.
Something tells me by this time next year, I better have a 14th reason up my sleeve…
At the moment, the entire world is consumed by the novel coronavirus. Government mandated social isolation and quarantines have temporarily altered every aspect of our lives. In the sports world, all college and professional sporting events have either been suspended or cancelled—this includes the postponement of the ATP and WTA tours and the cancellation of Wimbledon for the first time since World War II.
Like any new virus, Covid-19 has an origin story—a “patient zero.” Epidemiologists posit the outbreak started at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China—where a singular action set in motion a pandemic that has impacted everyone across the globe.
Novel ideas are similar to novel viral infections in two ways: they have the potential to spread quickly and they spread exponentially from host to host. Throughout tennis history, there have been certain ideas that have spread like viruses: traveling from person to person until they reached pandemic proportions. Seven specific actions, moments, and events had such an enormous impact that they changed the sport forever. Here are the Seven Tennis Pandemics:
THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1973)
The year is 1973: U.S involvement in the Vietnam War has officially ended, Archie Bunker is America’s favorite “lovable bigot,” and professional tennis is stumbling through the early days of its “Open Era.” The late summer of ’73 brought us one of the most iconic moments in sports history and women’s rights—a showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, dubbed, “The Battle of the Sexes.”
King was the presiding world number one and Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion and self-proclaimed male chauvinist. Riggs starred in the shameless promoter role, with lines like: “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.” The match was played at the Houston Astrodome to a packed house and broadcast to an estimated 90 million people worldwide. Both players entered the court with the pomp and circumstance of prize fighters. King would ultimately win the contest in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She later described the immense pressure she felt, saying that if she lost, “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
The sociological impact of King’s victory resonates until this day: female participation in sports continues to rise and women now receive equal prize money at the Grand Slams. Outside of sports, massive strides have been made with opportunities and compensation for women in the workplace. While there is still work to be done, “The Battle of the Sexes” provided the women’s liberation movement with a much needed early cornerstone moment.
“The Battle of the Sexes” was also one of several moments that ignited the “tennis boom”—with the star power of characters like Borg, McEnroe, Evert, and Navratilova providing the kerosene. The boom was the single most important era for tennis—helping to transform it from a venerable pastime to a viable professional sport.
TELEVISION & THE TWO-HANDER (1974 – 1981)
Tennis may never know a bigger rockstar than Bjorn Borg—or have a bigger sweetheart than Chrissie Evert. Both players were blonde, beautiful, and possessed a stroke that was quite unusual for their time—the two-handed backhand. Add the arrogant, outspoken, and controversial Jimmy Connors to the mix, and three of the most recognizable players of the “tennis boom” were two-handers. Their prevalence would impact game style for generations to come.
It’s hard to imagine today, but during the tennis boom, people didn’t have televisions in their pockets. TVs were gargantuan things often encased in wood; they only offered three channels and you had to get off the couch to change between them. From the mid 70s to early 80s, sports enthusiasts and tennis fans would be lucky to be exposed to a few matches on TV per year—the finals of the four Grand Slams being the most typical times to gather around and watch.
From 1974 – 1981, TV sets around the world showcased Evert, Borg, and Connors in Grand Slam finals a combined 41 times—pretty impressive considering they only participated Down Under a combined 5 times prior to ’82. As their matches were broadcast into living rooms worldwide, the next generations’ champions were the ones most eagerly affixed to the screen.
The numbers tell the tale: in 1980, only 11% of male professionals and 20% of females were two-handed. By 1998, as the products of the boom became professionals themselves, the numbers had skyrocketed to 56% of men and 70% of women. The popularity of the two-handed backhand has continued to increase until today: 85 of the top 100 men play two-handed, while the one-hander has all but disappeared from the women’s game—with only 3 of the top 100 women using a single-handed backhand.
Over time, advances in racquet technology have certainly made the two-handed backhand a more attractive option, but we cannot deny the influence of the highly visible trendsetters, who, while wielding cumbersome racquets with minuscule heads, bucked the trend of the time and elected to go to battle with two hands rather than one.
