They say tennis is a sport of a lifetime and I couldn’t agree more being a tennis player and fan myself. With some great games played at the US Open and other tournaments this year, the excitement, the passion, and the dedication shown by the players and fans alike got me thinking – what is it about this sport that I love so much?
Growing up in the tiny village of Shipton Oliffe in the Cotswolds, UK, I first picked up a tennis racquet at age six, at one of the manor houses that had a tennis court and I continue to play and love the game – sharing that love with my mother. In fact, I can’t help but reminisce how without tennis, I would have had to experience one of the most awful incidents in history, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan, without her. On the Sunday before the dreadful attacks, we were watching mum’s favourite player, Pete Sampras, who eventually lost the US Open title to young gun Lleyton Hewitt (10 years younger than Sampras) at Flushing Meadows. If not for our love for tennis, my mother wouldn’t have visited me in Manhattan; I would have been alone.
Tennis brings people together – it is such a holistic sport and also one of the most diverse and inclusive – having had players young and old, male and female, from the LGBTQ+ community and those who fought cancer, HIV and other illnesses fight and emerge victorious. It also brings together fans who come from all backgrounds and walks of life, united by their passion for the game.
Over the years, I’ve been deeply interested in the traits tennis stars display on and off the court – endurance, grit, resiliency, perseverance, and dedication among many others – traits that are also important in the world of business. Many of these players have had to fight and break down stereotypes, preconceptions and prejudice to bring their whole selves to what they do. Let me share some of my favourites:
Billy Jean King, former World No. 1 and 39 Grand Slam winner who shattered stereotypes when she won the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ at age 29, against 55-year old Bobby Riggs; Martina Navratilova, selected by Tennis magazine as ‘greatest female player’ for the years 1975 through 2005 and also considered to be one of the best female players of all time. Navratilova came out as a bisexual in 1981 and like Billy Jean, she now identifies herself as a Lesbian. In 2000, at age 46, she became the oldest player to win at Wimbledon and in 2010 she fought off breast cancer as well! Both these amazing women were unapologetic of who they were – they brought 100% of themselves to the game and, in doing so, reinvented how people viewed it.
Arthur Ashe, the first black player selected for the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. Ashe retired in 1980 and was diagnosed as being HIV+ in 1988. Soon after his diagnosis, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.
Rafael Nadal for his extraordinary transformation, physical power, and the beauty of his whole game; Roger Federer for his unbelievable, brilliant balance and even temperament. Both of them suffered terrible physical injuries but they never up – they constantly reinvented themselves, learned new shots and techniques and bounced back up and continue to rule the courts.
At just 23 years old, Ashleigh Barty, an indigenous Australian, is currently ranked No. 1 in the world in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association. She is also a top 20 player in doubles, having achieved a career-high ranking of No. 5 in the world! And the most interesting part of her career – she took a hiatus from tennis, having made it to the top and switched to professional cricket in 2014, despite having no formal training in the sport returned to tennis in 2016. Such a phenomenal achievement at such a young age!
And no list of tennis idols is complete without the mention of Fred Perry – former No. 1 and winner of 10 Majors – 8 Grand Slams and 2 Pro-slams and winner of 3 consecutive Wimbledon Championships. He was also the first player to win a Career Grand Slam by winning all 4 singles titles, at age 26! And he has now reinvented himself by launching a fashion wear line.
Since I’ve joined IBM, I’ve also become fascinated by the role and impact technology is having on the sport. With every new match, just as the players reinvent themselves, IBM also reinvents itself with new innovations that make the game an absolute treat to watch and a deeply personal experience for fans across the world.
The world of tennis teaches us so much. For example, my super motivating tennis coach Jarrod Bruce often shares interesting information and bits of advice to keep me going through the week. A couple of months ago, after ending a rather trying week, he commented that even the best tennis players today only win 55% of their points – the smallest derivatives of careers, and contain the DNA building blocks of tennis – patterns & their percentages.
As I turn a year older today and look forward to another exciting year, I hope to follow this mantra of constant reinvention – personally and professionally. Whatever we do in life and in business, we have to keep at it – reinventing ourselves continually, making incremental changes to move forward and win more, shot after shot. You win, then you lose, and win again – it’s all part of the game.