Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer: A Breakdown in Natural and Honed Talent

Vee JayAnalyst IMarch 28, 2011

Who is more naturally talented?
Who is more naturally talented?Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Who is more naturally talented, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer? I ask this question because for some reason it interests people, and they tend to believe that a naturally gifted player is superior to a less naturally gifted player, even if the latter has a better record.

First of all, there seems to be no universally-accepted definition. If you say a player is a naturally talented tennis player, do you mean the physical or mental characteristics which help him play superlatively, say, his hand-eye coordination or speed around the court or anticipation/reflexes?

Or do you mean somebody who plays tennis naturally well without training or practice? If the latter, there are scientific studies and literature on the subject which show that without rigorous training and regular and sustained deliberate practice, nobody reaches elite status in any field.

There seems to be a "10,000 hour rule" which has been quoted based on a study by  Anders Ericsson, who is recognized as one of the leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertize.

Roughly, it states that if you do not put in 10,000 hours of regular training/deliberate practice, you will not reach elite status in any field, whether it be sports or music or science or business. People who showed early promise faded out if they did not put in the required hours of practice, which is also stated as three hours a day for 10 years.

People who did not show early promise, e.g. Michael Jordan, but were motivated to put in the hard yards rose to elite status. If somebody renders a musical composition with effortless ease or a forehand with a natural grace which made it look like a liquid whip, you can be sure a huge amount of work has gone into practice to achieve that appearance of effortlessness.

So is natural talent a myth? This is hard to answer, especially as no one is even clear about what natural talent is.

What about Mozart, you might say? Was he not a natural genius? It turns out he had a father well versed in music who made the child work hard from his very early years.

Tiger Woods, who was a prodigy, had been learning golf since even before he was two years old. According to one version, his father used to practice golf strokes in front of Tiger when he was a few months old.

There is no doubt that the role of natural talent in the elite status of a tennis player is negligible. Federer himself, when asked whether he was a genius, said he had to work hard at it. But natural talent could be that catalyst that makes a child undergo the process of becoming a genius, the passion which drives a person to ceaselessly push himself beyond the limit and relentlessly practice a shot till he gets it right?

Natural talent could be that something which predisposes a child to like a particular sport (or art or field of study). Or could natural talent be something which enables a child to develop his own strokes and style of play intuitively, as opposed to textbook style?

So then we come back to my original question: who is more naturally talented: Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer?

Hard to answer, but if I had to go by the passion or the intuitive style definition, I would rate Nadal higher.