FROM ARIAS TO AGASSI TO ALL (1978 – 1992)
Buffalo, New York might not seem like the most likely place for a tennis pandemic to start—but don’t tell that to former world number five Jimmy Arias. Arias grew up in Buffalo, where every winter tennis courts would disappear under mountains of lake effect snow. Jimmy’s father, Antonio, was a tennis fan and engineer by trade who quickly realized that the old-school forehand being taught to his son was not optimal. Antonio had an innovative idea—he encouraged his son to relax on the follow through and swing fluidly to produce as much force as possible.
Meanwhile, in Sarasota, Florida, former Army Paratrooper and tennis coach Nick Bollettieri had an equally crazy idea—gather together throngs of talented juniors, sequester them away from their parents, and have them beat up on each other every day until the alpha dog emerged.
Nick’s venue for this ambitious venture was the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. The owner of the Colony was former orthodontist turned entrepreneur, Murf Klauber. Klauber was from—you guessed it—Buffalo, NY. Friends of Klauber urged the then 13-year-old Arias to pay Bollettieri a visit in Sarasota. Bollettieri’s famous foresight served him well again, as he instantly recognized Jimmy’s explosive forehand as the shot of the future. Bollettieri offered Jimmy a full scholarship and told his friends they could come for free too—they acquiesced and the world’s first tennis factory was born. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy even had its own trademark shot—”the Arias forehand” was quickly rebranded as “the Bollettieri forehand.”
Five years later, Bollettieri would recruit a brash Vegas bad-boy with a bleach blonde mullet. His name was Andre Agassi. Agassi was the alpha dog Bollettieri had been searching for—their relationship culminated with the pair winning Wimbledon together in 1992. Bollettieri used the Arias blueprint to weaponize Andre’s already fierce forehand—encouraging him to attack whenever possible. Donning acid-washed jean shorts, Agassi’s flashy forehand and rebellious attitude made for marketing gold during the image conscious era that was the 80s. Agassi’s success and worldwide popularity would spell the end for the old-school forehand—the very forehand that Antonio Arias had opposed many years ago.
MCENROE & GRAF-ITE (1983 – 1988)
By 1980, the traditional wooden tennis racquet had undergone several iterations: the steel Wilson T-2000, the oversized aluminum Prince Pro, and even the controversial spaghetti strung racquets. None of these variations successfully put old faithful out to pasture. Jimmy Connors developed an obsession with the T-2000, but most players found it too heavy and a burden to string. The Prince Pro was much lighter than its steel predecessor, but its flexible construction made it too unreliable for top players to trust. The revolutionary process of molding graphite composite into powerful, lightweight frames was the technology that would finally render wood ineffective.
The early graphite racquet that trumped them all, was the Dunlop Max 200G. Two of the 80s best players—John McEnroe and Steffi Graf—arguably had their best years in ’84 and ’88 respectively, using this stick. The racquet, with its 85 square inch head and 12.5 ounce weight, provided the perfect blend of power and control. The Max 200G and other composite offerings from Yonex, Prince, and Wilson widened the chasm between wood and graphite. Serve speeds surged, ace totals ballooned, and game styles began to change: the power era was born.
The disparity in power was vast. It was most noticeable when Borg attempted a comeback using his old wood frames at the Monte Carlo Open in 1991. He was overwhelmed by world number 52, Jordi Arrese, in the first round. Pre-tournament sparring partner, German Boris Becker, said it best, bluntly quipping that: “[Borg] hits with no power.”
Graphite is still used in racquet composition to this day, while wood racquets are more readily found at your neighborhood garage sale.
TEAM NAVRATILOVA (1981 – 1988)
By 1981, Martina Navratilova hadn’t yet reached legend status. She was a perennial contender, but not the dominant force that she would ultimately become. Her primary rival, Chris Evert, was the woman to beat—holding a lopsided 28-13 head-to-head advantage over Martina.
Martina hit rock bottom after suffering an embarrassing double bagel loss to Evert at Amelia Island. Shortly after, she sparked a friendship with professional basketball player, Nancy Lieberman. Their friendship would help transform Martina’s body and career.
Lieberman was a hard-nosed competitor from Queens, NY, who quickly discovered that Martina’s training regime was anemic at best. Lieberman believed Navratilova was squandering her potential, and set out to help her reach it. She helped Navratilova institute a fitness routine involving basketball style workouts. They even cross-trained—playing full court games of basketball for conditioning.
