I JUST ATTENDED the Madrid Open, a major clay court tennis tournament. It’s one of nine Masters series tournaments, ranked just below Grand Slams like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It was amazing to witness the players’ speed and agility at such close range.
Because it was early in the tournament, most of the matches I saw were part of the first and second round, with top 10 players pitted against contenders outside of the top 100. Despite that, two of the matches went to a full three sets and were narrowly won by the top 10 players. They were exciting from beginning to end. There were many moments when we spectators sat at the edge of our seats, gasping in amazement at the incredible touch, power and athleticism of both players.
Although the higher ranked player won each match, I observed that there was little to no difference in athletic ability between top 10 players and those just outside the top 100. Watching the matches, however, gave me a perspective on what it takes, beyond raw talent, to be at the top of one’s game—not just in tennis, but also in personal finance and even life more generally.
The case for consistency. While one or two mistakes may not appear to make much difference, every little thing adds up. Top players rarely give anything away. Brilliant moves are impressive. But if they’re too often followed by a thoughtless error, an entire game can be lost.
The same is true in life. We’re often not disciplined enough. But if we do the right thing consistently, even if it’s something small, we increase our chances of success—whether it’s reaching our retirement goal, becoming healthier, losing weight or having a happy family life. Want to retire early? It’s more likely to be gained through consistent savings than a big lottery win.
Set aside emotion. Tennis is a mentally challenging sport. You have to move on to the next point, no matter what just happened. While top players aren’t immune to getting upset, they are slightly better at handling their emotions. There are only 20 seconds between the end of the last point and the next one. If you get upset, there’s simply not a lot of time to reset mentally and regain composure. Yet top players manage to do just that. They don’t waste their mental energy on the past, but instead quickly move on and refocus.
The same holds true when you invest over the long term. It’s important not to be panicked and let emotions take over when the markets suffer short-term losses. It is also important to set emotions aside when making big-ticket purchases like a home or a car. It’s tempting to buy that flashy new car model, even if we know it’s better to pay cash for a used vehicle. We may feel social pressure to buy that big, beautiful, recently upgraded house, but we need to remember that we can live comfortably in a cheaper, more modest home.
Be an all-around player. Top players don’t just have a big serve or a big forehand. Instead, they have a strong all-around game, which is crucial—because even great players can’t fire on all cylinders in every match. On days when one part of their game isn’t working, they can rely on the rest of their game to carry them through.
It’s also why we diversify our investment mix. Broad diversification means we should still earn okay results, even if some parts of our portfolio are struggling.
Tennis is just a game. There are things more important than winning. Good behavior—on and off the court—is a quality embraced by top players.
I had a rare chance to see Roger Federer practice—and to see how friendly he was and how much he appreciated the fans who waited to see him. He waved, smiled and looked grateful for the cheering. There was no air of arrogance. It was no surprise that the whole stadium cheered for Federer in every one of his matches.
Similarly, during the flood of Rafael Nadal’s home island of Mallorca last year, he suspended his practice to help out with the clean-up effort. He swept the streets with a broom, covered in mud. He also opened up his tennis academy to victims in need of shelter.
Jiab Wasserman recently left her job as a financial analyst at a large bank at age 53. She’s now semi-retired. Her previous articles include Buen Camino, Takes Skill and Living Small. Jiab and her husband Jim, who also writes for HumbleDollar, currently live in Granada, Spain. They blog about downshifting, personal finance and other aspects of retirement—as well as about their experience relocating to another country—at YourThirdLife.com.