Believing vs. hoping: Business lessons from Federer & Nadal

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Rod Nepomuceno () - June 13, 2011 - 12:00am

I am a big sports nut. Nothing excites me more than sports — both as a participant and as a viewer. I don’t just watch sports passively. I actively follow the careers of my favorite athletes. I keep up with the games of my favorite teams. I monitor certain statistics. I am a student of sports history. And I marvel at how a sports event is marketed and organized. 

One event that got me really glued to the news was the recent French Open. For those who are not familiar with it, the French Open is one of the four annual Grand Slam events of tennis — the others being the US Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon. For tennis players, these four Grand Slams are the most important events of the year. They are the biggest in terms of prestige, quality of participants, and cash prize. If you’re a tennis player, once you win a Grand Slam event the endorsements will inevitably follow.

Two tennis players who have thrived in the Grand Slams in recent years are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Since 2003, when Federer started dominating tennis, these two freaks of nature have won every Grand Slam event — with the exception of a couple won by Serbian Novak Djokovic. And while Djokovic is probably the hottest player in tennis now (he won 41 straight games to start the year), there’s no question that the most compelling rivalry in tennis — not just now, but in the history of the game — is Roger vs. Rafa. What’s amazing about these two guys is that while they are currently at the peak of their careers (both are in the Top 3), they have already accomplished much more than the legends of the game (e.g. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, and John McEnroe). Even if you are just a casual sports fan, it’s hard not to be drawn in by either of these two future Hall-of-Famers.

Of course the most compelling thing about the rivalry is the debate on who is better. As mentioned, the greatness of tennis players is normally measured by their Grand Slam wins. In that department, Federer wins hands-down, having won a total of 16 Grand Slams, two more than the former record-holder, the legendary Pete Sampras. He has also won all four Grand Slam events, thus prompting some pundits to declare him “the GOAT” — Greatest of All Time. (I know, horrible acronym for a great title). Nadal, on the other hand, has won 10 — and his latest one was when he beat Federer at the French Open. However, it’s worth pointing out that Nadal is only 24 years old. Federer is turning 30 in August. Nadal has won all four Grand Slams, and he did it much faster than Federer. Moreover, in terms of head-to-head matchup, Nadal is, by far, the better player. And that’s an understatement. Out of around 25 matches between the two, Nadal has beaten Federer 17 times. Thus, some Nadal fans question whether Federer can be considered the GOAT.   They ask, “How can Federer be the greatest of all time when he might not even be the greatest in his era?” Certainly a valid point. And that’s what makes this competition so interesting. There’s no question Federer can beat anyone today — or anyone in history. But can he beat Nadal?

Which brings me to my topic: believing vs. hoping. What sets Federer and Nadal apart from all the other players is the fact that they truly believe they are better than everyone else — and that they can beat anyone. They won’t say it out loud. They are too diplomatic and classy for that. But there’s no question that they believe it, if you study their statements and read between the lines. For example, after beating Top 5 player Robin Soderling in the French Open, Nadal commented that with the way he played in his two previous matches, he said “I can’t win it all if I play the way I am playing,” but then added that he knew he could play better. And by saying that, he was basically saying he was capable of going on to the next level — and beating everyone. 

Personally, I think Nadal’s firm belief in his being able to beat Federer started when he beat Federer for the first time at the 2006 French Open. At that time, no one could beat Federer in the Grand Slams. Roger was untouchable. But then Nadal, whose favorite surface is clay, beat him. That victory affirmed Nadal’s belief that he could beat Federer any day — and on any surface. Ever since that victory, it seems as if Federer has had this “phobia” of Nadal. Nadal seems to be constantly in his head. When they get on the court together Nadal looks like he totally believes he can beat Federer, while Federer often looks unsure and tentative. And this was most evident when Nadal was injured in 2009. When that happened, Federer truly believed he could win it all, because he could beat everyone but Nadal. He went on to beat Soderling and win the French Open for the first time. Roger said after the game, “I knew the day Rafa wouldn’t be in the finals, I would be there, and I would win. I always knew that, and I believed in it. That’s exactly what happened.” The second-seeded Federer said, “It’s funny. I didn’t hope for it. But I believed in it.”

Hoping vs. Believing in our career, in business

From the Nadal-Federer story we can tell the difference between hoping and believing.   I believe Nadal and Federer are equal in terms of skill level. But, Nadal believes he can beat Federer. Federer hopes he can beat Nadal.   Thus, the 17-8 score in head-to-head matchups. There’s the difference right there. I am a Federer fan and every time he plays Nadal, I hope he wins. But Nadal’s 100-percent belief in himself trumps my hopes — and Federer’s hopes — any day.

In our careers and businesses, we can apply the same principle. There are people who may have the same skill set but whose mindsets are different. One the one hand, there are those who hope they can land a job they like, or hope they can get the job done, or hope their business will do well. And on the other hand, there’s another group who believe they can get the job they like, or believe they can get the job done, or that their business will be a success.   It’s this differing mindset that sets these people apart. 

The difference between very successful people and not-so-successful people is the level of their belief.   How much do you believe in yourself? And to what extent do you believe in your dream? Normally, it’s very hard to measure just how firmly you believe. Saint Peter said, “I will follow you, Lord, even up to death.”   And yet a few hours later, he denied Him three times. Sometimes you think you believe, but you’re actually only hoping.

The true extent of how much you believe is usually measured by how much you are willing to lay on the line in order to pursue that belief. Are you willing to sacrifice time? Are you willing to sweat it out and work day in and day out? What are you willing to invest? There’s a difference between saying, “I believe that San Miguel stocks will rise,” and actually buying San Miguel stocks. And there’s a difference between saying, “I like this applicant — he will be good for the company,” and actually hiring him.

As the Good Book says, “Show your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. Faith without works is nothing.”

So you have a dream? Don’t try. And it’s pointless to hope.  

Believe. And then do. Don’t look back.

There’s no other way.

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Thanks for your letters, folks! You may e-mail me at

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