Juan Martin Del Potro has the Fierce Resolve of a Winner

November 27, 2009

Del Potro came back after a nose bleed and losing the first five games of his opening match in the Masters cup in London. He was demonstrating the fierce resolve associated with success, found among top athletes and also among outstanding winners in other walks of life

Del Potro has been tipped as a future World No 1 Tennis player since beating Roger Federer to win the US Open a few months ago.

Juan Martín del Potro has been tabbed as a candidate to be the next superstar in men’s tennis, and his performance in the 2009 United States Open is a good example of why. Del Potro stunned the No. 1-seeded Roger Federer in a gritty five-set match, and claimed the men’s singles title, which Federer had won the past five years. Del Potro moves with surprising grace for a man his size. Very tall tennis players sometimes struggle with their movement, relying instead on booming serves. Del Potro moves with nimble, graceful steps that defy his height. He takes the ball early, and uses the leverage created by his long arms to produce power, especially from the baseline.

The Masters Cup November 2009

This week I watched Del Potro come back from losing his first five games in the opening round of The Masters cup at the O2 arena. He took a medical break to deal with a nose bleed, and then carried on. What happened next demonstrated a characteristic which is probably necessary (although not sufficient) for success as a sports star, political, military, or business leader, and even for entrepreneurs and Nobel-winning scientists. It is sometimes referred to as extreme determination, guts, self-belief, or the ability to tough it out, or even as a will to succeed. Or maybe resilience. In trait theory it also goes under various names such as ego strength and achievement need. Other ‘maps’ refer to the exceptional capacity of exceptional people to achieve exceptional goals. Earlier leadership studies described almost mystically ‘The Right Stuff’, a version of another tautology for ‘having what it takes’. Leadership guru Jim Collins refers to fierce resolve.

Overlapping Concepts

These concepts seem to me to be rather overlapping. They are based on countless studies of leader behaviours. Only a small proportion, such as the work reported by Collins, have been rigorously conducted . Collins suggests that successful business leaders have often combined a personal modesty with fierce resolve. He contrasts this with a more blatant and charismatic style of so-called natural leaders, who may be engaged in a constant battle with egotism and narcissistic delusions.

I Have Seen the Future…

Del Potro was playing Andy Murray, another top player noted for his fierce resolve. Often a top player fights back after a medical break. Nadal, for example, has also acquired a reputation for doing so on the rare occasions he faces defeat, and almost regardless of the ranking of his opponent.

Because of the tournament round-robin design, Del Potro could have conserved energy in face of almost inevitable loss of the first set. Instead he battled and clawed back several games. I scribbled down a headline to myself ‘I have seen the future and it’s called Del Potro’.

As it turned out, Murray squeezed through that match. It did not change the opinion I had formed. Here was someone with that something extra under the pressures of extreme competition.

A few days later Del Potro demonstrated his fierce resolve, winning again against World No 1 Roger Federer. Ironically, his three-set triumph gave him a marginal qualification into the knockout stages of the tournament at the expense of Andy Murray.

There he will face other players of similar levels of fierce resolve and with marginal differences in conditioning, talent and other ingredients which may play a part in the outcome of the tournament. I’m not saying Del Potro is a winner of this prestigious tournament. But I am saying again that ‘I have seen the future and it’s called Del Potro’.

Note to leadership students

This case deserves study as part of any leadership development programme. You will find it worthwhile to go more deeply into the literature ‘maps’ for theories of leadership traits and behaviours associated with excellence and success. Fierce resolve is found in the socially-oriented achievements of a Ghandi and a Mandela, but also in the histories of tyrants such as those catalogued by Jeff Schubert and other leadership researchers.


Creative challenges to authority: ATP tennis at Miami

April 4, 2009
Hawkeye in tennis

Hawkeye in tennis

The Sony Ericsson ATP tennis tournament at Miami illustrated how players find creative and unexpected ways of coping with rule changes

From the UK, the Miami event plays out often into the early morning, GMT. This mini-post may thus have been influenced by sleep deprivation …

The Murray versus Del Potro semi-final furnished some nice examples of players cottoning on to creative use (and abuse) of newly introduced rule changes.

Non-tennis players begin here

Tennis has introduced a natty technology giving players the right to appeals line-calls. To avoid excessive appeals, there is a limit of three unsuccessful appeals every set. The ultimate authority resides in the technology which tracks ball-movements, now revealed on giant screens to ums and ohs from the fans. Despite reservations, the technology has been around for some while and seems mostly accepted by players and officials alike. It is also a crowd-pleaser.

The intention

The intention behind introducing the hawkeye system is to provide fairer decisions for the players, and perhaps reduce abuse of umpire and officials. Both seem to have been achieved to a degree.

Unintended consequences

In the course of the match, a commentator supplied some stats on how successful the top players had been in their challenges. Only one player had a better than 50% success rate. That was Novak Djokovic. Murray was down at the bottom of the list with less than 25% success rate. As it tuned out, Murray was to go on to contest the final at Miami with Djokovic [Sunday April 5th 2009].

Curious. This researcher’s interest was aroused (even at 2pm in the morning in the semi-final). Both players made unconvincing linecalls. But some unexpected explanations emerged from the SKY commentators. Del Potro, bothered by an injury, found various ways of grabbing a few extra seconds after toughly contested points. An appeal after one rather obviously correct call served the purpose very nicely. He had remained within the letter of the law, even if it had the unintended consequences as far as the legislators were concerned of giving a player a bit of breathing space (almost literally). .

Quickly after, Murray made an equally unconvincing challenge. Was he too grabbing a time-out from the battle? Possibly. But another explanation was suggested by the SKY commentator. It seems that Murray, nothing if not a strategic thinker, had been talking of using a line call appeal to figure out just how wayward his shot had been. The statistically minded might dig more deeply to see whether the stats for players may throw light on such cunning ruses.

Who cares?

Other tennis pros, maybe. Sporting innovators are destined to attract sporting imitators, and that’s how ‘progress’ (or at least change) occurs. Also, of interest to various anoraks who dream up theories of change leadership and innovation.


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