The world’s #1 and #4 are facing each other for the third time in 2012 on Sunday in the Miami Masters. It seems to be a match of equals. After all, there is a small difference between the top four in professional tennis (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray).

Strategy tennis singles

Murray and Djokovic, big friends off the court since their youth beginnings in tennis. Who will be celebrating Sunday in the Miami Masters? Whose strategy will prevail?

We’ll see many great shots down the line to win the point. We’ll see many amazing shots screeching across the net. Bam!

But do you ever really think about why they won the point or why they even hit the ball in that specific direction (cross-court vs. down the line) or why they used that specific spin (top vs slice) to put themselves in that kind of winning position.

So, what will really separate them tomorrow? What will make one of them the victor?

It’s not their technique. Their secret and ultimate skill as a warrior is rooted in their…

Game Plan

That is the greatest un-equalizer between equals. The champs from the runner-ups differentiator. Never mind the pros and the club players.

That is why we focus on the best players in the game to uncover what makes them so special.

Everyone can hit a ball. You already may spend a ton of hours on the practice court working on how to hit it (or on the chessboard working on various tactics to learn how to make your winning stroke).

How you hit the ball, what move to make is important, but the ultimate science is: Where to hit it, when, and why it should go there.

Secret to winning is a sound plan

She knows what she’s doing: why and where to make that winning stroke. “Chess,” art by Georgy Kurasov

That’s a game changer.

When you add strategy to your game you’ll have the much needed guide or roadmap to navigate through the match. It helps you get in the proper positioning you must have before using your deadly tactical weapons to get the victory.

It’s what provides you that sense of purpose and direction so you’re not out there running around like a chicken with your head cut off!

Yet the problem is…

Strategy is an invisible thing

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” Sun Tzu, c. 500 B.C.

All those strategies that the sport’s best use to constantly place their opponent in uncomfortable situations so they can emerge victorious are hidden from us and only experts can read them easily:

  • Selection and maintenance of aim
  • Decision making and stroke selection
  • Strengths protection
  • Weakness exploitation
  • Weakness protection
  • Court movement
  • (Counter)attacks and their timing
  • Setup positioning and recovery positioning
  • Mental toughness

These, my friend, are the greatest un-equalizers. But to teach the invisible things isn’t easy. And for the experts it’s something mostly intuitive and automatic, sometimes hard to express in words.

Our education is badly broken

At the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference they all agreed that analytics cannot help the sorry state of U.S. Tennis at the moment. Todd Martin, the former tennis pro, briefly channeled Bill Murray: If the game’s not taught well at the beginning levels, it just doesn’t matter.”

Americans (and not only them) are being taught how to hit, but not where to hit the ball. As Paul Annacone, a pro tennis coach and former pro tennis player said, “You get 16-20 year olds trying to figure out how to play after eight years or so of bad habits.”

Tennis elbow perhaps

The game of tennis (Игра в теннис), art by Georgy Kurasov

This is true across the board. In tennis, chess, or math. I could attest it’s true from what I’ve seen in chess (how about this game between players with more than a year of chess “experience”: 1.e4 d5 2.Bd3 Bg4 3.exd5 Bxd1).

“Our education in any domain is frightfully wasteful of time and values. In math and physics the results arrived are still worse than in chess. The bad state of education in chess is due entirely to our backwardness,” Dr. Emanuel Lasker, the former World Chess Champion for 27 years.

Things look pretty bad, don’t they? Is there anything we could do to change the sorry state of affairs? In chess, tennis, or elsewhere… in our individual lives, or in how we’re leading states, peoples, teams…

Well, strokes in tennis or chess are virtually useless without strategy that gives them direction. The greatest question of all is not How-to, but Why-and-Where-to. It’s not a matter of tactics, but strategy (even some GMs still tell us chess is 99% tactics – is that a part of the backwardness Dr. Lasker mentioned above?).

Let’s work on winning.

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