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Want to win: Pick your battles

Sport reflects the competition inherent in life and picking your battles is the lesson we learn from watching Tennis. From Stanislas Wawrinkas recent success at the Australian Open to Novak Djokovics dominance over Rafael Nadal, through to Rafaels and Roger Federers ongoing rivalry.

Each of these battles has been a series of campaigns with each combatant having periods of dominance and subservience. The ultimate victor most often being the one who picked the right battle to win. The loser picking the losing battle.

In the cold light of day in all sports this is the difference between champions and nearly men. So the question for now is, how has this played out in recent times?

The King and his court

Back in a bygone era a King named Roger had a long and illustrious reign. It was a time when all surfaces were tamed by a flick of his sword as we watched a knight of the realm who enjoyed adjusting to each foe. Playing different shots and styles as required he was as happy in a gruelling baseline contest as in a big serving joust with each combatant attacking the other head on with amazing attack after amazing attack.

Roger the Great enjoys the freedom of variety or “style without style” as Bruce Lee would say. He is unconstrained by specific tactics and theory and his command of the game is so strong he can break the perceived rules, bending them to his will. King Roger dominated by outthinking his opponents and having more weapons at his disposal so that in all aspects he matched or bettered his rivals.

The Warrior and the siege

Rafael Nadal: The warrior
Rafael Nadal: The warrior

That is until a young Majorcan arrived on the scene. This was a different combatant replacing variety and freedom with strict discipline and brute force. Possessing an insatiable will to win only equal to his monstrous ability to pound the ball into submission. The ensuing battles pitched this warriors brute force against the reigning knights supreme elegance.

Where King Roger spoke many languages both on court and off. The warrior Nadal spoke just one, hard work. His game was about his legs and his weapon of extreme topspin. His strategy was to pin his opponent down in a corner, prevent their response, and pound them mercilessly with hammer blows until submission was extracted. Both physically and mentally he would own his adversary. This is siege tennis and the Spaniard has become the best the world has known in this art.

Nadals game had more weaknesses than his rival but he didn’t waste energy or time exposing them. His ferocious forehand and famed ability to retreat or attack at will provided a shield that few attacks could dent much less penetrate.

Rafa the merciless was practical. His backhand weaker with less reach than those around him. So he sliced and chopped to keep the fight going. By refusing to succumb he created an aura as intimidating as a god. Any who dared attack his weakness must themselves expose their own weakness. He who could attack while risking attack and survive would win.

While Rafa simply received flesh wounds his foes took real damage. Rafas weaknesses left him exposed but they rarely faltered. Always keeping him in the fight, while his foes weren’t so lucky. Most got caught, the risks required in mounting an attack often left them unable to recover for the next battle. They bared their neck too often. Either Rafa would finish them off directly with one massive blow or the opponent could fight no longer. The battle lost through mistake or such.

Either way the warriors siege would win. Intimidation would hide the weaknesses and rigid application of strategy would drive home the advantage. This was a Roman strategy applied expertly in the Colloseums of the new Tennis world by the Spaniard.

The showman and a stage

Novak Djokovic: showman
Novak Djokovic: showman

Then along came a Serb named Novak to beat the Warrior at his own game. Neither a king nor a warrior ‘The Joker’ is a showman, an actor of some talent. Tennis provides his stage where he enjoys playing off his fellow actors. Careful not to upstage them he hasn’t developed big weapons. Instead he absorbs more punishment than most. His gift is entertaining his audience and taking them on a journey made special as much for his solid adaptable game as his ability to absorb all the tricks and challenges his fellow actors throw his way.

The Monte Carlo resident has become the master at letting others think the story is about them when in fact, at the last moment he steals the show. His fame lies in his epic encounters with King Roger at Flushing Meadows and the warrior Rafa both in Melbourne and the clay court stages of Europe. His ability to weave a plot is unrivalled to the point that even he seems unclear until the last line is read who the hero and villain will be.

