Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Michael Porter is an economist whose theories altered the way the competitive environment in business is analyzed.  One of his theories is that, at its core, every business must identify one of only two generic strategies to compete in their industry, and align all of their skills and operations with that generic strategy.  Those two generic strategies are either to compete on cost leadership or differentiation, and while the entire skill set of a business pursuing one strategy may (out of necessity) overlap with those of a business pursuing the other strategy, at its core the business must choose.

I've often wondered if this can be applied to any form of competition, including sports, and what then would be the application of these theories to a particular sport like tennis.  Within this framework, I think there are two generic strategies in tennis, and they stem essentially from the two basic ways to win a point:  you either (1) apply pressure or (2) absorb pressure.  The player who applies pressure is more apt to win points through winners and forced errors, while the player who absorbs pressure is more likely to win points through the unforced errors of their opponents.

However, it should not be interpreted that a player who gears his game around one generic strategy or the other cannot develop the skills and employ the tactics of the other - indeed it could be argued that the player who best mixes the two skill sets will be most successful. It should not either be assumed that one strategy is superior to another - just as in business where the ultimate objective is total profits, which can be pursued either through a cost leadership strategy (like Walmart) or a differentiation strategy (like Apple), the same could be argued in tennis.  There are examples of great players who have employed either strategy, even through the use of a different set of tactics (and associated skills).  But at their core, the best players in the the game have had the most success when their games are aligned with the generic strategy they choose to pursue.

The most obvious example of this is the serve and volleyer, who applies enormous pressure on his opponent by serving effectively to set up his volleys which he would hit for winners or to elicit a weak response that is then put away.  There is a laundry list of great serve and volleyers who would fall into this category, but an interesting analysis shows that while the strategic objective is the same, there are a number of ways to achieve it.

Boris Becker and Pete Sampras were serve and volleyers who employed huge sums of power both on the serve and on their ground strokes to essentially beat their opponents into submission. Their games were similar, but whereas Becker's tactics (which was more of a mix of serve and volley and play from the baseline) resulted in 6 majors, Ion Tiriac argued with him for years that he lacked the requisite associated skills  to maximize his potential success through anything other than exclusive serve and volley - a tactic that Becker often eschewed in his career to a fault.  Becker lost a US Open semi-final to Miroslav Mecir dueling from the baseline with a player who's strategic objective was the diametric opposite of Becker's, and after beating Agassi in their 1989 Davis Cup encounter in Germany, went another 6 years and 8 matches before beating him at Wimbledon in 1995 - all the while trying to beat Agassi at his own game.

Sampras on the other hand, was far more adept in the areas of defense to stay with Agassi as needed, until the opportunity presented itself to go on the attack.  By all accounts his movement, footwork, and ground strokes themselves were superior to Becker's, and thus against Agassi and others, who sought to play from the baseline, found it difficult to do either against him.  Interestingly enough, players with a similar generic strategic objective had the most success against Sampras, expressly because they were able to put him under pressure, by virtue of their own (huge) serve and volley game, and essentially neutralize his adept ability to meld the skills required to both defend and attack. Stefan Edberg for his career was 6-8 against Sampras, but it is interesting to note that he won 5 of their first 7 meetings and the decline of his career coincided with the ascendance of Sampras'.  Once Sampras' game was able to effectively absorb or counteract the pressure from Edberg, he proceeded to win 6 of the next 7 matches.

Michael Stich held a 4-3 advantage over Sampras, and Richard Krajicek was 6-4 over the course of his career.  These two statistical anomalies of players with 1 major to their name (not coincidentally Wimbledon titles in 1991 and 1996 respectively) were the result of each player being able to impose their generic strategies over Sampras, and neutralize Sampras' ability to effectively meld the skill sets of both applying and absorbing pressure. In fact, one could argue that while Krajicek and Stich were not nearly the player that Becker was, Becker's record against Sampras was much worse precisely because he failed to stick to a single generic strategy against him, the way his less impressive contemporaries probably felt they had to in order to have any chance to beat him.

It is interesting to note that while Agassi played primarily from the baseline, he was in fact a player who pursued the strategic objective of applying pressure.  Like Jimmy Connors and Jim Courier, Agassi applied his pressure primarily from the baseline - but when faced with a player who had sufficient defensive skills to neutralize his advantage in this area - someone like Sampras - he often found it difficult to impose his strategy.  As a matter of fact, one could argue that while earlier in his career Agassi was prone to try to hit winners from the baseline, as he became stronger, fitter and more technical, he realized that the equilibrium between attack and defense, particularly from the baseline, meant that he was better off forcing errors than hitting outright winners.  But either way, his game was about applying pressure, not absorbing it.

Jimmy Connors is another example of an aggressive baseliner who obviously had the necessary movement and footwork to get in position to ply his trade from his preferred position, but one shouldn't confuse Connors with a player like Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, or Rene Lacoste, who were masters of absorbing pressure.  Connors was adept at coming to net and finishing points off, as part of his strategy to apply pressure to his opponents, and had his most successful seasons (eight years apart in 1974 and 1982) when the mix of those two tactical hemispheres was at its peak. Connors may have made his living at the baseline, but he was never so effective at winning majors as he was when he transitioned from bludgeoning attacking opponents with his ground strokes and passing shots, to picking apart those players who made their living absorbing pressure (like the early incarnations of Ivan Lendl).

Over the course of his career, Connors had the most problems with players who effectively absorbed pressure and elicited errors from him.  The most telling examples of this comes from Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl, both of whom enjoyed lopsided career head to heads against Connors, but initially found it difficult to cope with his aggressive baseline game.

The modern game is more homogeneous in terms of the skill set of players, but generic strategies are essentially split 50/50.  Federer and Djokovic are clear examples of two players who apply pressure to their opponents, but do it in very different ways.  The important thing to note is that while both players apply pressure, what separates them from other players who employ a similar generic strategy is their ability to defend just enough to get in position to apply pressure.  Furthermore, that tipping point differs from player to player within generic strategies, as well as across generic strategies.  Federer, if he has to go beyond 15 strokes in a rally, he is unlikely to win the point, whereas with Djokovic, that number is much higher.

Nadal and Murray would fall in the category of players who generically absorb pressure, but that should not be misinterpreted as saying they're pushers.  To the contrary a pusher could never get the results they have. Nadal's ability to transition from defense to attack is superior to Murray's in that when he makes his transition he has more power and spin at his disposal to finish the point. But they essentially play the game very similarly, and both are happy to stretch points well beyond the 20 stroke level to wait for that opportunity. In fact one could argue that the longer the point goes, the more likely they are to win it.

This brings us to why Djokovic is currently so effective.  Because modern courts are slower, and the balls take more spin and the games of his opponents are more generic than in previous periods in history, Djokovic's superior fire power to both Nadal and Murray put him in a position to finish points in a way that they cannot - however, his level of defense is on par with them and thus he really has both of his bases covered. In fact, his defense is so good, and his points so often so long, that one might be tempted to put him in the category of one who absorbs pressure. But watching him play Federer will dispel this notion.

Fedjoker matches are characterized by both players trying desperately to take control of the point as soon as possible in order to finish it as soon as possible, and it is only the quality of each's defense that stretches the points out.  But generally speaking, it is rare for rallies in their matches to go beyond 20 strokes. And Djokovic's footwork, court positioning and stroke production are now so well synchronized that he rarely requires that much effort to beat anyone else.

I think Michael Porter must be a tennis player.
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