The talent that made Roger Federer great (and Nick Kyrgios not)

What role does character and mental toughness play?
Big 4 at the Laver Cup 2022
Big 4 at the Laver Cup 2022 / Julian Finney/GettyImages

Recently, Roger Federer spoke about his definition of talent in tennis in his speech at Dartmouth. It made me wonder what are the most important characteristics of a talented player. Is it only about the technique or maybe the ability to constantly improve, willpower, intelligence, perseverance, etc. also counts as a 'talent'? The usual, and mainly correct definition of talent is something you're born with, something that can't be taught. It's not hard work or determination. But talent is not limited to this.

Talent is the ability to own all of the strokes of tennis and being able to create things on the court by using angles, varying effects, lengths, pace, redirecting the ball, being at ease at the net, and moving fluidly around the court. But before any of that can be accomplished physically, one must first possess the vision that those shots are an option under various circumstances. One must be able to see the shot before it is hit.

And that requires a particular understanding of the geometry of tennis. Without the vision, there can be no ensuing action. And so the vision can be considered one of the elements that make up talent.

What are the traits that a great tennis player must have?

In tennis one component of talent is hand-eye coordination which translates in tennis as "touch" but also timing. Timing is huge in tennis. Talent is also, maybe, court sense or court instincts - The very thing no amount of practice can fix. Knowing where the other player is without looking, knowing where their ball is going, and what kind of angles are available at any given moment. The ability within split fractions of a second to know what to hit, how to hit, and where to hit.

While Roger Federer is probably more naturally talented than Novak Djokovic, to call Djokovic not talented would be a massive stretch. He has flawless technique from both sides, especially on his backhand side - immaculate timing, insane hand-eye coordination, etc. He obviously is a huge hard worker, but he most certainly has a talent, that 99.5 percent of players don't have.

A similar thing would even apply to someone like Andy Murray. There are tons of very solid baseliners in the men's top 100, they can try to emulate how Djokovic plays, and practice rallies for hours, and days, but they'll still never be close to reaching his level or his efficiency.

'Talent' and 'Character' are indispensable but separate

There are two, equally indispensable, components for anybody on a road to high achievement: talent and character. Talent in tennis has two components as well: the first one, I would call it “motoric” (the quality of your movement and bodily coordination fall into this category; the ability to be an excellent shot maker follows from it), and the other one I would call “mental” (ability to see the court, to read the opponent, to quickly make the right decision, ability to stay focused for hours).

Perseverance, exceptional work ethic, exceptional levels of motivation, moral compass, ability to work till one drops, and, most importantly, one’s desire and ability to overcome difficulties no matter how frustrating they may be - this is all ‘character’, not ‘talent’. There are lots and lots of talented teenagers. Only very few reach the stars because both talent and character are indispensable.

Nick Kyrgios is the perfect example of having the talent but not the character. Kyrgios has immense talent or at least the first component of it but as strong as his physical ability is, his psychological elements are among the weakest. The result, as we all are aware, is that he has not come close to living up to his (physical) potential.

Mentality: An underrated aspect of tennis talent

The starting point is always the brain - always the psychological approach. And so possessing the ability to view and interpret things psychologically in the manner that allows you to perform at your best physically is certainly a talent in itself, and cannot be separated from pure physical talent because the two are always, always intertwined.

You could have all the physical talent in the world but if you don't have the correct mindset and confidence, you will never be at the very top. A player must possess the proper mentality to hit a shot in order to hit it. The psychological aspect greatly influences the physical action. Federer in his commencement speech said: "Most of the time it's not having a gift, it's about having grit."

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When we see players getting nervous in certain situations, and their physical strokes being greatly affected by this (almost always in a negative way). This is because the brain, or brain signals - is what controls physical movements. And when a player is nervous, it often acts as a sort of paralysis to physical movement.

That's why it's often referred to as being "tight" because it feels like your muscles tighten up, thus restricting free, fluid movement, and resulting in flawed physical performance. It also works in the other direction - that when you are confident and playing free, you feel loose and your physical movements are fluid and unhindered.

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