Never Give Up the Baseline, and Other Business Lessons From the Tennis Courts

Dec 12, 2017 | Article

Originally published by Oracle CEO Mark V. Hurd on LinkedIn

Tennis has always been an important part of my life. I played for Baylor University as a college student, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate how much this sport teaches us about business.

I’m also proud that Oracle has created a number of programs to support young American tennis players starting out on the Pro tour. It’s something we’re doing in large part because of the obvious parallels between tennis and business.

Watching Roger Federer win Wimbledon this summer at the age of 35, I realized he undergoes the same type of intense physical and mental preparation as is necessary in business. He commits to a specific strategy, is willing to incorporate new technology into his game, and draws on his years of experience to excel under pressure.

Where preparation is concerned, Federer is in a class of his own. Given his remarkable recent recovery from a serious knee injury, the Swiss star can’t afford not to do everything to get his body into the best possible match shape, working with trainer Pierre Paganini on a regime of rigorous fitness, strength, agility, and other exercises both on and off the court.

Tennis is not only physically grueling, but also as mentally challenging as any other sport. You’re isolated on a court, and all of your strengths and weaknesses get exposed simultaneously. Your opponents have only one thing in mind, which is to use every one of your weaknesses against you.

A player of Federer’s caliber has studied his opponents’ tendencies in order to anticipate when they will attempt a drop shot or rush the net, what kind of spin they’ll put on the ball in various situations, and what their second serve will look like.

The same kind of preparation is the hallmark of top business leaders. Successful ones know their strengths and weaknesses better than their competitors do. They put in the hard work to hone their craft. They know their industries, and those of their customers, inside and out.

And while tennis, like many business functions, is played at an individual level, it’s also a team sport. Players must work with coaches, trainers, agents, sponsors, and doubles and practice partners. At the college, Davis Cup, and other team levels, tennis players must sometimes subsume their own interests to help a more junior player improve an aspect of his or her game.

In the same way, true leaders go the extra mile for their colleagues as mentors, advisers, and facilitators. Those are the kinds of people who eventually lead organizations rather than just top the monthly sales charts.

To the Coolest Heads Go the Tie-Breakers

The ability to perform under pressure is another area where successful tennis players and business leaders are alike. For example, Federer is famously successful at winning tie-breakers, and one reason is that he’s been in so many of them, and he’s not overwhelmed or nervous in the way less experienced players tend to be. Experience counts for a lot in tennis and business, especially in pressure-packed situations. It’s critical to stay on an even keel.

Once you know you can do it, your natural skills will shine through. What former New York Yankee great Yogi Berra once said about baseball—that it’s “90% mental”– applies to tennis and business, too.

Never Give Up the Baseline

Most people don’t realize this, but tennis is a game of territorial advantage, the same as football, only more subtly so.

For example, a player’s deep, booming shots are intended to drive opponents further behind the baseline to reduce their angles of attack and make it harder to hit winners in return. Watching Federer carefully, you realize he’s about three feet closer to the baseline than his opponents, which makes his side of the court smaller and reduces the area he has to cover. One thing we saw with Federer at Wimbledon is that he never gave up the baseline, despite relentless attacks from his opponents.

That same tenacity and discipline are required in business. Don’t let your competitor drive you off the baseline. Stick to your strategy (assuming it’s a smart one) and force your competitor to be the one to retreat.

You Can’t Win Using Wooden Racquets

Finally, Federer—and every great champion—always uses the most advanced technology available. Advances in training and diet aside, not even the greatest tennis champions from the past could compete against the lowest-ranked professionals of today without using carbon-fiber and other modern racquets, with their lighter weights, wider hitting surfaces, and polyester strings that make it easier to add spin to the ball.

New technology isn’t just an optional accessory that great players can take or leave. The difference between top competitors is so slight—in many cases a matter of just two or three points per set—that every technical advance has to become part of a new game plan.

The same is, of course, true in business. Lots of companies have clever strategies, top-notch innovations, smart and dedicated people, and solid financial backing. But to be No. 1, you need every tool at your disposal to marshal your resources efficiently, attract and retain the brightest talent, and turn your loyal customers into evangelists. Even your best people can’t win using wooden racquets against competitors equipped with carbon-fiber ones.

Roger Federer doesn’t play for second place; he plays to be No. 1 in the world. That’s the biggest lesson of all and must be the ambition of all business leaders as they step into the game.

When I got out of college, I left that arena for one where I thought I could achieve that top ranking—but the lessons I learned on the courts have stayed with me throughout my career.

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