Updated: Sep 27
As two legends of tennis hang up their racquets for good, let’s consider the lessons they delivered right down the line.
As part of her astonishing tennis career, Serena Williams, with added femme-fuel from her sister Venus, defied human athletic ability to overcome insurmountable odds. With 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she holds more titles than anyone in the open era (since 1968).
Her success transcends the court too. Serena is one of the most recognizable athletic icons in the world and has long used her platform to champion female empowerment and the importance of inclusivity in leadership.
She has ruled her sport – on and off the court – for a quarter of a century. When she announced her retirement last month (August 2022), it came as no surprise that she did it on her own terms, opting to rebrand the term.
“I have never liked the word retirement,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me.
“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
And, like clockwork, within weeks of Serena revealing her plans to evolve, another legend called time on his career. Roger Federer, the Swiss genius, played his last pro game in September.
During his tennis career, “FedEx” took home 20 Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked world No. 1 by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for 310 weeks, remarkably, including a record 237 consecutive weeks. In total, he finished as the year-end ATP No. 1 five times.
Arguably, had he been born on either side of the pandemic, he may have clocked up even more. Nonetheless, he goes down in history as one of the three best players in the history of men’s tennis. A golden era alongside Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and a period of intense entertainment and a colorful array of styles we are unlikely to see again.
Lessons in sport have long been held up as metaphors for business and life. So, as two stars leave center court what can we take from their success? What dents have these two supreme athletes made. How are we inspired beyond their reign and how do we carry their legacy into the corridors of leadership?
The Good Soul Take:
1. Play on: If you’re good and you’re feeling it - keep going, despite what others say, even your wife. Just ask Tom Brady.
Both Federer and Williams were born in 1981 – making them 41 this year and way beyond the mean of both male (26 years) and female (25) players on the ATP tour. Like, way out of the ballpark.
Invariably, the next tennis gen of fast twitch fiber had started to come through and both their performances started to dip. Federer’s last Grand Slam came in 2018, while Serena’s was in 2017 – both, incidentally, downunder at the Australian Open.
But they kept going. Not because of money, but because they loved what they were doing. And so should you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “done” if you’re not - personally or professionally. Period.
2. Leave a legacy: inspire others.
Serena may be riding off into retirement but the thunderbolt she sent through the world will be long-lasting. Not least of her lasting influences will be the pioneering role she has had, encouraging younger generations of women of color. You only have to look at four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens or French Open finalist Coco Gauff to gauge just how important her torch-bearing has been.
Federer’s success and the humble, professional manner in which he achieved it has already inspired a number of athletes. Six-time European swimmer of the year and triple Olympic gold medallist, Adam Peaty, is one of those.
“I’m inspired by all the top players in sport, but Roger Federer is the one where I think he’s just class,” Peaty says. “The way he comes across, how he performs, his attitude in the sport, that’s someone you want to look up to, you get to your late 30s or early 40s still doing your sport then why not!”.
Game, set and match!
3. Dominate the court and do it your way – know what game you're in and become the best at that! Do everything you can to win.
During her career, Serena was the most dominant force ever seen in women’s tennis. She was feared and respected – and perhaps even disliked – due to her propensity to not just win, but to completely annihilate her opponents into submission.
The question then is, how does she transfer that ferocity into her new career? What is Serena the athlete evolving into?
Next up is becoming a business mogul - her fashion brand S BY SERENA celebrates body positivity with partnerships with friends in high places like Nike, Gatorade and Gucci. In March of 2022, she launched Serena Ventures, a venture capital fund with a current value of US$111 million and a portfolio of over 60 companies with a focus on diverse leadership. Her net worth is estimated at around US$260 million and she is already flanked by more than a dozen corporate partners to help her flex that influence. In other words, she is already standing at the net on her new court.
Federer was famous for dominating in another way. Unlike Serena’s brute power and force, Roger was as cool as a cucumber and ground down his opposition with Swiss precision – one immaculately placed stroke at a time.
You learnt to never underestimate Roger as he played his way back from matchpoint after matchpoint. It wasn’t uncommon to go to bed having written him off after being down a couple of sets and then waking up to hear with the sweep of his hand through his hair and steely gaze he’d grind back with unnerving persistence.
He has taken this precision and accuracy into his off-court career too. This can be seen in the way he has planned for life after professional tennis. In 2013, he and his agent Tony Godsick co-founded player management agency Team8. He has also invested in a Swiss sports shoe brand named “On AG” and launched a few collections named “The Roger Centre Court JP All-White Sneakers” and “The Roger Pro”. In addition, he is the brand ambassador for Switzerland Tourism.
In other words, he will transfer from court to clay just fine!
4. Deuce - sharpen your game by taking on worthy adversaries where you meet your match.
Despite her dominance, Serena faced some fierce rivals during her career. One of the most persistent was Victoria Azarenka, whom Serena faced 13 times across Grand Slams, WTA Finals and the Olympics. Of those, Serena only lost one. Another famous adversary was Maria Sharapova, whom Serena faced off with 22 times (Sharapova won twice). Serena’s main rival during her career was, however, someone she knew pretty well – her own sister, Venus. The siblings faced each other 20 times across in major tournaments and, in total, they played 31 times between 1998 and 2020. Serena won 19 of those, with Venus ending up on top in 12.
For Federer, the main competition came from three huge icons of tennis – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. To achieve what FedEx did while having to share the global court with a trio so strong is nothing short of astonishing.
So when it comes to rivals in business, do not shy away from a bit of competition. Whether it be in terms of being purpose-driven goals you have as a business, or competing with better products and services in the market. Take them on – and give it your all.
5. Have an Ace up your sleeve - hone your superpower.
Like Serena’s second serve or Federer’s accuracy (and his on-court movement that made it impossible to read what he was going to do next) you need something extra to make it big. Develop your operations, but sharpen the edge over everyone else.
Make sure you nurture that secret weapon that you are the best in the room at. Everyone needs to pull that out every so often. Even Serena.
6. Be gracious in defeat - You can’t win them all.
Take defeat, pay your dues and learn. Federer won 20 Grand Slam finals, but he also lost 11 finals - more than any other player in men’s tennis history. He even once lost three Grand Finals in succession. Did that stop him? Of course not.
Same with Serena – she won a record-breaking 23 finals, but also lost 10 finals. Use losses as fuel to train harder, be smarter, and get back on top.
7. Use your star power to inspire and help others.
As a leader, there is always someone you have the opportunity to inspire or offer a foothold for. Be the stepping stone for others. Raise the bar so you can show it can be done. Then do it again for the love of the game.
That’s exactly what Roger and Serena have done.
Roger often speaks about how his childhood idols were Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. For Serena, it was Ora Washington, Althea Gibson and Zina Garrison.
Be inspired, then inspire others.
Thanks Serena. Thanks Roger. Love-all. Image: Unsplash/Zoë Reeve