I Love Greatness: Djokovic, Federer and Mastery 6


It has taken me several days to come down from the incredible Wimbledon final before I could write. These two extraordinary people, Djokovic and Federer, continue to grow as role models for those of us who love to learn from masters.

When talking about these two guys at the hedge fund where I consult, an environment filled with remarkably successful people who have found the way to succeed in a fiercely competitive world, one of the guys said to me, “you love greatness.” It is one of many reasons I love my work. Every day I witness people who bring greatness to their jobs and still reach for a higher bar.

Yes I do. I love greatness. Another word for greatness is mastery. I aspire to have mastery in every part of my life. Family. Friends. New relationships. As a coach. My tennis playing. I aspire to find mastery. In learning to give. Social awareness and responsibility. Personal development. Making a difference in the lives of others. Making a difference in the world. I continually keep putting one foot in front of the other on this quest. Mastery.

So I study the masters. The hedge fund traders and analysts. The athletes I coach. I watch the near greats, those on the cusp, and see their gap…the gap they will close when they step up to the world of Djokovic an Federer.

Before Wimbledon began this year I wrote that there would be first time finalist, that neither Djokovic or Nadal would make it through to the end round and that Federer would win the whole thing. I included in my short list of who would be a first time finalist both Gregor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic.

I was close. Federer came up short in the finals. Dimitrov and Raonic almost go there but neither couldn make it out of the semis. Nadal didn’t get through. Djokovic not only got through, he triumphed on the last day in the last moments of the finals.

How could I have missed out on the mastery factor?

Dimitrov played amazing in his close loss to Djokovic. His game was good enough to win. He actually played better than Djokovic. But the mastery factor favored the more experienced player. Throughout the match, both players were falling as the footing was bad and they were forced to change directions throughout the three plus hours of play. Djokovic was unhappy, looking at his player’s box often, but then he would just go forward and play the next point. He let go of his troubles quickly. He used what Brad Gilbert once told me was one of his best assets as a coach. “I have a short memory for bad things.” Dimitrov couldn’t let go of his problems with the footing. He had to demonstrate to the crowd why he was struggling. Why do we less than great ones do this? Why do we flex our leg after falling after we lose a point? Who here can say they never showed people watching why we are not winning? We do it to save face. The gap between near great and greatness.

Not the great ones, though. They move on. They have a short memory for bad things that happen. The mastery factor.

Raonic wasn’t able to put up as good a battle against Federer. I thought he might, though, because he was saying all the right things for the first ten days of the tournament. He talked of opportunity, playing his game, one match at a time, not being concerned with who was on the other side of the net.

In his own words, a downcast Raonic said, “I think guys have to level inside themselves. I think it’s more just an understanding of how to deal with the situation. That’s something I didn’t do well today.”

There was a definite discomfort about Raonic in his first Grand Slam semi-final, and in his first match on Centre Court, Wimbledon. He admitted he “was forcing a bit on his principal weapon – the serve. I was putting a little bit more on my serve than it needed so it would be there more for me,” he said. “I wasn’t going as freely with it.”

“I think it was more knowing what kind of opportunity lies ahead beyond this round, and beyond that, and what I really wanted to go and chase. Maybe I just put that on myself too much.” The moment got to him. Thinking of the outcome when he needed to stay focused on the point in front of him.

The gap between near great and great. It wasn’t for a lack of skill. It was the wanting too much.

Federer wants it but just goes on the court to be Federer. He knows himself. He knows what he has to do to get the job done. Lunchbox mentality. Show up. Put in your hours of good work and wait to see what results come. Mastery

Djokovic and Federer brought greatness to the finals. Over and over. The margins in the match were so small. A ball hit one foot shorter than intended shifted the momentum of the point. A ball struck infinitesimally off center gave the edge to the other guy. A decent shot was never enough. Each shot was one of brilliance. And each brilliant shot was returned with even more brilliance.

It was in the middle of the fourth set that the level of extraordinary escalated. Djokovic had the match in his grasp with Federer serving down 2 sets to 1 and behind 2-5. Was it any surprise that Federer held serve? No. He was doing what he, as one of the greatest ever to play, has done many times. He played without fear as defeat was in his face. Those of us who have competed on any level sensed the difficulty Djokovic would be facing to hold serve to close out the win. Federer found his greatness and did what he has done. So often. He broke when it seemed he couldn’t, playing without fear of losing. Everything was going against Djokovic and Federer stole the set. Two sets all.

