The Talent Pyramid: What It Takes To Be a Tennis Legend

Michael LanichCorrespondent IApril 24, 2009

When you watch Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, you know you are witnessing players who only come around every so often in the sport.

It is when you compare them to the multitude of "others" in the game that you begin to wonder what makes a player mediocre, great, or legendary.

So, I have created a pyramid to illustrate what I think the ingredients are when it comes to mediocrity and remembrance for all time.


1. The Base: Talent

Talent is the biggest part of Tennis. Without extraordinary talent, players could not make the tour in the first place. There is also a gap in talent between the good, great, and legends.

Some players are very well-rounded, while others excel at a few aspects. Or in the case of Federer and Nadal, they excel at many aspects of the game. Without talent, there is no foundation for the rest of the pyramid. 

2. The Second Tier, Part One: Mental Fortitude

In my opinion, while talent is the base, the ability to be mentally strong and resilient is probably one of the most important parts of the whole pyramid. Nadal is a prime example of a player who plays specifically in the moment, and focuses completely on what he needs to do.

Andy Murray is learning to do it, and if you go back in time, Mats Willander and Bjorn Borg were much like Nadal. If a player is strong mentally, then they make other players realize that they will have to beat them, and that they won't beat themselves.

3. The Second Tier, Part Two: Confidence

When you watch Nadal, Murray, or legends like Sampras, Agassi, or Borg, you see confidence dripping off of them.

This goes hand in hand with being mentally strong. Knowing you are an excellent player, and that you believe you can win any game is just as important as the skills that you own.

Federer is a prime example of a player who is beginning to doubt himself a bit, and it is showing in big moments and matches against players he is struggling against.

David Nalbandian is an example of someone who is not completely confident that he can win at any time. When you combine awesome talent with mental strength and confidence you are probably well on your way to becoming a great player. 

4. The Third Tier, Part One: Work Ethic

Hard work. Besides talent, it's the backbone of every player, or at least, it should be.

Nadal and some other players are well known for logging a great amount of time on the practice court. It's necessary if a player wants to improve his game and truly evolve.

Nadal has evolved greatly into a complete player. Federer has honed his craft to an art, although he needs to work on his weaknesses.

Also, this greatly helps in consistency on the court. Being able to win long rallies and paint the lines takes work. You don't learn to do that by accident. 

5. The Third Tier, Part Two: Fitness

When Nadal (or in the past, Agassi) would run around the court, he would make it look like someone having fun, while his opponent would be simply wishing he could collapse and die from exhaustion. And thus we see that tiring a player out is a good way of breaking down their concentration and their game in the match.

As we have seen, players such as Djokovic and Bhagdatis have been questioned when it comes to their fitness. Simply look at the Australian Open with Djokovic and it proves my point.

6. The Fourth Tier: Desire

Maybe the most underrated aspect of a player: the hunger.

The unbridled drive to become the best. It's something not every player has, but those that do, dedicate themselves to tennis. They eat, breathe, and drink tennis every day.

Desire cannot be taught. It must be inside of the player in the first place. Mediocre players don't believe they are deserving of being a legend, so they don't truly desire to be one.

The ones who separate themselves are the ones who fight, claw, and scrap even when they are not playing their best, yet still win show just how much they want it. Desire is like the secret ingredient in a recipe that takes it from good to "Can I have the recipe?"

Let's Take Two Examples and Compare

Nalbandian has a ton of skill. He's got an unbelievable backhand, a good forehand, and great touch at the net.

That sounds good, but there is a reason that Nalbandian is where he is today and not at the top of the game.

For one, he's also not in the kind of fantastic physical shape that Nadal, Federer, or Gael Monfils are in.

You can see Nalbandian huffing and puffing after long rallies. If you don't take care of your body enough, then you lose rallies, and ultimately lose points, which leads to losses. In turn that will eventually hamper your confidence and your overall consistency as a player. Sounds like David to me.

Now take Andy Roddick. He's always been in good shape, but he's dropped some mass in order to move better around the court and it is paying dividends. With a little more work ethic, and conceding that he had to make some minor changes that could pay off in the long run, he's off to a better start this year than he has been in a long long time.

So Roddick works hard, and in return he gets better by chipping away at some of his weaknesses. Nalbandian, meanwhile, relies only on his natural skills (which are huge), but without the dedication and the fitness needed to get better, he continues to disappoint.

One of these guys has the desire to get better and win. The other is just hoping he can win. Wonder which one will go further this year?


So to sum this all up, players who possess these qualities will win titles and will be remembered long after they have retired.

Nadal will be. Federer will be. The hury is still out on Murry, Djokovic, and other rising talent, of course. Ferrer, Nalbandian, and Gasquet are all examples of players who have loads of talent, but lack work ethic or the real desire to be great.


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