It all began when Roger Federer won his 18th Grand Slam victory by defeating his old nemesis Rafael Nadal in five hard-fought sets at the 2017 Australian Open. Roger had not bested Nadal in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2007 or won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon 2012. Roger is now 35 and is the second oldest man to win a major singles title in the Open Era. How did he win his first major tournament after taking almost six months off for a knee operation? 

Recently in the New York Times, Federer said, “I told myself to play free. You play the ball. You don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head. Be free in your shots. Go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I don’t want to go down just taking shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa.”  

Federer was more proactive and aggressive than in past matches. What struck me was Federer’s response to what keeps motivating him to keep playing. After all, Federer now has 18 Grand Slam victories, which leaves him well ahead of the pack, with Sampras and Nadal at 14. Federer downplayed the title, saying, “That’s the smallest part to be honest. It’s all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again.” 

What inspires me about Roger is that even though he is so accomplished, he seems to play for the thrill of the challenge, of the moment. He loves being a part of something bigger than himself. For those of us who are not breaking records, Roger’s epic victory is an important reminder that great things are achieved by having the courage to believe in yourself. You have to put yourself in situations in which you might fail, lose, or face rejection. To reach that peak performance, as in Federer’s case, he played through five years of hard work, tears, losses, and injuries. Federer’s victory made me look around and ask what does it take to keep playing a bigger or better game for us mere mortals?

I’ll share a recent experience:

In a room of 20 emerging women leaders in their 20’s-30’s of a global technology firm, all had a look of surprise on their faces as the young woman from their India office—I’ll call her Anjali—recounted her story of how she smiled sweetly with a drink in her hand, while she told the SVP of sales that he had never once returned her emails. He paused and asked a few questions, then admitted he would do better in the future. 

Anjali highlighted her experience at a cocktail/networking event that had occurred during a training program for these high potential women. Many of these women had also approached the SVP of sales and wished they had Anjali’s courage. Having courageous conversations is not easy for most of us. I have them for a living as an executive coach, but it is another thing to tell powerful people that they are making mistakes.

I was impressed with the bravery of these Indian woman in a seminar that I ran for an international company. The women attending came from the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Poland, Italy, India, and Germany. The Indian women live in a very conservative and male-dominated world, yet work for an American company, based in one of two smaller offices in India. They felt it was essential to their success to be opportunistic and charming in order to achieve their goals. It seemed to me that the Indian women acted freely, whereas the European women held themselves back. That is the conundrum– how to give yourself permission to experiment or to possibly look foolish because it’s rarely possible to achieve greatness without taking that chance.

The reality is that most of us aren’t in Federer’s position with more talent and money than we can imagine–and a real love of competition. Most of us either have to push ourselves, or are forced out of our comfort zones, such as Anjali was at the cocktail party with senior leaders. And, once we find the courage, we need to get ourselves to go for it in a relaxed manner, as Federer did.

I keep seeing Anjali’s smile and welcoming attitude. I thought she could probably charm me into running a marathon for fun! When I then told her that she’s the Zig Ziglar of India, she smiled again and thanked me for the compliment. Although she knew that the conversation with the SVP might not go well that evening, she was at least going to try!

Would Anjali have taken a chance if she wasn’t in a challenging situation? Would Federer have gone for it, without being tested by Rafa? I am inspired by both Federer and Anjali for their willingness to keep putting themselves in situations that push themselves beyond their comfort zones and being able to enjoy and relax in the moment.

What would that look like for me? For you? How do you raise your game?

 

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