The Value of Work Ethic

With both the WTA and ATP tennis tours back in the U.S. for a short time this spring, I have been closely following the progress of many of the players and spent some time with several of them at the tour stops in Indian Wells and Miami. During a recent ESPN telecast, I heard legendary player/coach Darren Cahill commenting on the value of the work ethic of Maria Sharapova and Milos Raonic, whose commitment in this area goes beyond that of most other athletes, in and out of tennis.

Many athletes talk about their work ethic in almost sound bite moments. But are they really committed to it? Do they really walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to putting in the hard work and long hours it takes to separate the good from the great?

I’ve known Maria since she was 13, and from the first time I saw her I knew she was destined to become the No. 1 player in the world because she does have a real gift of talent packaged with a drive that is second to none. I’ve been following Milos more closely lately as he has made a quick ascent to his current ranking at the No. 6 player in the world on the men’s tour.

Maria was emphatic about being the best in the world when she was a teenager and she did become No. 1. Now she wants to return to the top of the rankings and she is totally committed to that goal. Milos has talked openly about the importance of being the best in the world. He is younger than Maria and he is on his journey and I am confident he has what it takes to reach the top. So what is it about these two athletes that elevates them and drives them?

Max Eisenbud, Maria’s longtime agent, tells me Maria’s work ethic is a big part of who she is. A 2012 New York Times article described Max’s first meeting with Maria, “On his first day in Florida, he was handed a list of the players and their practice times. As Eisenbud roamed the courts, he was stopped in his tracks by a tall, lithe 12-year-old smacking ground strokes with a supernatural intensity.”

Maria had a solid work ethic at 12 years old and according to Max, she had it long before that as well.

“Maria’s work ethic has always been the same since she was four years old and she has continuously improved her game and added new elements to it,“ he told me. “She added variety, drop shots, got faster, became stronger. Clay has been a tough surface for Maria but she has been able to work on her weaknesses and turned them into strengths.”

Max feels clay went from her weakest surface to one of her strongest. I’ve seen this improvement firsthand. Specifically, Maria has focused on improvements to her footwork, committing to improving her outside leg on her backhand side. I think this change alone helped her win the French Open — a major championship on what used to be her most challenging surface.

For Milos, he tells me hard work is the common denominator in many success stories on and off the court. “Some people are more visible about their commitment to a strong work ethic, where other champions like to be more private about it,” he says. “But hard work is something you will find amongst everyone that is at the top of their field, their sport, their profession. It’s something you can’t take for granted and it is what gets you through those tough moments and really take you from being good, to being great, to being extraordinary.”

The quiet Canadian is one of those athletes who will let his results and his achievements speak for him. His coach, Ivan Ljubicic (who reached a career high ranking of No. 3 in the world in his career), says this drive — this commitment to being to best in the world — presents some challenges to the coaching team in the Raonic camp.

“Milos is by far the most determined and workaholic person I have ever met,” Ivan added. “We literally have a problem getting him to rest and that is something we are always working on. His determination is so intense and the level of focus he puts in practice sessions is unmatched in tennis today, at least from what I see. So it is a challenge for us to manage this and allow him to use it to reach his goals.”

Not every tennis player, not every athlete, has the desire and the drive to always look for ways to improve. And even fewer are willing to put in the time, physical effort and emotional investment to keep improving and developing.

In sports and in life it is so much more beneficial to work smarter. There are those who only work hard to get to that all important level. Then, more often than not, they then let up and become comfortable — almost satisfied — with their current level of performance. These people are not working smartly and they are not the men and women who will become champions in sports or in life. They usually look back at their lives and realize they may have settled for less than they could have been.

Maria and Milos have figured it out. They have found the all-important balance and they are walking the walk and talking the talk, and their commitment is taking them from great to extraordinary.