What Makes a Tennis Champion? Natural Talent or Hard Work?

natural talent and genetics vs hard work and grit


This question was originally asked during an “ask me anything” Quora Session I hosted. I’ve updated, improved and expanded upon that answer here.

The short answer is that it’s a combination of the two rather than one or the other.

Genes absolutely play an important role in determining the potential of our athletic abilities. I’m convinced that all champions are born with certain genetic traits that give them an advantage.

For example, I was very fast over short distances. My genetic makeup gave me the potential to break the world record sprint over 10 metres. This is one of the advantages that allowed me to achieve success in tennis. But never in my wildest dreams could I run a marathon at the pace required to be a champion marathon runner. I am physically not built for it.

Yes I could train hard, improve and become a good long distance runner but I would never win a gold medal competing against guys with genetic traits advantageous for long distance endurance.

The same principle applies to Usain Bolt. If you took away some of his unique physical abilities it wouldn’t matter how hard he trained or how badly he wanted it, he simply would not be as fast because his body wouldn’t allow it.

Now it’s important to remember that when I talk about genetics or natural talent I’m talking about “potential”.

You may have the genes of Laver, Ali and Pele with the potential to become a Superman-like athlete, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you have the other part of the equation too. The will to win, dedication to work hard, creativity to overcome obstacles, ability to plan ahead and the fortitude to deal with tough times are all essential. Without these qualities one can not become a champion.

One of the problematic side effects of watching athletes in the Olympics or a Grand Slam is that we only see the fine-tuned finished product. Rarely do we see the blood, sweat, tears and thousands of hours of intense work that goes into it. Or the thousands of who tried hard but never made it. Viewers only see the winners on the podium with a gold medal or trophy lifted high.

This often leads to the illusion that anyone can do it. We’ve all heard motivational speakers or our parents tell us we can achieve anything as long as we put our mind to it. This is a beautiful idea that unfortunately isn’t always true and in some cases can be misleading.

There is no “champions” gene that predetermines who will achieve athletic success. But wishful thinking and training alone will not not win you a Roland Garros, US Open, Australian Open or Wimbledon title either.

I believe all top tennis players and athletes have combined their natural talents with their passion for the sport. This passion drives them to work hard and allows them to reach their genetic potential and maximise their natural talents.

“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given.” – Muhammad Ali

At the end of the day natural talent will only get you a foot in the door. Because at the highest levels everyone is talented. Hard work, creativity and willpower is what’s needed to take you the rest of the way.

If I had to choose between having natural talent or the ability to work hard. I’d pick hard work every time.



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