At first brush, you would be excused into wondering if the title of this blog post referred to a basketball match between two lesser well known colleges.  Or you might even think it was a court case that occurred in the 1990s?  However, I am referring to the result of the first round match at Wimbledon 2010 between John Isner (US, 23rd seed) and Nicolas Mahut (French qualifier) as expressed in total number of games (92-91).  The game lasted an epic 11 hours, 5 minutes and the fifth set alone was longer than any other previous five set match at 8 hours 15 minutes.  Isner finally pulled it out, in a match that spanned three days, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.  At the end of the match, Isner fittingly pulled Mahut in for a loser’s hug.  “Someone had to lose.” In an ironic twist, I would say that France once again lost (having just been evicted from the Football (Soccer) World Cup down in South Africa) while the USA made it through in a last ditch effort.  In this case, Mahut and France can stand tall — although perhaps not as tall as Isner (6 ft 9); even if Mahut is no shrimp at 6 ft 3.

Some of the more startling statistics of this Wimbledon 1st round encounter:

  • Isner hit 112 aces and only had 10 double faults.  Isner won 87% (284 of 328) of his first serves.
  • Mahut who had 103 aces and 21 doubles, had only 39 unforced errors in a match that featured 980 points.  Mahut won 502 of the points to Isner’s 478 (an injustice!), of which Mahut hit 244 winners (including service).
  • In the match, there were just 17 break point opportunities (1 of 3 converted for Mahut; 2 of 14 for Isner).
  • The average 1st serve speed was 123 MPH for Isner  (2nd serve average speed was 112 MPH!) and 118 MPH for Mahut (101 for the 2nd serve).

The Business Take?

Aside from the stellar quality of the tennis and all the record setting for tennis the world over, what struck me about this match was the stalemate component.  Neither warrior was able or prepared to veer from their course.  One has to applause the firmness of mind, without doubt.  However, there was a structural problem as well whereby Isner and Mahut fell into a game rut.  Neither was able to break the code, nor break the rhythm.  From a business leadership standpoint, when two competitors are battling it out, investing every last cent in a titanic struggle to win, there may be no winner in the end.  Surely Isner will not last more than another round (or possibly two considering the weakish next opponent).  The cost to the body and psyche will in all likelihood be too much — on top of which he is now behind schedule!  If the duel was remarkable in many ways, it was remarkable in the lack of change.  A lack of change of strategies.  Both players were locked in the same game.  Neither was able to change his own game to make the breakthrough.  Companies often fall prey to the same behaviour and, believing their product is better, pound out the marketing dollars.  You can excuse the tennis players as they are not CEOs of a major corporation (although one should believe they are CEOs of their own lives).  However, for companies — even more today — the need to be wily and flexible in the trenches is a must.  In this marathon tennis match, the audience won (and that’s a GREAT thing).  In a business contest, the consumer will likely win via the repetitive promotions, etc.  But, the protagonists are unlikely to win (although this match will go down in the history books, which may have been an end in itself).  The winning organisation is the one which learns, adapts and changes the playing field.

Game changer? I suspect the debate will rage on about changing the rules for fifth sets.  The bigger idea is to find ways to change strategies and win intelligently!

Meanwhile, no rest for the weary or the winners.  Isner is due on Court today (Friday) at noon GMT to face 49th-ranked Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands, whose own first-round victory normally would be considered something extraordinary, because it went to 16-14 in the fifth set.  To this end, you might consider de Bakker possibly a little tired, too.  Looking forward to seeing if Isner can move (at all) forward.

Your thoughts, please: What do you think are the lessons a business leader can take from such an encounter?  Fortitude of mind?  Greater determination?  Need to take a step back to look at the bigger picture?  Did the better player win?  Should they alter the rules of tennis’ hallowed fifth set?

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