TITLE: A Few Percent AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 03, 2011 1:16 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Novak Djokovic I am a huge tennis fan. This morning, I watched the men's final at Wimbledon and, as much as I admire Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal for the games and attitudes, I really enjoyed seeing Novak Djokovic break through for his first title at the All-England Club. Djokovic has been the #3 ranked player in the world for the last four years, but in 2011 he has dominated, winning 48 of 49 matches and two Grand Slam titles. After the match, commentator and former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe asked Djokovic what he had changed about his game to become number one. What was different between this year and last? Djokovic shrugged his shoulders, almost imperceptibly, and gave an important answer:
A few percent improvement in several areas of my game.
The difference for him was not an addition to his repertoire, a brand new skill he could brandish against Nadal or Federer. It was a few percentage points' improvement in his serve, in his return, in his volley, and in his ability to concentrate. Keep in mind that he was already the best returner of service in the world and strong enough in the other elements of his game to compete with and occasionally defeat two of the greatest players in history. That was not enough. So he went home and got a little better in several parts of his game. Indeed, the thing that stood out to me from his win this morning against Rafa was the steadiness of his baseline play. His ground strokes were flat and powerful, as they long have been, but this time he simply hit more balls back. He made fewer errors in the most basic part of the game, striking the ball, which put Nadal under constant pressure to do the same. Instead of making mistakes, Djokovic gave his opponent more opportunities to make mistakes. This must have seemed especially strange to Nadal, because this is one of the ways in which he has dominated the tennis world for the last few years. I think Djokovic's answer is so important because it reminds us that learning and improving our skills are often about little things. We usually recognize that getting better requires working hard, but I think we sometimes romanticize getting better as being about qualitative changes in our skill set. "Learn a new language, or a new paradigm, and change how you see the world." But as we get better this becomes harder and harder to do. Is there any one new skill that will push Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic past his challengers? They have been playing and learning and excelling for two decades each; there aren't many surprises left. At such a high level of performance, it really does come down to a few percent improvement in each area of the game that make the difference. Even for us mortals, whether playing tennis or writing computer programs, the real challenge -- and the hardest work -- often lies in making incremental improvements to our skills. In practicing the cross-court volley or the Extract Class refactoring thousands and thousands of times. In learning to concentrate a little more consistently when we tire by trying to concentrate a little more consistently over and over. As Nadal said in his own post-game inteview, the game is pretty simple. The challenge is to work hard and learn how to play it better. Congratulations to Novak Djokovic for his hard work at getting a few percent better in several areas of his game. He has earned the accolade of being, for now, the best tennis player in the world. -----