What is “Talent”?

Roger Federer has often been called the most talented player ever, even when he hasn’t been ranked #1. I think this is down to his ability to end points in all kinds of ways, seemingly without much effort. He can kill a rally with a forehand from a not-especially-offensive position, he can draw his opponent in with a slice, he can charge the net and feather a drop volley winner.

But what is “talent,” at least in the tennis-y context we use the term? The Google definition amounts to “natural aptitude or skill,” as in abilities someone is born with rather than developed over time. This puts things in a new perspective — obviously Federer didn’t enter this world with a knife-like backhand slice, it was a skill honed over years of training. It’s just the apparent ease with which he hits the ball that provokes the use of “talent.”

I’ve always thought that emphasizing Federer’s talent as greater than all other players oversimplified the tennis landscape. If talent is natural, does that mean the reason Nadal and Djokovic were able to beat him is that they simply worked harder? It’s not that straightforward; tactics, health, and execution of core shots play a massive role in matches between the three titans. Talking exclusively about talent nixes the idea that other factors are important, which they of course are.

Talent can’t be defined only by natural ability, then, at least not if we want the word to serve us any purpose in conversations about tennis. Natural ability is completely unquantifiable, and as with the Federer example, it’s easy to say “he was born to do this,” when his smooth motions actually have a lot to do with years of training. There are players whose frames aren’t big or muscular enough to hit with the pace required to be a tennis champion, but in a discussion of those who are already legends, they’ve found a way to make things work.

In the case of Federer, “talent” actually sells him short. By deeming the great Swiss “the most talented player of all time,” we draw the implicit (and incorrect) conclusion that Djokovic and Nadal have surpassed him with less naturally strong games. This is an obvious oversimplification — the Serb and Spaniard have a wealth of talent of their own, plus brilliant tactical minds and endurance. Federer having superior hand skills and a more aesthetically pleasing game (to some, at least) isn’t even wholly natural. Somewhere along the line, “talent” has become associated with the flashier shots in tennis, despite the fact that those require practice to master just like any other shot. Not only does emphasizing Federer’s natural skill take the focus away from the way he’s honed his serve and forehand into two of the most devastating tennis weapons ever, it minimizes his rivals’ assets to work ethic alone.

So not only is “natural aptitude or skill” not a super useful definition with regards to tennis (or sports), the way we use the term isn’t even correct considering its definition. We either need a new meaning or a new word.

The video below sees cricketer Rahul Dravid talk about the excessively narrow way we judge talent:

Interestingly enough, this exchange about David Ferrer from 2013 on The Changeover poses some more useful definitions. Juan José says that in terms of weaponry in his game, Ferrer isn’t blessed with as much talent as the likes of Tomáš Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Amy counters with the question of what exactly talent is, and Juan José puts forth the idea that talent is the ability to win points as easily as possible. He theorizes that if given the chance, Berdych and Tsonga would never exchange their games with Ferrer’s. This is a solid hypothesis — Ferrer’s serve and forehand are far less powerful than his contemporaries’. Amy points out Ferrer’s superior consistency (in rallies and in 2012), something Berdych and Tsonga lacked to a degree. This also has a lot of truth to it, and gets us back to the initial conundrum: was Ferrer better in 2012 than his rivals simply because he worked harder? It can’t be that straightforward. Not only that, but Berdych and Tsonga’s easy power had to be developed. Their natural height surely helped, but no one is born with the ability to crush forehands. There are tall players with little power.

Easy power: Tomáš Berdych crushes an inside-out forehand past Rafael Nadal. Screenshot: ESPN

To Amy’s point, we have a tendency to call inconsistent players with high peaks talented far more than steadier competitors with more mortal A games. Jelena Ostapenko gets called talented far more often than Sara Sorribes Tormo, for example, due to her infinitely superior power from the ground. Sorribes Tormo gets credited for her far better consistency, but that attribute rarely falls under the umbrella of “talent,” perhaps because it’s a less flashy skill. Another example — Fabio Fognini gets called one of the most talented ballstrikers on tour every time he plays. He’s currently ranked 36th in the world, below Federico Delbonis, Alex de Minaur, Dan Evans, and Cameron Norrie, all players who don’t time the ball as well, but given the rankings, are currently better than Fognini is.

Mentality seems to be another attribute not included in whatever “talent” is made up of, probably because it takes time to develop rather than being natural. Djokovic had to build his flawless big point mentality brick by brick, through the pain of many failures. No one is born with that.

“Talent” often seems like it means more than it does. For years, Nick Kyrgios’ talent was talked about so often and so reverentially that you’d think all he needed to do was train hard to ascend to world number one. Some people even did say that. In reality, when he applied himself at Wimbledon in 2019 and the Australian Open in 2020, he lost close-ish matches to Nadal in the early rounds of majors. Underneath his reluctance to leave it all out there, his backhand is poor. His return game is poor. He is fast, but he doesn’t move all that well. These vital attributes are quieter than his booming serve and cute drop shots, though, so are talked about less.

James Shank of Tick Tock Tennis suggests the idea of “talent” as a backhanded compliment — that a player is naturally skilled but that they aren’t performing as well as their skillset would suggest. This does fit with the dictionary definition, and implies that the factors within a player’s control (work ethic, tactical acumen, etc) restrain a player from letting the factors outside their control (natural talent) define their results. Hence the backhanded compliment.

Mike introduces another great theory — that once someone grows old enough to practice something a great deal, “talent” no longer applies to them, since any natural skill gets dwarfed by the skills they have developed.

Talent isn’t meaningless, though — why do some players who work hard never reach the pinnacle of sport? I think Rama nails it with the tweet below. Effort is crucial, but something else is needed: the X factor, the “horseshoe up the ass” that Andre Agassi wrote about in Open. Maybe the best way to view this conversation is that both talent and effort are imperative, but it’s only in conjunction that they can make a champion. Talent is the base, but that base has to be honed into sharp skill with years of practice.

The problem is that the difference between talent and the product of practice is impossible to quantify. When Federer hits a forehand winner down the line, injecting pace at what seems a random moment, is that 25% instinct and 25% studying match tapes and 50% the perfect motion and timing developed by practice? Those numbers are probably wildly off. Your guess of the right ones is as good as mine. So I think, since we can’t possibly know how much of success to attribute to one factor or another, we decided to assign talent responsible for the flashier shots and work ethic as responsible for the less obvious skills — consistency, endurance, etc.

My take on talent is simply that it is skills that are developed untraditionally. Maybe someone inherited amazing hand-eye coordination from birth. Maybe someone becomes a skier before committing to tennis, and the skills carry over. Maybe someone has unusually good eyesight, allowing for better timing of the ball. A natural element is preserved among these hypotheticals, but it’s still difficult to tell the extent to which this definition of “talent” is observable. We know that it’s there in some cases, but in what amount?

In the end, we probably exaggerate the ramifications of “talent” for the same reason we draw other sweeping conclusions in tennis: the game is so complicated and precarious that literal observations mean very little. Nadal has dominated Roland-Garros more than any player has ever dominated a tournament, but usually wins fewer than 60% of the points played in a match. In a non-tennis context, that doesn’t seem like much more than half. So we talk about him as if he’ll win every single point he plays on the Parisian clay, even though the reality is much more complicated. “Talent” is as complicated as any part of tennis. There’s no way to put a finger on how it manifests itself. In pretending that it is easier to identify than it is, we give our observations more meaning.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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