Gilles Simon made some particularly intriguing remarks this week on the topic of talent in tennis:
“Talent, no one knows what it is.”
Being able to identify talent isn’t a requirement to molding a great player. Simon is right, however, in the sense that there are no shortage of ways in which people describe tennis talent as a concept.
Simon went on to add that the French have a distorted opinion of what talent means:
“In France, the word talent is associated with three things: having good hands – and as I have zero hands, I have no talent – technique – the impression of fluidity – and attacking. Basically, ‘flamboyance’ is confused with talent.”
This is where I believe Simon hits the nail on the head. Technical precision is an absolutely critical aspect for any player. But Simon struggles beneath the notion that technique is often conflated with “possessing ground strokes with aesthetic appeal.” Someone like compatriot Richard Gasquet, who has more fluid strokes than Simon, is often seen as having more talent because of a so-called athletic flamboyance.
Everyone is entitled to their own interpretation of talent, but what is undeniable is that tennis is a game played with a variety of shows and under enormous pressure.
It boils down to this: get more balls back, and you’ll never lose.
So, what is talent? My definition: a player’s ability to sculpt the physical, mental, tactical, and technical components of their game, thereby maximizing the number of options he or she has to beat the greatest number of opponents.
At the end of the day, it’s not about who has the cleanest looking shots or looks the best on television — it’s about winning points. The Big 4 of the men’s game have more tools at their disposal than anyone else in the world. Someone like Murray might not have as clean a game as, say, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Tomas Berdych, but he surpasses games better in theory with one better in practice.
When I watch someone like Sam Querrey, I recognize the tremendous skill he possesses off the forehand and serve, but his game is painfully one-dimensional and if he is unable to find the range off his two best shots, he is left with no other options. Novak Djokovic, by contrast, doesn’t hit the ball as consistently hard as Querrey, but has the ability to win points in a variety of different ways: playing attacking offense, wearing his opponents down with consistency, or defending from the back of the court.
Gilles Simon is resilient in his commitment to keeping the ball in the court, and will go to great lengths before giving up a rally. When he is facing an opponent that plays better defense, he can ratchet up his aggression and go on the attack. He has more than one-dimension to his game and can adapt to a variety of opponents. In that way, he is, in fact, a tremendously talented player.
Perhaps with some irony, Simon ends his spiel by declaring Gael Monfils as having the most talent of any Frenchman. To be sure, Monfils can hit every shot in the book, he can defend and attack with the best of him, his serve is a weapon and he can play in the forecourt. There’s almost nothing this guy can’t do.
Then again, tennis is about winning points and Monfils’ physical and technical talent are often marginalized by his mental and tactical deficiencies. Simply put: there are too many players that know how to utilize their weapons better than he does. Monfils doesn’t have nearly the same fighting qualities and ability to construct points that Simon does.
We live in a world that is controlled by results. Are you the best salesman for this company? You might have gone to the best school, but if you don’t sell more than the guy who went to a worse school and isn’t as crafty, nothing else matters. Why should anyone argue that the first salesman has more talent than the second salesman? The second salesman is producing better results and selling more.
Now, that’s talent.
What do you think it means to have talent in tennis? Sound off in the comments!