What Took You So Long?

The other day I was sitting around watching the rerun of Roger Federer's 2003 Wimbledon championship. (Doesn't everybody do that?)

As I was watching, a stat came on the screen that puzzled me, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.

Federer turned pro in 1998.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that the match I was watching was happening in 2003.

In case you didn't know, from 1998-2003, Federer won zero Majors. From 2003-2008, he won thirteen. From 2003-2017, he's won nineteen.

So where the heck was he from '98-'03? Why did it take him so long?

The first answer might be that Federer was young and just wasn't very good in those first six years. I'm sure that's a little true. But in 2001, Roger beat Pete Sampras in the 4th round of Wimbledon, ending Sampras' 31-match Wimbledon winning streak. Clearly, Roger was good enough to win majors at that time. 

What happened after that big win? Nothing. He lost after ending Sampras' streak and then lost in the first round of Wimbledon the very next year. 

All told, he had six years of futility even though he was good enough to win in many of those years. So, again, what was going on? Why the big delay?

The answer is that almost all great success stories take time. What's that old saying? It takes 20 years to be an overnight success. It's absolutely true.

For Federer, it wasn't enough to have all the tools. There were still big obstacles in his way. Here are the big three:

  • Skill-Induced Laziness

When you have great skills, it's easy to not want to do the work. "I already know how to do this. Let's work on something else." Guess what happens under pressure to a skill you stopped practicing? It breaks down. It takes a while to learn to practice things you're good at.

  • Having Many Choices Makes You Change Your Mind.

Having a variety of skills can be a burden under extreme pressure, especially if you don't have experience. When it's time to close out the match, you need to have one thought and one execution. If any time is spent wondering about different possibilities, then that hesitation will destroy you in the biggest moments. It takes time to pick your favorite method to use under fire.

  • "I'm So Good! I'm So Bad."

When a young superstar starts out, there will always be moments of dominance. It might even come easy at times. When the success comes easy, even in the short-term, it's easy to think you're superior. When you start to feel superior, you start to let down. When you start to let down, you lose. And that match will have gone from, "I'm so good, I'm going to win!" to "I can't believe I missed all those shots and lost." That sudden switch from feeling awesome to awful can wreak havoc on a psyche. That in itself can make the journey last quite a while.

In short, becoming great is a process. First, you need to learn the skills (which might come quickly). Then you need to learn to continually practice those skills. Then you need to find the one system that works best for you under stress. Then you need to remember that you're not superior and you're not terrible. You're only a hard-worker who fights until the fight is done.

It takes a while to be an overnight success. But if you learn the lessons right and work hard without any detours, success can stay around a long, long time.