What Capabilities Do You Need to Win?

You’ve got a winning aspiration. You’ve chosen where to play, and how to win. Now: what capabilities must you have in place to enable you to win where you’ve chosen to play?

This is the fourth question in the cascade of five questions in Roger Martin’s “Playing To Win” strategic framework.

As Deming once said, “a goal without a method is nonsense.” Without the right capabilities, your strategic choice remains purely academic, and, in reality, nonsense.

As I watched the championship match of the Australian Open tennis tournament several weeks ago, it occurred to me that #8-ranked Stan Wawrinka’s upset of world #1 Rafael Nadal after dispatching world #2 Novak Djokovic was no fluke, but rather a strategic win, one that was essentially over after the first set, and saw a reeling Nadal needing detach himself from the proceedings to mentally and physically regroup (to no avail).

Now, do not confuse capability with competency. Certainly anyone reaching the semifinals and finals of a Grand Slam tennis tournament is beyond competent. They are a master at every stroke. What often distinguishes the winner from the runner-up, though, is a certain capability–the flawless and strategic execution of a specific competency.

Many a would-be champion have fallen prey to the temptation to outplay Rafa Nadal at HIS game. It’s a losing strategy, as the numbers show. What Wawrinka did was to use Nadal’s game against him. In other words, rather than employing a karate approach and go toe-to-toe and shot-for-shot in an effort to outhit one of the hardest hitters the game’s ever seen, Wawrinka employed an aikido approach. Since the force of Nadal’s game is daunting, Wawrinka’s ability to turn that force back on Nadal simply stunned him.

Here’s what Wawrinka did, under the strategic eye of his coach, Magnus Norman, to whom many attribute the Aussie Open win.

According to the analysis on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) “Brain Game” blog by Craig O’Shannessy, Wawrinka focused on a few key patterns:

First, attack the forehand. Nadal, a left-handed player, likes to dictate from the right corner of his side of the court, where he can convert what should be a backhand (and presumably weaker) shot into a forehand kill shot down the line or short-angled cross-court, both of which are virtually unreturnable by even the best of the best. So Wawrinka went the other way, hitting aggressively to the left side of Nadal, hitting deep and wide, stretching him out, and completely taking away his power zone. That capability alone produced a half dozen errors from Nadal.

When Wawrinka did hit to Nadal’s favored side, he sent the ball so wide that Nadal could only hit a backhand, and not even a strong two-handed backhand, but rather a defensive slice that Wawrinka then had his way with.

Second, hit backhands down the line. This is one of the toughest shots in tennis, as you’re hitting over the highest part of the net with what for most is the weaker stroke. So it’s high risk, and many players essentially concede such a shot to their opponent, choosing to cover the higher percentage cross court shot that most players opt for (unless their opponent is completely off the court, they have a lead in the game, and they can hit a safe backhand down the line). Wawrinka repeatedly but selectively went down the line with a blazing one-handed backhand, which simply took the wind out of Nadal’s sails. As O’Shannessy points out, “Just the threat of having such a huge weapon without always using it created doubt and uncertainty in Nadal’s baseline movement and shot selection.”

I can only imagine how focused Wawrinka’s practice sessions were in honing this specific capability.

Finally, serve and volley. The serve-and-volley style of tennis popular in the Pete Sampras era is all but dead in today’s game, for the simple reason that technology has produced racquets and strings that enable players to hit passing shots with power and precision, neutralizing any advantage gained by rushing the net. So, no one expects it. As O’Shannessy tells us, “The scoreboard dictated this clever surprise tactic as Wawrinka did it six times in building his set-and-a-break lead. Wawrinka won five of six and what was interesting was the way he went about it – a sprint to the net with no split step, which enabled him to get well inside the service line when he had to hit a volley.”

In other words, Wawrinka developed a new, specialized capability that helped produce the win.

O-Shannessy’s conclusion? “Wawrinka’s domination over the World No. 1 to lead 6-3, 2-0 was built around strategic primary patterns (used 7 or 8 times out of 10) when the score was close and then employ secondary patterns (2 or 3 times out of 10) when he was ahead and the scoreboard didn’t apply extra pressure to the riskier tactic. The key was making Nadal unsure what was coming by getting the mix right to disguise the master plan.”


A clear “where to play and how to win” choice supported by inimitable capabilities is quite clearly indefensible, and we can all learn a little David vs. Goliath wisdom from Stan Wawrinka’s complete victory over the best tennis player on the planet in one of the biggest arenas in the sport.