Around the same time, Navratilova would enlist the help of Dr. Renee Richards as a hitting partner and tactician. Richards helped refine Martina’s match strategy. To complete her transformation, Martina hired nutritionist, Robert Haas, to design a more healthy and optimal dietary plan. Martina was initially mocked for surrounding herself with unprecedented support—but she would have the last laugh.
Between ’82 – ’87, “Team Navratilova” would win 14 slams and final in six others. In ’83, she compiled an astounding 86-1 record. Her ’83 season is considered by most to be the most dominant year in tennis history. As far as Chris Evert, Martina would go 30-9 against her over the second half of their 15 year rivalry—to bring their career head-to-head to 43-37. Advantage Martina.
After Navratilova’s tremendous success, her contemporaries were no longer laughing—they were starting to copy her instead. Today, players boxes are packed with coaches, physios, and other specialists. Anytime a player makes an acceptance speech, the first thing they do is thank their “team.” For an individual sport, where “team” used to be a dirty word, that’s extraordinary. Martina was the first to do it—and possibly the best.
WALLS COME DOWN (1989 – 1991)
The success of communist countries in sport, particularly at the Olympic Games, is well-documented. Success in sport is a source of national pride and is recognized as a valuable contribution to the emotional welfare of the state. The athletic dominance of the Soviet Union throughout the 70s and 80s, lead to intent study by the west. Their methods were seen as progressive and were ultimately adopted by sporting nations around the world.
All of the Olympic medals came with steep price tag: Communist policies strictly regulated their athletes’ lives and training—so strictly, that athletes couldn’t travel freely for competition or pursue professional careers for personal gain. In the sport of professional tennis, this of course can create problems. Czech players, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, famously defected to gain the freedom to choose. This was no easy task—as they left not knowing if they’d ever see their families again.
In the second half of the 80s, the Soviet Union was beginning to dissolve. The collapse of the Berlin wall in ’89 being the most poignant symbol of the rapidly changing demographics of Central and Eastern Europe. The official dissolution of the USSR would follow on December 26, 1991.
The democratization of Eastern Europe, the opening of its borders, and the relaxation of communist policies would dramatically impact the landscape of professional tennis—most significantly on the women’s side. In 1990—before the dissolution—only 16 of the top 100 women were from countries in the Soviet Bloc. Fast forward to 2019, players in the top 100 had increased threefold to 48.
American author and journalist, Daniel Coyle, famously highlighted the 21st century success of one particular club in Moscow, called the Spartak Tennis Club. In contrast to the expansive and posh tennis academies of the west, Spartak crammed its players onto two modest indoor courts. Even with limited resources and subarctic winter conditions, during the early 2000s, Spartak had produced more top-20 female players than the entire United States. Coyle attributes their players’ success to what he calls the Russian Formula:
Have driven parents.
Receive powerful, consistent coaching.
Be raised in a culture of toughness.
Coupling their new found freedoms with renowned cultural toughness, many players from countries formerly under communist rule, have risen from bleak situations to become independently wealthy professional athletes. For example, former world number one, Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic, had to contest with her practices being interrupted by bomb sirens. Her regular training ground was a makeshift tennis court inside an empty swimming pool. Stories like Ivanovic’s are common for players from her region. The adversity they experienced isn’t an inhibitor to their success—rather, combined with freedom of choice, a slight glimmer of hope, and a bit of luck—it’s their superpower.
GUGA’S POLY-AMORY (1997 – 2000)
At the ’97 French Open, a little known gangly Brazilian with a megawatt smile made a surprise run to the championship. Entering the tournament, Gustavo Kuerten was ranked 66th in the world and had yet to win an ATP title. Guga defeated three former French Open champs en route to capturing the crown. He also captured the hearts of the French fans along the way.
At the time, the French fans were most likely unaware that Guga had a secret weapon—his strings. Guga’s racquets were strung with a polyester string called Luxilon original. Compared to traditional multi-filament strings, polyester helped Kuerten create tremendous amounts of spin—manipulating the ball in a way players using gut couldn’t. Guga wasn’t the only clay-courter to use poly at the time, but he was the first to break through at a major with it. In 2000, when Kuerten dismantled Sampras and Agassi indoors at the Masters Cup, it was clear polyester wasn’t just suited for clay—and it was here to stay. Today, nearly every player on tour uses polyester—or blends it with gut for increased feel.
