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Are YOU practicing Your Sliced Backhand?

Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand. A thing of beauty. Smooth, sublime, liberating. Rafael Nadal’s whipping-spinning forehand. 4900 revs a minute. Unsubtle. Unplayable. Unnerving. Novak Djokovic’s ability to return the ball. From nowhere to somewhere. Unparalleled. Unrelenting. Unbelievable.

The Big Three of tennis have 66 Grand Slam titles between them. At least one of them has been World No.1 for a total of 944 weeks, or 18 of the past 20 years. They know every single move that could win them a point on the tennis court. And yet, all three, at some point in their careers, had to add the same unsexy shot to their armoury to complete their game. This is the story of the why. And the lesson in it for all of us, whatever be the field we strive to excel in.  It all started with Nadal

One of the unique features of tennis is that while the ball must obey the lines of the court, the players can largely operate outside them. Yet, the idea of being aggressive before 2003 meant that players held a court position close to, or inside, the lines. McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, and Federer were all what are called forecourt merchants. The basis of their aggression was about their court positioning and weight transfer into the court, and their racquet swings and ability to flatten out shots at speed.  Nadal changed all that. His game challenged the forecourt presence and closeness to the net in order to be aggressive. He used the vertical as the basis of attack. 

The Nadal forehand with its incredible number of revs is delivered with enormous racquet head speed using angular vertical movement, and a reverse pivot on his back leg. This uniquely allows him to move backwards as the ball is coming at him. The bounce and spin also buys him time, a precious commodity on the tennis court.

What all that combines to achieve is allow him to achieve scarcely believable court coverage.  

At the highest level however, a one dimensional game, no matter how good or unique, is rarely enough to win consistently against the best. And in Federer and then Djokovic, Nadal faced up across the net, to two of the greatest to ever play the sport. Very soon, they were returning the ball short and flat, thus often not giving Nadal the court space, nor the time he sought to whip those revved up, bouncing, whippy forehands.  

To get back the advantage, Nadal introduced the sliced backhand into his game. It was a simple, and yet, highly effective ploy. In a recent piece, tennis coach Patrick Mourtaglou described why the sliced backhand is such a good strategy:

‘The sliced backhand offers unmatched tactical versatility on the court. [It can] change the pace, slow the game, and maybe unsettle your opponent, potentially leading them to make shorter or slower shots. By hitting a sliced backhand with minimal pace and sometimes no real depth, you buy yourself time to transition to your forehand side, empowering you to dictate the game with your forehand.’

To counter Nadal’s advantage, soon Djokovic followed suit by employing it as a weapon. Federer, separately, at a certain stage of his career, also added it to his arsenal despite his game being built on forecourt aggression. A genius of the all round game, he was not about to let a potential weapon go wasted. 

The lesson from the Big Three’s adoption of the sliced backhand, which you, I and the local club coach are all proficient at, is an important one in the world of business. It is to not ignore the obvious solution, no matter how simple it looks. It is equally, to not underestimate the outsized impact of a move that can counter a changed market reality, no matter how different it is from your own strategy that has proven a winner thus far. Into the Gloss to Glossier

Emily Weiss, a former fashion editor at Vogue, created a beauty blog in 2010 called Into the Gloss. Beauty brands were until then dictating to buyers what they should buy. Weiss’ blog changed the narrative. Her idea was that the beauty industry should involve real conversations with real women, and she knew that social media could make those conversations happen. 

They were one of the first to use Instagram and the blog became a great source of information about which beauty products their readers were using and why. Whenever they wanted to gather market research on beauty products, the social media team simply asked their question on the Into the Gloss Instagram feed.

But Weiss was not satisfied. Into the Gloss was now the industry leaders in the market research space for beauty brands, but the brands were benefiting more from their work. So Weiss employed her version of the sliced backhand and changed the contours of the market. She launched her own beauty brand - Glossier

Using the same method and data set, but stepping up to deliver what it knew the customer wanted, Glossier revolutionised how social media could be used to deliver the value that customers want.

Glossier today treats its 2.6 million Instagram followers as its “influencers”, reposting their experiences, thoughts and recommendations. In doing this, they monetise their customers in a way few have succeeded. 70% of their online sales and traffic come from peer-to-peer referrals, and 8% of those are linked to customers who become their Instagram brand ambassadors.  Glossier is now a $1.2 billion company, and growing. Their sliced backhand has transformed their game. Yellow to Yell

The Yellow Pages were an integral part of lives across the world for over fifty years, firmly earning its place by the telephone. When you wanted to find and contact a business or a service you turned to the Yellow Pages. But then the internet, social media and smartphones, changed everything. 

In 2017, CEO Richard Hanscott announced the company’s plan to stop printing the large yellow volumes by 2019, and digitise its entire business. This was Hanscott employing his version of the sliced backhand. He transformed the company’s core business model but retained its raison d’etre. His new platform sought to provide the same service it had done since 1966, but doing it quicker, better and online. 

Yell was successful for a time and continues to exist despite younger generations turning to Google Maps, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites to search for online businesses. But where it missed a trick was that it put all its faith in its core business.  Despite the financial gains it made with its change to an online business,  the company chose to return profits to shareholders rather than invest and innovate. This year its results are sharply down.

Yell had employed the sliced backhand, but unlike Nadal and Djokovic, didn’t leverage it adequately to raise its game. Inevitably, it has now dropped out of the race to Grand Slam glory in its space.

Kodak goes Crypto

There is a photo of me as a child my mom had preserved for over four decades. ‘Now that’s a Kodak Moment’ remarked my wife when I showed it to her recently. I smiled. It was a term I hadn’t heard for at least a decade. 

The name Kodak was once synonymous with photography, much as Xerox was with photocopying. If you wanted to buy a film for your camera, you went out to ‘buy a Kodak’. When I set up my first home photo studio as a teenager, I bought Kodak photo paper to turn ‘negatives to positives’.

And then it all fell apart with the arrival of digital cameras. Kodak refused to acknowledge that its Grand Slam winning strategy was in danger of being overrun. The world’s leading photography brand had its eyes wide shut. Digital cameras and then smartphones commoditized photography. No one wanted films. Kodak filed for bankruptcy.. 

In January 2024, Kodak’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange more than doubled. The rise came off the back of its announcement that it is launching its own cryptocurrency called KodakCoin. Aimed at photographers, KodakCoin forms part of a wider blockchain platform committed to protecting photographers and helping them control their image rights. 

Could this be Kodak’s sliced backhand moment? Can they prove that by adopting a proactive approach to new technology, albeit late and after going through the pain and ignominy of bankruptcy proceedings, the ‘Kodak moment’ is on its way back once more? How are YOU doing with YOUR Sliced Backhand?

How are you dealing with the changes in life and business that confront you? Are you comfortable with your two to three Grand Slams you have on display on your office cabinet or mantelpiece at home? Or are you busy on the practice courts perfecting that sliced backhand that will not just fill that cabinet or mantelpiece with trophies, but will change the future of the arena you operate in?

Be a Nadal, a Djokovic, a Federer. Or that classic business school case study of failure to adapt. Kodak has been given a second chance. Not many do. 

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