“Ali booma ye, Ali booma ye!” It was the chant that reverberated around the world and will always be associated with Muhammad Ali’s most memorable boxing victory over George Foreman. Sadly, earlier this week the world said goodbye to the man who proclaimed himself “The Greatest”. However, this was not a self-inflated assessment; Ali was widely acclaimed as the greatest sports personality ever. The outpour of appreciation for his life, strength and charisma has provided plenty of opportunities to relive some amazing sporting and cultural moments over the past few days.
In his passing, it has been enjoyable to revisit and analyze the lessons associated with his incredible career. There is a lot any competitor can learn from Muhammad Ali, he was arguably the best athlete of all time after all. Although completely different sports, there are a number of tennis lessons we can learn from the infamous Muhammad Ali.
The epic battle between Ali and Foreman, called “The Rumble in the Jungle” springs to mind. On that day in late October 1974, this fight became the world’s most famous strategic sporting victory: “The Rope-A-Dope.”
“Ali booma ye!” literally means “Ali kill him!” and he had 35,000 people chanting for him to be the aggressor. However Muhammad Ali was not killing him; he was hanging on the ropes, protecting his head, and letting George Foreman pummel his body with punch after punch. Everyone thought Ali needed to take the fight to Foreman in order to have the chance at an upset. In fact, Ali taking an offensive strategy was the popular opinion of the crowd, his trainer, and practically every boxing pundit around the world. Yet in spite of this, the great man correctly diagnosed that the only way he would win the fight was if he could hold on until his stronger opponent got tired, and only then unleash his full speed and fury. Through this analysis, the concept of “rope-a-dope” was born, and the boxing tactic was effective.
I have watched this fight several times, and it continues to amaze me how clearly Muhammad Ali was able to think through and process his strategy. Surely all his natural fighting instincts were screaming to step in and fight toe-to-toe with Foreman. However, he mustered up the strength to put his instincts aside, clear his mind and adapt both his plan and his perspective to the task at hand.
In tennis terms, the ability to read a situation and judge the right time to switch tactics is an incredibly important skill. Unlike almost every other sport, in tennis you rely on only yourself to come up with the best plan and response. There is no coach or trainer to give advice at at the change of ends, and no teammates to pick you up should your courage fail. Furthermore, in the tennis world the use of courage and tactics is perhaps no more important that on a grass court.
With the grass court season now fully underway, it is nice to revisit the tactical success stories of the past. One of the first players to truly change their game to prepare for the grass surface was Ivan Lendl. By nature a bruising and bullying baseline player, Lendl dominated the clay and hard courts in the 1980’s where he amassed 270 weeks at number one. Despite this dominance, he struggled for success in his first several attempts on the grass at Wimbledon. Eventually Lendl dedicated himself to developing a strong serve and volley game. This dedication went so far that Ivan, despite being a favorite, actually skipped the French Open multiple times in order to better prepare for the grass season. While he never lifted the trophy at SW19, a record of two runner-up finishes and five other semi-final appearances proved that the courage to change your game can bear significant fruit.
On the flip side, sometimes finding the courage to commit to your natural playing style and resisting the urge to change can be just as important. There is no better example of this than Andre Agassi who simply refused to bow to the history and tradition of grass court serve-and-volley tactics. Until his title in 1992, no man in the open era had achieved success at Wimbledon without incorporating a significant amount of net play into their service games. Rather than make a change he knew he was incapable of, Andre remained faithful to his brand of early and aggressive baseline play. He found a way to make it work best for him on grass.
Tactical adjustments are also sometimes required mid career. When Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003 he serve-volleyed on nearly every point. However over time this strategy was less effective as grass courts evolved into a slower and more high-bouncing surface. Federer also had to consider changes to string technology that made it much easier for his opponents to hit passing shots. Roger effectively adapted his game to play predominantly from the baseline during his other Wimbledon title successes. As time wore on, the likes on Nadal and Djokovic usurped Roger from the back of the court and he had to recalibrate his game once again in order to press more towards the net.
Even this week we can see effective and strategic adjustments for the grass. Dominic Theim, rebounding immediately from his French Open semi-final run, made a very quick change in order to win the title in Stuttgart, beating Roger Federer along the way. A major part of Thiem’s success this week is tied to his ability to change his traditional style of returning serve. On slower surfaces, Dominic stands far behind the baseline using his foot speed and racket acceleration to hit good returns. On grass this tactic is difficult to implement due the skidding nature of the bounce; it makes defending angled serves from far behind the baseline very challenging.
In in 2015 Thiem had a dismal record of just two wins and four losses during the grass court swing. Last week in Stuttgart, Thiem showed both a willingness to take returns early, as well as some excellent execution of block returns. The result was a great week for Dominic and superb preparation for a run at Wimbledon.
What other adjustments will players make to give themselves the best chance of success this year on the grass? Who will have the courage and conviction to emulate Muhammad Ali and execute those decisions at the most critical moments in their careers? That is what makes this sport and this time of year on the grass so special!
Are you ready to make some tactical changes to your own game and develop a deeper understanding of tennis strategy? Have a look at our Tactical Training Camp Course and start making better strategic tennis decisions today.