And Djokovic left the court. A bathroom break? Well, not really.

You know I am all about stories. Bad stories we tell that lead us to results that we don’t want. Good stories that take us to the higher ground. Stories set the bar for how we will perform going forward.

Djokovic left the court to get his stories straight.

“I was defeated. I had the match and it slipped away. Roger is being the great Roger as he has done so many times. I was depressed. I didn’t know if I could or would go out there and fight anymore.”

That is what I call a bad story.

But Djokovic has found mastery within himself over the last few years.

And he told a better story.

“I yelled at myself.” He said, “not today! I must find the will. I must go deep. I believe in myself.”

In his post match interview he gave us an important lesson about finding the greatness within: “I told myself that I believed in myself even though, in that moment, I didn’t. Sometimes you need to tell yourself that, even if you don’t, because if you don’t tell yourself, you are done.”

And, let’s face it, he does believe in himself. He just wasn’t in those moments because the circumstances weren’t going his way.

So he found it. He told a new story that gave him the energy. The physical energy of endurance, the mental energy of focus, the emotional energy of positivity and the spirit energy of loving the battle. And he was victorious.

After the match he said that winning the match was a huge victory but that the biggest victory was that he had defeated that part of himself that was going to take him down. In my way of thinking, he had defeated tired old story of his past with an inspiring story of who he had become.

That is what I love about greatness. That is why aspire to mastery. To defeat my internal opponent.

As for Federer’s story, it is a little harder to know it but something tells me that his story, at the end, had a little bit of satisfaction that he had pushed it to the fifth set, even though he is 33 and thought to be on the downside of his career. Maybe just a little gap. That slight crack in the story that turned the missed overhead at 15-30 into the chance that got away.

I love greatness.

Post script. I believe that Roger Federer is going to win the US Open in September. I think that this Wimbledon strengthened his story that he is still one of the very best in the World and that story will carry him to victory.

You read it here.


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6 thoughts on “I Love Greatness: Djokovic, Federer and Mastery

  • Lance Knobel

    Very insightful, Bob.

    You must know George Leonard’s classic work, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. If you don’t, you’ll find it resonates very well with your beliefs.

  • Jim Falvo

    Hi Bob,

    Speaking of greatness, great analysis, Bob! Your admiration of these masters reminds me of the 19th Century English poet, William Earnest Henley, who wrote, “I am the captain of my fate; I am the master of my soul.”

    Too bad that most people don’t know that they are similarly-situated. Whether we know it or not, humans are all choice-makers and are free to choose whatever thoughts they want to believe. Unfortunately, we are not free to choose the consequences of those choices.

    I think this is why I love tennis more than the opportunity for fitness and strategy it brings to the table. It provides a crucible for overcoming adversity. When most points end in mistakes, it admonishes us to believe. And when our best thoughts still don’t achieve the desired result, there’s another opportunity to play again — or at least another opportunity to take lessons learned on-court to other arenas of life.

    I wish that educators, coaches, mentors, and parents would spend more time on the mental aspects of successful living. A few lucky ones seem to get this. I wonder what circumstances led people like Fed and Djokr to succeed. They may have a short memory for bad things that happen but they seem to have a long memory for remembering the right stuff.

  • judy goldsmith

    Ted and I hosted BREAKFAST AT WIMBELDON IN THE BERKSHIRES WITH 2 BRITISH COUPLES. IT WAS THE MOST BRILLIANT MATCH TED AND I HAVE EVER WATCHED— OUR GUESTS WHOPPED AND HOLLERED- GREAT TIME- YOUR CRITIQUE WAS GREAT! CAN’T WAIT TO SEE FEDERER WIN US OPEN.

  • judy r goldsmith

    Such a great post. Two especially great lessons in what you say: 1) Setting mastery as the goal. Working to create the greatness from within. 2) Creating the story that will lead us to make the best of ourself. And then, always working hard toward living the story we create.
    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Lieberman

    Great analysis whether real or imagined. Stories are universal and can be powerful psychological mechanisms. Keep telling us stories about mastery.