Whereas the introduction of the graphite racquet in the 80s ushered in the modern power game, polyester strings pushed the game even further forward. Graphite racquets strung with polyester allowed players to create wicked angles and devastating passing shots that Rod Laver could only dream of. This deadly racquet and string combination has lead to the extinction of the pure serve and volleyer and to the near extinction of the one-handed backhand.
In the spirit of Gladwell, we’ve drawn parallels between how a viral pandemic spreads and how ideological pandemics have spread in tennis. I’d be remiss not to address some of the major differences between the coronavirus pandemic and our “seven tennis pandemics.” Here are three:
Tennis is just a sport. The events outlined—while some of the most significant moments in our sport’s history—pale in comparison to the physiological, sociological, and economical impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on us as a collective.
Unlike the seven tennis pandemics, we will contain the spread of the coronavirus. We will defeat it and our lives will return to normal. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day—but we will triumph and comeback stronger than ever. In comparison, the chances of chauvinism, cat gut strings, and wooden racquets making a comeback isn’t as promising.
Thank you for reading. I hope this post finds you healthy and well. During these challenging times, we must be there for one another. Reach out to us at info@fm-tennis if you have any questions, or just want to talk tennis. Also, if you’re hankering for a tennis specific workout, make sure to follow us @fmtennisfl for some creative workout tips.
As the world battles the Covid-19 Pandemic and the quarantine and self-isolation that follows, we’ve got a choice of how to spend our abundance of alone time. Hopefully your physical activity hasn’t been limited to traipsing back and forth to the fridge in between episodes of the Tiger King. Social media has been flooded with all types of creative at-home workout ideas. General fitness and physical activity is essential at a time like this, but it’s also a great opportunity to rehabilitate any lingering injuries or pre-habilitate by addressing structural imbalances.
Like many tennis players, I’ve struggled with shoulder injuries throughout my life. My shoulder issues mostly stem from repetitive overhead serving. The overhead service motion is not a natural motion. It’s especially unnatural to repeat this movement thousands upon thousands of times. At minimum, repetitive overhead serving can lead to an unstable, achy, or sore shoulder. In the event of a more serious injury, tennis players can miss weeks or months of practice and play. More serious injuries like rotator cuff tendinitis, shoulder impingement, labral tears, or rotator cuff tears require extensive physical therapy or possibly even surgery.
I’ve been able to manage my maladies using many aspects of the program below. It’s ideal to pre-habilitate before it ever becomes an issue—most shoulder injuries can be prevented with a proper injury prevention program in place. Here’s how you can Save Your Shoulder with Six Self-Care Strategies:
STRENGTHEN YOUR INTERNAL & EXTERNAL ROTATORS
The shoulder’s internal rotators help accelerate the racquet head on the serve, and external rotators help decelerate it. To maintain a healthy shoulder, specific exercises need to be performed to target the muscles of the rotator cuff. Here are two exercises that target those muscles:
INCREASE YOUR SHOULDER’S INTERNAL ROTATION
Due to their role in accelerating the racquet head on the serve, a tennis player’s internal rotators are typically stronger—and tighter—than their antagonists. It’s important to maintain a healthy range of motion by stretching the internal rotators. Keeping the internal rotators loose will help prevent common injuries like impingement or tendinitis. Here’s a short video that helps improve internal rotation flexibility:
MOBILIZE YOUR SCAPULA
A healthy, stable shoulder should have a 2:1 ratio of humerus to scapula movement. If the scapula lacks mobility, this will put unnecessary strain on the rotator cuff. Improving the strength of the muscles that move the shoulder blade can help mobilize it. Here are four exercises that help improve scapular mobility:
Pec major and minor are primary movers on the serve, forehand, and forehand volley. Gravity doesn’t help much either—as it is constantly pulling our shoulders forward and down. The compounding effect of tennis and gravity leads to rounded shoulder posture for many tennis players. Improper posture will strain the tendons and ligaments of the shoulder. Below is an illustration of how to stretch out your chest:
STRENGTHEN YOUR POSTERIOR CHAIN
Back muscles are notoriously neglected across all populations because they aren’t the muscles we see in the mirror. Stretching the muscles of the anterior chain can help correct postural imbalances, but to maintain this posture, one must strengthen the muscles of the posterior chain. Lats, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids all need to be targeted with a strength training program. Due to left-right imbalances found in tennis players, you’ll benefit from performing exercises unilaterally when possible. Here’s a list of three essential exercises for your posterior chain:
Spare the oils and candles—but a little ambient music is OK—if you’re into that kinda thing.
