The ‘Boring’ Sampras

Nothing is perfect. That is why pencils have erasers, software has Undo and Tennis now has the Player Challenge System.

ImageHowever, there are many things which are near-perfect. For example Pete Sampras as a tennis player. Sampras was considered a winning machine, stayed world number one for six consecutive years, won 14 grand slams and achieved everything that a tennis player can dream of. Heck, he even beat Roger Federer, the then world number one, in an exhibition match 5 years after he retired. He had every shot in the book, excelled on all surfaces and practically won every tournament worth winning.

But Sampras was also considered by some as ‘boring’ and ‘mechanical’. For most of his career, he played so well that his wins seemed even effortless at times. He won tournaments without much fanfare or “heart in the mouth” moments. His general expressionless demeanor while slaying his opponents with textbook shots made him look mechanistic at times. There was no fuss about his game.  The flamboyant Andre Agassi called him “more robotic than a parrot” and went on to say “I envy Pete’s dullness. I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration”. Even Sampras’s autobiography read mechanistic (compared to that of Agassi which actually contained these comments).

While many (including Sampras) considered Agassi’s remarks as snide, I consider them to be a compliment. Perfection is sometimes boring. Its meticulous, mechanistic, repetitive, unsexy. It typically lacks flair, emotions, drama and heroism. All greats – whether tennis players, opera singers, belly dancers or great managers – go about their business in a no-fuss way. Their successes seem foregone conclusions just like many of Sampras grand slam victories. Same applies to teams, groups and organizations. They do not depend on heroism and extraordinary efforts to succeed. Their victories do not seem miracles and historical. They do not hope that everything will just “come together in the end”. They do not depend on their star performer to perform inhuman acts to achieve target. Great professionals and teams have this very robotic, scripted and unappealing way of getting things – great things – done year in and year out. They are like Sampras effortlessly slaying his opponents on way to victory and raising the trophy as if it was always his.

Sun Tzu in his timeless classic “The Art of War” could not have said all this better:Image

Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!”
To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength;
to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight;
to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.
What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.
Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.
He wins his battles by making no mistakes.
Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

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8 thoughts on “The ‘Boring’ Sampras

  1. I think that’s a reality of professional sports; its core lies in creating excitement for which ‘drama’ is the main catalyst. I have felt the same way for Fredrer, the Aussie cricket team (atleast till a few years ago), the glory days of the Brazilian soccer squad….. When they become too-good too-many times, they tend to get boring.

    Interestingly and coincidentally, I was just over hearing an account manager yelling at one of the workers for being so ‘perfect’ and ‘dedicated’! The customer has felt that things are going too smooth hence they no longer need an upgrade this year :D. Funny how things relate!

    Good read though!

    • Its interesting that I thought of Roger Federer and Australian cricket team when thinking through this post. They exactly fit (in their hey days) the phenomenon outlined for Sampras. Thanks!

    • Perfection is a good target to aim at but keeping in mind not to overdo it. As they say “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”. The crux of what I said is that when professionals, teams and organizations work hard and become too good at what they do, they given an impression of mechanical and boring. But that’s okay. It’s a good sign. No need of drama when its not required. They just get their jobs done with ease.

  2. My personal opinion is that even though this makes perfect sense for managers to avoid excessive drama and lead an emotional rollercoaster in their work but the work environment should be positively simulating for the employees. Otherwise we cannot hope to get the most out of our team or even retain or motivate the best of them. A team needs to be challenged to preform at its best, is just my opinion on this matter.

  3. Pingback: A Joke is a very serious thing … | Thinking Spirits …

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