If you have read my blog before, you will know that I am a long-term Roger Federer fan and have supported him right through his unbeatable years and his numerous battles with Nadal, Djokovic and others. Despite that, at the beginning of this year I could be heard to say that I agreed with his many doubters that he probably wouldn’t win another Grand Slam, that this might be his last year, blah, blah, blah, and how wrong we were!
How incredible it was to watch him gliding about the court with barely a hair out of place, and to win the Australian Open a couple of weeks ago. I have only just recovered! Needless to say, though, as happens at most of these matches, one or other of the English commentators drove me nuts with their usual debate as to whether Roger should now be seen as the greatest tennis player ever, since this always seems to me to be a pointless (and pretty irritating) conversation.
In anything, really, how can you define greatness? Most successful? In Roger’s case he still has to win a few more tournaments. Nicest person? Perhaps, although we never really know what someone is like ‘behind the scenes’…. Wealthiest, best looking, funniest or most charitable? Who can really know? But there is one thing that seems to me to mark him out, potentially, as the greatest ever, and that is his longevity.
To be able to stay motivated enough over the course of so many years to cope with all of the travelling, competing and ‘going without’, to want to win even if he has enough money and trophies to last a lifetime, and, most importantly, to be able to stand the training that has to be involved to be as fit, both mentally and physically, as he has always been is something that we have never seen before and will probably never see again. Most top players retire well before they are in their mid- thirties because one or other (or more) of these ‘burdens’ become just too much to cope with – I suppose the average lifespan of a successful professional tennis career (or pretty much any professional sporting career) is something between about 12 and 15 years.
When it comes to business, longevity is something that many coaches and business leaders talk about at length, since it is an issue for most people that are involved in the running of a business. I actually attended a leadership conference on this subject a while ago, and one of the speakers asked the audience to guess the average age of the ‘top 100 companies’ in the world. The answer was between 15 and 18 years and we were all astounded, since most of us guessed that it would be much older.
The reason, said the speaker, was that non-state-owned companies are started by a person/people/a family and it is generally impossible for individual or small groups of people to continue to cope with the pressures of running any company for an indefinite period: the 24 hours a day, 7 days a week workload, the stresses of managing people, finances, customers, etc, and the need to be continually innovative and driven ensure that sooner or later there is burn-out. At which point, companies get sold, merged, taken over, start to fail or get closed down.
In view of this, I wonder what would happen if we considered who the greatest business leader was/is in the way that the pundits discuss tennis players? Would it be the one that has made the most money, been the nicest, is the best looking or the most charitable? That would be ridiculous. Or the one that has stayed at the top the longest… that is probably an equally silly discussion as the one about the tennis players.