In my active career, my team was always rather small. Today, the players make a big fuzz about it and bring an entourage.
Even a lone fighter needs a team
42 days ATP-Number 1, 44 international titles, left, one-handed backhand, estimated prize money of 12,3 Million US-Dollar, a career balance of 621 to 273 in singles. Winner of the prestigious French Open, the only sand court tournament of the Grand-Slam Series, which is especially challenging for players, as a game on red ash is much slower than one on a hard court. Those are only some of the important facts of the more than 20 year-long impressive career of Thomas Muster in professional tennis. PUMPS met the lone fighter to talk to him about teams.
PUMPS: Thomas, when I say “teams” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Thomas: A team involves other people who can correct mistakes for you. As a single person, you are carrying all the responsibilities. In a team, others can do things for you and can give you positive input. However, you also have to accept compromise. For a tennis athlete, this can be difficult. In tennis, the only team form is doubles. There, you need to accept that you can make mistakes, but the other one is making some as well. You have to make this compromise to reach a common goal. You also share the success. In a team, this is always difficult because it’s the team’s success, but it’s difficult to say who the real players are. In an individual sport, you alone are responsible for everything. There are no excuses as there are in a team. Personally, I like to take matters into my own hands.
PUMPS: Your approach is consistent with your career in singles and doubles. If you look at your career balance, would you say you were a lone fighter?
Thomas: Playing singles or doubles doesn’t have anything to do with that. My partner in doubles always was Alexander Antonitsch. In comparison, I haven’t played many doubles because the singles were too exhausting. Doubles require additional strength and days off for regeneration. You don’t want to “waste” your energy playing doubles. I played football for a long time. I’m very much a team player, but I’m also a person who takes matters into his own hands and accepts responsibility. However, even as an individual athlete you need a team that helps you to get organized. You can’t do everything alone. In my active career, my team was always rather small. Today, the players make a big fuzz about it and bring an entourage. Back then, that wasn’t common at all!
PUMPS: You hear about these big entourages, but how can you perform this team effort alone on the court? How do you make a team, especially a small one where there’s a lot of pressure on very few, work?
Thomas: The one thing is organization; the other is support. I always think that small structures are easier than big ones. For me, it was always exhausting to have many people around me because I had to focus on the essentials. I like to compare athletes to musicians because there are many similarities. They have management, a structure, but when they go out on the stage, they are alone. The only difference, which is very positive, is that as a musician, you can perform longer and you can reinvent yourself. In sports, there is a biological expiration date. That’s the advantage of music, but the stage is similar. You go out and perform. There are viewers and at the end of the day it’s entertainment and it’s done in a team. The team is only working differently. In a football team, you can be line up but also be replaced. If you don’t perform once, it’s likely that no one will notice. When you have a bad day in tennis, you lose, but in football, you can still win.
PUMPS: Let’s talk about this controversy between, being the individual athlete on the court and having a team in the background. In tennis, you always talk about the eye contact between the athlete and the coach. In business life, we have the challenge of a virtual working environment. People are working from home and via social media. It leads to isolation. How did you manage to get the strength of your team across this distance, even if it’s only the short one across the court? What are your success factors?
Thomas: The unbelievable connection to your coach. It’s as if you’re wired. You don’t see anything else. You go out on the court and there might be ten-thousand, twenty-thousand, hundred-thousand people watching you. It doesn’t matter. While you’re playing there’s this connection between you and your coach. You are one. He plays this match with you. Coaching during a match isn’t allowed in tennis, but you know exactly what your trainer wants you to do on the court. Before the game, you talk about your tactics and you know your opponent by heart. You know exactly that it’s all about making him play your game. There’s a lot of fine-tuning involved and you even try to take advantage of the body language of your opponent. I often watched my opponent, what he is doing, is he doubting himself. Then you need to play your best, to break him. It’s this momentum when you need a break and you can already see that your opponent is struggling. When I watch a tennis match today, that’s how I watch it. I don’t see how a ball is flying from left to right. I’m grasping the whole scene.
PUMPS: You talked about this extreme mental connection. In business, you have a different relationship with your employees and colleagues. How would you transfer this connection as a success factor into the rational business world, where in this virtual world, colleagues may only see each other once a year?
Thomas: I’m not a fan of the Internet and everything that has to do with digitization. Honestly speaking, it’s the end of communication because you communicate with someone, but you don’t know with whom. It’s like a dating app, where you get a profile of someone, but you don’t know if the information is correct until you meet the person. And it’s the same thing in principle regarding business. I still like contact. When someone needs me, they call me and I say something. I stand by my word and I don't need to hide behind hundreds of e-mails. And reading the previous conversations as an attachment doesn’t interest me either. I think it’s very important to have personal contact and conversations. I know this involves a lot of flying and maybe…
Thomas: Yes, costs but they are worth it. Costs that you can save in the virtual sector add to the quality. My personal opinion is that many things in the rationality of our emails and video conferences are very short-term. People need more encouragement and recognition for what they do. Often, you don’t know what you are working for, for a balance sheet or a project. That’s really sad because there are still people behind it. The computers may be computers. They are cold and rational, but behind them are people with empathy that forward and write this information. They need some kind of recognition. In conversations, you can talk about ideas that otherwise might be lost. I think that because of this rationality a lot of potentials are lost.
In a football team, you can be line up but also be replaced. If you don’t perform once, it’s likely that no one will notice. When you have a bad day in tennis, you lose, but in football, you can still win.
Continue reading the rest of the interview in our magazine and learn more about the meaning of teams in the world of professional tennis and beyond!