The self-massage business is booming—you can find all types of gadgets and gizmos for sale online. All of these different products are designed to accomplish the same goal: to loosen up the body’s fascia. Fascia is the thin connective tissue that covers all the muscles of the body. With activity, this connective tissue can get tight and increase pressure on joints. Myofascial release is most helpful after a practice or workout to help aid in recovery.
Here’s a great video tutorial of how to use a lacrosse ball to help release the fascia surrounding the shoulder:
I hope these strategies help to keep those shoulders healthy for when we can all get back to playing the sport that we love. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Stay healthy, my friends.
Without question, the biggest story of the NFL offseason has been, “who will Tom Brady sign with?” If you’ve switched on ESPN since the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, then you’ve heard the talking heads yapping incessantly about all of his possible destinations.
Thankfully, the wait—and the endless prognosticating—is almost over. On March 18th, Brady will officially become a free agent for the first time. As this final chapter of his storied career is etched into the annals of NFL history, let’s not forget his humble beginnings: 20 years ago, Brady was an unheralded 6th round draft pick by the New England Patriots. He would ultimately rise from draft obscurity to become the winningest quarterback of all time.
Brady’s story is one every athlete should be familiar with—especially tennis players. The world of junior tennis can be a confusing place, with many conflicting messages. These Four Lessons from Tom Brady should help you better navigate the crazy tennis world:
DON’T OVERVALUE PHYSICAL TALENT
Coming out of college, Tom Brady wasn’t hyped as the next great franchise quarterback. So much so, he even prepared a resume like a typical college graduate. His draft stock suffered in part due to a poor showing at the NFL combine: Brady still holds the record for the slowest quarterback time in the 40 yard dash with a languid 5.28 seconds.
Scouts and executives overlooked Brady because of their tendency to overvalue size, strength, and speed at the quarterback position. There are numerous draft busts who are the absolute antithesis of Brady: Tim Tebow, Jamarcus Russell, Jake Locker, and Vince Young to name a few. These four quarterback dominated in college, impressed in the combine, and had immense physical talents—but after being selected in the first round, they subsequently struggled to stay employed in the National Football League.
“We didn’t open up his chest and look at his heart. We didn’t look at that. I don’t know if anybody did. What kind of spine he had. And resiliency, and all the things that are making him really great right now.”
Steve Mariucci, former NFL head coach
The skills that make a quarterback successful in college, don’t directly translate to the pros. In the NFL, quarterbacks need to be more accurate, understand more complex offenses, and read intricate defensive schemes. The foremost metric they are evaluated on shouldn’t be their physical attributes. Ironically, it’s Brady’s lack of mobility that has helped him develop into a prolific pocket passer—which is a skillset better suited for the NFL anyway.
In tennis, the most oft-discussed physical trait is height. There is no arguing that players have gradually become taller, but don’t be misled by all the noise about giants dominating the game. Less than 10 percent of the top 100 are above 6-foot on the women’s side and 6-foot-5 on the men’s side. One only needs to point to the success of Ferrer, Halep, Cibulkova, or Schwartzman to disprove the theory that shorter players are irrelevant in today’s game.
In response to missing out on Tom Brady in the draft, former NFL head coach, Steve Mariucci, said this: “We didn’t open up his chest and look at his heart. We didn’t look at that. I don’t know if anybody did. What kind of spine he had. And resiliency, and all the things that are making him really great right now.”
And that’s the first lesson Brady teaches us—that success in sport is more about what you can’t see than what you can.
FOCUS ON LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT
When Tom Brady first enrolled at the University of Michigan, he was seventh on the depth chart. After being drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots in 2000, he was fourth string. In his second season, he was Drew Bledsoe’s backup, and was only granted his opportunity after Bledsoe got hurt. “The Comeback Kid” has had to prove himself every step of the way.
