During my career, I have had the privilege of competing and training with some of the best players of my era. Beginning when I was in juniors, my coach in Israel, Shlomo Zoreff, always encouraged me to befriend the top players in each international tournament and to try to get them to practice with me. That was great advice, and it’s something I tell my students to this day. During the practice, I would study their game, their practice habits and pick their brain to try and figure out what makes them so good.
When you are playing on the Pro Tour, every draw is filled with very good tennis players, but there are always those who stand out and separate themselves from the pack, players who dominate on a regular basis. Those are the ones you want to learn from.
In my era, the 80s and 90s, it was Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Thomas Muster, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier. While there were a lot of good, solid players on the Tour, these were the contenders, the ones who could, and in most cases did, go all the way in major events.
Things haven’t changed much in the last decade, as you now have Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray dominating and winning most major titles. It is interesting how there are always just a handful of players who make it to the final rounds of majors, despite there being so much depth in the game now.
Ivan Lendl once said, “Anyone on the Tour can get to 4-4 in the final set, it’s what happens from that point on that counts.” I know that is true all too well, as it happened to me against Lendl, when he was ranked number one in the world during the second round of the 1991 Canadian Open. I got to 4-4 in the final set against him, and I was playing my best tennis, matching the world number one shot for shot. But in crunch time, Lendl raised his level of play and broke me with some spectacular backhands (shots he had been missing all match-long, but made them when it counted). Lendl went on to win the tournament and earned a big paycheck, while I was left with the modest second round purse.
My feeling was, I was so close, yet so far.
What is it that makes these champions who they are? What is that invisible talent that makes a McEnroe, an Agassi, a Federer or a Rafa? Over my years of meeting and knowing a lot of great champions, I realize that there are a lot of similarities between them, and that they all have a few basic traits that are essential. These traits helped them not only achieve greatness, but maintain it for a long time.
The hunger for success
It may be the most important quality in any athlete. Naturally, everybody wants to do well, but the true champions have an appetite for success that never diminishes. They don’t settle for just winning; they want to be number one in the world and will not stop until they get there. Once they have achieved a goal, they set another goal, never looking back and dwelling on past success.
Intensity and focus in practice
While some of the greatest players of all-time didn’t practice for too long, their intensity and focus in practice was incredible and the quality was insane, especially Connors. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Lendl, who would train one stroke for three hours at a time, play five to six hours a day, and then hit the gym for more fitness. Training with those guys was an almost scary experience as a young player; you were simply not allowed to miss a ball or rest. It is usually the same routine over and over again, nothing too complicated, but done to perfection without wasting a second. They loved the game and had a lot of fun, but once the ball was in play, it was all business: Sharpening strokes, getting in shape and no lost shots, ever, and that means total engagement in each point for the entire season.
Constantly adding new elements to their game
When Lendl started out, he had a mediocre backhand, but it improved each year, as did his net game, which helped earn him two Wimbledon titles. Bjorn Borg developed a bigger serve over the years, Wilander added slice and serve and volley late in his career which helped him reach world number one in 1988. Another example of a champion who transformed his game is Andre Agassi, who started out as an impulsive shot-maker who blasted big forehands, but after advice from Brad Gilbert, who told him you don’t get two points for a winner, he got in amazing shape and started playing the percentage game. He became a consistent champion during the second half of his career. Nadal started out as a clay court baseliner, but over the years, improved his net game and added a backhand slice which allowed him to win on all surfaces, including Wimbledon. There are many more examples of this, and it reinforces the fact that you need to keep re-inventing yourself to get to the top because the game is always evolving.
Rising to the occasion
The great ones will raise their game in the big occasions, be more prepared for big tournaments and will save their best tennis for the big matches. They show up mentally prepared and come up with the goods in the biggest points of the match, producing spectacular shots and improbable comebacks in the most difficult of situations. This is not luck. It is a result of the combination of self-belief and months of hard work in practice, planning and preparing.
Respect the game
You will almost never see a true champion tank a match or play in an unprofessional manner … you know they will always give 100 percent. The true champions are graceful in defeat and always praise their opponent while never making excuses. When winning, true champions are just as graceful and humble, never too happy or cocky.
True champions have a blind belief in themselves, almost an arrogance where they feel that the number one spot was meant to have their name on it. That belief allows them to perform under pressure, while injured or if they are not prepared. When Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, he had hardly played on grass before the tournament. But that didn’t matter because when he walked onto a court, he always believed he could win the tournament. That kind of confidence allowed him to win all four major titles during his career, and is the same type of belief that led Federer to his unprecedented career, led Nadal to a dominant record at the French Open, led Djokovic to surge past those two legends and allowed Murray to reach number one.
Maybe the most important trait to being a champion is they hate to lose!