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Home / Articles / Columnists / The 15 Second Principle /  Arthur Ashe's Adaptability
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Monday, August 1,2011

Arthur Ashe's Adaptability

By Al Secunda  
Hi gang. I’d love to share with you a very interesting story that might shed some additional light and insight into success and the performing process.

The date was July 5, 1975. The place was Wimbledon, England. Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors were about to meet each other in the finals of the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The odds in Las Vegas heavily favored Connors. Jimmy had won Wimbledon the previous year, and he had never lost to Arthur (3-0). In addition, Jimmy hadn’t dropped one set in the entire tournament (six previous matches).

In the semifinals, Connors crushed Roscoe Tanner 6-4, 6-1, 6-4. Tanner had one of the fastest and most devastating serves in the game, yet Jimmy handled his powerful serve with ease. On a grass service, this is extremely difficult. It was apparent to everyone that Connors was playing brilliant tennis.

Ashe, on the other hand, was having more difficulty in his ascent to the finals. In the semifinals he outlasted Tony Roche 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 8-9, 6-4. While it wasn’t smooth sailing, Arthur’s main weapons -- a fast serve, powerful ground strokes, and great volleys, kept coming through for him.

However, just before the finals began, a reality jolted Ashe. He realized that he was going to lose to Connors if he used the same strokes and strategies that got him into the finals. He would once again come up short if he pitted his strengths against Connors’s. Jimmy would take Arthur’s power and turn it against him.

It was at this point that Ashe had the courage to become creative and adaptive. He decided to abandon his usual way of winning because it was not going to be appropriate for this specific situation. He did this by exchanging his offensive strategy for a defensive one. This entailed replacing a power game with a risky game of gentleness and finesse. Rather than trying to overwhelm Connors with his fast serve, Ashe spun his serves out wide, favoring Connors’s twohanded backhand. Instead of hitting his ground strokes with power, Ashe slowed things down and used more slice (which causes the ball, after bouncing on grass, to remain low). Some power purists even accused Ashe of using nothing but “junk” on Connors. The result was the biggest victory of Ashe’s career. He beat Connors 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.

I believe that while Arthur Ashe always kept his sight on the goal, winning the finals at Wimbledon, he was not attached to the way he was going to accomplish this. Rather than applying his strengths, he looked to see what Connors’s weaknesses were and then attempted to exploit them. (Connors thrived on hard hit balls not slow ones.) Ashe was flexible, resourceful, and focused. He later admitted that his unusual plan probably looked suicidal, however, the final results spoke for themselves.

The lesson we can all draw from this match is that just because we reach a certain level of proficiency, doesn’t always mean that we should keep applying these same techniques and strategies to every situation. Certain challenges will call for a shift in the way we think, behave, and approach our goals. The more aware and present we can become of our environment and the people within it, the better able we will be at adapting to these surroundings.

In closing, there will be times when something different, out of the ordinary, or even opposite will be called for. Isn’t this how Mohammed Ali’s defensive peeka-boo approach beat George Foreman’s offensive approach in their championship bout in Zaire?

Before and even during a sales presentation or competitive event, take a few seconds to size things up. If you feel that your “ship” is a little off course, take a few seconds to: stop, breathe, evaluate, and perhaps even change course by choosing a different approach or tactic. This, in turn, will enable you to become a more versatile, adaptive, formidable, and successful performer.


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