Another Tom—Tom Martinez, has been in Tom Brady’s corner since he was 14. Until his death in 2012, Martinez would help clean up Brady’s throwing motion every offseason. In Daniel Coyle’s, Little Book of Talent, he mentions Brady still keeps a handwritten note in his wallet that describes the same basic throwing techniques Martinez taught him all those years ago. Sustaining a high level of play into his early 40s—it’s safe to say Tom Brady understands the value of long-term development.
In tennis, many coaches, parents, and players forgo long-term development for results and rankings in the short-term. Certain tennis federations require their players to achieve professional rankings between the ages of 14 and 16—while statistically, most top 100 players reach this milestone much later in their career. Players under 18 are also encouraged to achieve high junior ITF rankings; however there is a mixed correlation between achievement in the juniors and success in the pros. Pressuring juniors to specialize early and achieve early can also lead to physical and mental burnout.
Donald Young is one example of a promising junior that never fulfilled his potential as a pro. At 16 years, 5 months, Young was one of the youngest juniors to ever hold the year-end World No. 1 ranking. While he’s had some highlights, most would consider Young’s career disappointing. His lack of a thumping lefty serve is most likely to blame. Young’s current year to date ace percentage of 3.4% is among the ten worst on tour. His ace rate has been below 4% every year since 2009. His weak serve hurts him the most on the grass courts of Wimbledon—where lefties usually have an advantage.
Young has a career ATP match record of 124-189—or a winning percentage of 39.6 percent—which is on par with the winning percentage of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at 39.9 percent. For comparison’s sake, Roger Federer sits at 82.1 percent and Tom Brady at 77.4 percent. Considering Brady was seventh on the depth chart when he first enrolled at Michigan, 77.4 percent is pretty damn good.
PUT TEAM BEFORE “ME”
Throughout his career, Brady has always put the team first. Brady has consistently taken pay cuts to insure the Patriots could afford to pay other players. In tennis, the player can fire the coach, whereas in most sports, it’s the other way around. The individual nature of tennis can facilitate selfishness–that if not regulated—can become toxic.
The list of current and former champions who have had a parent or family member play a substantial role in their development is a very long one indeed. Look no further than America’s two most promising young stars: Coco Gauff and Sofia Kenin. The biggest benefit of keeping it in the family is loyalty—loyalty allows the player to receive a consistent message over a longer period. While it’s certainly possible to “fire” a parent (see: Mary Pierce), it’s more difficult than firing a coach.
Over the last 20 years, as the tennis coaching carousel continued its spin, Brady remained with one team and one coach. Some critics label Brady a “system quarterback,” and claim Bill Belichick is the reason for all of his success. Now Brady is out to prove his doubters wrong one last time—I know who my money’s on.
CHARACTER COMES FIRST
Brady’s competitive spirit and work ethic are second to none—even after earning six rings and countless accolades, he still gets incredibly fired up to play football. And it’s not just football he gets competitive about: Brady’s teammates recall him breaking ping-pong paddles and throwing backgammon boards after losing to them.
He’s also known for his diligent preparation and legendary confidence. Brady sums it up himself with this quote: “Life is about taking advantage of opportunities, and you never know when you’re going to get them. You have to be prepared to take advantage when you get them. You try to go out there and be confident in yourself so you can inspire confidence in others.”
“I’ve always thought he was a better human being than he is a football player.”
Josh McDaniels, Patriots Offensive Coordinator
Players recount stories of Brady introducing himself to undrafted rookies to make them feel more welcome. Former coach, Josh McDaniels attests, “I’ve always thought he was a better human being than he is a football player.” Numerous former teammates testify to Brady’s loyalty, humility, and selflessness.
Brady never fails to acknowledge those who have helped him—even recognizing his college assistant athletic director, Greg Harden: “He has helped me with my own personal struggles in both athletics and in life. Greg really pushed me in a direction that I wasn’t sure I could go.”
These anecdotes show the quality of Brady’s character. These traits can’t be measured by a clock, ruler, or scale—but they are far more important than the traits that can.
Best of luck to TB12 on this new chapter. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!
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