As I watched Marin Cilic's dominant victory over Kei Nishikori at the US Open, it occurred to me that the tournament--and the players who fought for the title--have a few things to teach all of us about pursuing a worthy goal:
1. The Journey Is Long
Assuming you are not ranked among the top 32 tennis players in the world, to qualify for the US Open you need to win one of 16 sectional tournaments. Winners of these tournaments progress to a 16-player knockout tournament called the US Open National Playoffs final. The winners of the men's and women's tournaments earn a wild card into the 128-player draw of the US Open.
Like qualifying for a grand slam, starting a successful business involves having the time and patience to work out the kinks. Even the most successful founders typically toil in relative anonymity for a long time before they make it. Bill Gates, for example, founded Microsoft in 1975 to develop software for the Altair 8800, but it was six long years before he landed the contract with IBM that gave him the code to create the PC operating system.
2. Winners Can Feel Like Losers
There are 128 players on both the men and women's draw at the US Open. These are the best tennis players in the world. They all have devoted the better part of their life mastering the game of tennis; they are hometown heroes wherever they live; and they are state and national champions. Yet 127 of them will go home falling short of their ultimate goal.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) reports that there are 30 million businesses in the United States, but there is only one Facebook, Amazon, and Tesla. You can be a successful entrepreneur and make an important contribution but still feel insignificant compared to Zuckerberg, Bezos, or Musk & Co.
3. There Is Always Room for People with a Niche
Forty-two-year-old Daniel Nestor easily made the main draw at this year's US Open. That's not much of a surprise given that he is ranked 5th in the world right now and won the US Open back in 2004. Since turning pro in 1991, Nestor has been ranked as high as number 1 in the world and has earned more than $11 million dollars in prize money as a tennis player.
So why have you never heard of Daniel Nestor? Because he plays doubles, a niche discipline in the singles-dominated tennis world.
In addition to the stars of the business world, there are also thousands of business owners who are quietly and successfully toiling away in their given niche. They are the journeymen and women of the business world who get very little recognition but would be considered a success by just about any measure.
4. The Best Bring Their A Game When It Matters Most
Being a professional tennis player involves a grueling travel schedule of tournaments all over the world. It would be impossible to play your best 40 weeks of the year, so top players carefully manage their energy to avoid burnout. Guarding their resources means they sometimes lose in the early rounds of tournaments in backwater towns, but they almost always bring their A game to the major tournaments like the US Open.
Likewise, great entrepreneurs have a sixth sense that tells them when to let others lead and when they need to personally step up their game. For example, Tesla has an army of PR professionals protecting the Tesla name, but when The New York Times questioned Tesla's range estimates, it was Elon Musk who personally led a media blitz to counter the critics.
5. Winners Learn to Capitalize on Luck
A great player never relies on luck alone but capitalizes on it when they see it. Eugenie Bouchard was the only player on the women's side to reach the semi-finals of all three grand slam tournaments leading up to the 2014 US Open, but halfway through her match against Ekaterina Makarova, Bouchard started to over-heat and her trainers were called in to ice her down. Meanwhile Makarova stayed focused; she realized she had been handed a piece of luck and ensured she closed out the second set quickly before Bouchard could fully recover.
Great entrepreneurs don't rely on luck but they know how to capitalize on it when they have some. Phil Knight signed John McEnroe to an endorsement contract in 1978 long before he was the world's number one tennis player. Was Knight "lucky" to have chosen an athlete who would go on to become a high-profile player? You bet, but Knight also knew enough to capitalize on McEnroe's image as he rose up in the ranks.
Next time you watch a grueling five setter, enjoy the athleticism but also consider the lessons these athletes have for all of us.