That may be The Jokers character flaw. He still doesn’t seem to fully understand why he wins when he does. Maybe it’s because so often he leaves it so late to find out the answer. Exhausting too many options earlier on while hoping for a sequel to each set. He doesn’t seem to be the writer who dictates the script, more the actor improvising his lines with the plot already written.

The Bear and a hunt

Stanislas Wawrinka: The bear
Stanislas Wawrinka: The bear

The latest episode in this unfolding tale saw a Bear named Stan rise from the heat of the Melbourne sun using his impressive might to hunt down the trophy, dispatching all who stood in his way. No regal posturing, no complicated tactics, and no theatrics. This was a primeval hunt where he who hits hardest wins.

This victory had been building over the course of a year as the gruff Swiss honed his hunting technique. A strategic alliance has added much to the Bears potency. A Swedish hunter named Magnus has tamed the Bears ferocious hunting ability. The Swede knows how to lay a trap to catch even the toughest prey and legend tells that he masterminded a glorious hunt with a precocious Robin many years ago in the lands of the Warrior. Until now, this Robin was the only hunter to unseat the magnificent warrior in his most dominant territory in the French capital.

The Bear and his master recently achieved the unthinkable. Stealing the show from the showman where the script was written for the Serbs sequel. The Swiss claiming the right to the final act in the process. It was there that he met Rafa the merciless.

This time the warrior Spaniard had exposed himself too much and taken too many blows to offer any real threat to Wawrinka. While many believe Stan poached the win from a wounded Rafa you only have to consider their previous encounter in the hunting grounds of London to see the Bears hunting ability was a match for the warriors. Every blow the spaniard inflicted the Swiss countered with greater force. In that battle it appeared to all who witnessed that the Majorcan was lucky to escape with the spoils.

Where the Majorcan used spin to complicate the blow the Bear used time and speed. Sending the ball so fast the Warrior was unable to fully draw his blade. This slowness to respond is a weakness few have fully exploited but the Swiss led by the Swede did so to the fullest. Exposing the weakness in the World Number 1 and taking home the prize.

Be yourself

This saga of dominance is a tale that never ends. New combatants enter the fold as others leave. Stan the Bear is new to his status as leader of the hunt. He has challenged the dominant males and won but time will tell if this will last. What is clear is that each combatant won their dominance by being the best that THEY could be.

The Bear has the most power and uses it to make his kill before his foe can reply. It is a risky tactic but his blows are so severe that just one needs to land to exact a reward. In contrast the showman feigns weakness letting his fellow actors follow the script until finally improvising the ending himself and stealing the limelight.

The warrior combines brute force with rigid discipline. First he learns your tactics and pinpoints your weakness. His aim is to be the last man standing so he lays siege and waits, making plain his ability to outlast you.

Finally we talk royalty and he who was raised to be king, Roger the Great speaks all the languages of tennis. No shot, tactic or battle is beyond him yet every strategy has a cost so he must chose how to spend these powers wisely. Rogers skill during such a long reign was in maintaining his options in all situations so that the Swiss could always outmanoeuvre his lords. Creating an aura by frequently turning impending defeat into sublime victory with so little perceived effort .

The secret though was not being better than his competitors in any major aspect. Instead it was in having no obvious weakness, battle for Roger was more a contest than a war because he never incurred any wounds. He never pushed so hard as to expose himself and thus the legend was born that he never sweats because like a true King, he must make his success look effortless. This is as much for his own pride and health as to beat his foe because surely, to give all you can and find your foe as smartly presented as when they entered court is an experience that would break any man.

Be human

So there we have it. Success is not all about technique or strategy. In the end it’s just about humanity. Who are you, what were you given. Understanding what makes you strong is as important as building your skills in the first place. Ultimately the dominant participants achieve their success through being themselves. Accepting both their strengths and weaknesses and expressing themselves as fully as they can. Using the effects of their actions on others in a way which ultimately brings them victory.

So there are many ways to win a battle. What battles can you win and which can you not win? Most importantly why?

Photo credits: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by Marianne Bevis, Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka by mirsasha

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