My friend Roger Martin (#3 on Thinkers50 list) penned a terrific article in The European Business Review on how the Canadian professional tennis association rose from oblivion to now boasting two young players ranked well inside the top 10 on the professional tennis circuit…in less than ten years. As of this writing, Eugenie Bouchard is ranked #7, and Milos Raonic is ranked #6.
Roger and I share a love of the game, and we trade more emails on tennis than anything else. I used the 2014 Australian Open final as an example of how elements of Roger’s “Play to Win” strategic cascade can be applied not just to business, but sport (see here). And the transformation of Tennis Canada is a comprehensive case study of how five key strategic questions, properly and creatively addressed, can change the world.
What Is Your Winning Aspiration? Playing to play wasn’t an option. Only playing to win was. “We set out with the goal of becoming a leading tennis nation,” writes Roger, who is not only a director, but strategic advisor for Tennis Canada. “Leading” meant measurable results, like having players ranked in the top 50 men’s and women’s singles world rankings. Given current rankings, “top 50” seems pedestrian, but at the time, it had been over 20 years since Canada had had a player inside the top 50.
Where Will You Play? In tennis, there are five basic “spaces” in which to play: singles (men’s and women’s), doubles (men’s and women’s), and “mixed” (one man, one woman) doubles. Tennis Canada chose men’s singles, and women’s singles. “We focused on the very hardest game – singles,” Roger writes. They also focused on early childhood development, kids under 10, whereas in the past they had focused on teenage potentials.
How Will You Win? Tennis Canada needed a true competitive advantage. It was one they did not possess: in a word, coaching. Roger writes: “We realised that we needed to go outside Canada to hire a seasoned professional who had coached Top 10 players before. So we hired Louis Borfiga, who headed the junior national centre in France.”
What Capabilities Must Be in Place? A capability is what produces the competitive advantage. Tennis Canada, in order to produce a true coaching competitive advantage, filled its development bench with world class coaches, along with a new national tennis development center. “We opened a national tennis center for full-time residential coaching of our promising juniors,” writes Roger. “We needed a formal training centre to simply be in the game.”
What Management Systems Are Needed? Tennis Canada took a unique approach that blended the U.S. and French player development systems. “We supervised and funded the development of our high performance players. But we didn’t control the process or keep it within Canada. When Raonic was 16 Tennis Canada organised and funded coaching and training with a former Top 50 player at his Spanish tennis academy, where he could further develop his game. A similar approach was taken with Eugenie Bouchard, who did much of her development in Florida, funded and coordinated by Tennis Canada. Their foreign coaches and Tennis Canada managed both players collaboratively. In doing so, we took the best of the ‘free market’ US system and the ‘totalitarian’ French system.”
According to Roger, (who coincidentally I spent the day with yesterday), the pipeline of Canadian tennis talent is flush with potential, and we may not have yet seen the best.
He concludes: “Despite a budget one-tenth the size of key competitors, Tennis Canada has built a sustainable platform for success and, like any organisation that effectively competes for success, continues to play to win.”