Startup Lessons from Federer

This article first appeared in DNA India on February 9th, 2017.

Roger Federer’s remarkable victory in the Australian Open over his old nemesis Rafael Nadal was sweet music for long time Federer fans like myself. Federer fans had despaired of Roger never being able to defeat Nadal in Grand Slams. After all, Federer’s last victory over his arch rival in a Grand Slam tournament had come almost ten years ago in the finals of Wimbledon 2007.

Since then, Nadal had beaten Federer nine times in Grand Slam matches of which six had been in the finals. A tremendous record against one spoken of as the greatest of all time (GOAT). It was obvious for tennis fans that Roger had to solve the Nadal conundrum if he had to be considered as an indisputable GOAT.

As I watched Federer potentially seal that argument with his recent victory, my mind raced to lessons that start-ups facing intense competition from established players could learn from Federer’s victory. Here are five important lessons that struck me over the course of the match.

Have a plan in place : It was obvious that Federer had a definite plan in place. He had often in the past let Nadal dictate the pace of play. Moreover, there were some significant strategic changes, like service to Nadal’s forehand on the ad-court. In the past, Federer had more often than not served to Nadal’s backhand, but this hadn’t yielded results. Instead Federer actually went to Nadal’s stronger side and by doing so, pulled him off court, thus allowing him more space to play. While conventional wisdom says that startups should not go up against the strengths of the more established players, you never know if doing so might open up other possibilities which might otherwise have been hidden.

Don’t be afraid to change it in the middle: Having a plan in place is great but within the overall strategy, tactics can and must be changed depending on the situation. Federer’s decision to respond to Nadal’s topspin with loopy topspin of his own showed great tactical nous.

Believe in your abilities: When push comes to shove, start-ups need to believe in their abilities to survive through the difficult times. In the fifth set, down a break, Federer had enough fahis abilities to go for his shots and execute them almost flawlessly.

Play the ball, not the competition: Federer mentioned that in the past he had often let Nadal get into his head. Heading into the fifth set, he told himself to play the ball and not the competition. This is a great advice for start-ups as well. Play the tactics and strategy of the competition and do not get overawed by the name.

Never give up: Finally, Federer just didn’t give up. He did to Nadal what Nadal had done successfully in the past to him. Down a break in the final set against possibly the greatest competitor tennis has ever seen, Federer just “bulled” his way through to the title. Start-ups need to similarly buckle down and keep trying. Giving up should not be an option.

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