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Roger Federer is easily the greatest tennis player ever: winner of 16 Grand Slam tournaments and $61 million in prize money, and the longest holder of the #1 spot.

He’s also 29 which is late middle age in tennis pro years. #1 Rafael Nadal owns him head-to-head, and younger stars like Novak Djokovic are close on Fed’s heels, which have already lost a step.

What’s a proud champion on the downswing of his career to do? Re-invent himself. Federer has hired his idol Pete Sampras’ former coach to tool up his serve-and-volley game, in order to help him win points faster thus preserving his rapidly-aging legs.

Problem is that Federer continues to slip relative to his rivals. Some critics say it’s because Federer doesn’t follow this aggressive strategy enough, especially during the deciding points of a match.

That was the view of Pete Sampras, who I met on Monday night at the SAP Open tennis tournament in San Jose. Pete, who most people consider the second-greatest player ever, was in town to play an exhibition against the world #12, Gael Monfils.

Enterprises wondering how they should adapt to mobility should NOT follow Roger Federer’s example.

Despite giving up 15 years and quite a bit of foot speed to Monfils, Pete held his own later that night, losing by the tight score of 6-7, 4-6.

This was in large part to Pete’s own rock-solid commitment to serve-and-volleying, which let the 39-year-old avoid long ruinous baseline rallies with Monfils.

“Why can’t you and Annacone (Sampras’ former coach) gang up on Federer and convince him to serve and volley more?” I asked Sampras, who came to meet a crowd of SAP employees and friends before the match with Monfils.

Sampras gave a diplomatic, but ultimately blunt and honest answer.  First of all, “he doesn’t have to. When he first played at Wimbledon, he served and volleyed against me. Then he started staying back – and he won it,” he said. So “he doesn’t need to come in. He’s a great mover. His forehand’s great, his backhand’s great.”

“Me personally, I’d like to see him come in more – chip and charge, serve and volley occasionally,” continued Sampras. But “Roger’s more comfortable staying back. He’s won 16 majors doing that. But against the Nadals and the Djokovics, he’s going to have to do something more aggressive and come in a little bit more. But when you get nervous [during a tight match], you (try to) get comfortable. And he (Federer) is comfortable staying back.”

Ruminating over Sampras’ words on the drive back home, it hit me that Federer’s predicament – and the likely solution – is analogous to businesses and the challenge of mobility.

Smart firms are, like Federer, recognizing that continuing to do what made them successful over the last 5-10 years will leave them behind mobility-embracing rivals.

The problem is that many firms are doing what Federer appears to be doing: going gung-ho on the more superficial and preparation work, but not following through aggressively during crunch time.

In the case of enterprises, this means that they may be letting employees bring in smartphones, equipping workers with tablets, and even starting to deploy business apps.

But maybe they are skimping on the device management tools to secure their employees’ mobile devices, creating risks and headaches for IT. Or perhaps they are only building/buying a few select apps, but not following through on mobile sales or analytic apps that would help transform its processes and help the firm reap the maximum financial rewards.  Or perhaps the top execs become paralyzed when nervously contemplating the potential mobile transformation, or worse, even reverse course.

Federer may still end up being viewed as the greatest ever, ahead of Sampras, Nadal, Laver, etc. But by failing so far to re-invent his game, he’s already at risk of becoming yesterday’s champion. Companies on the verge of the mobile transformation should not follow his example.

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  1. Ethan Jewett
    …but I really mean it: I thought this blog was going to be a not that great (sports metaphors, etc), but I know you write interesting stuff, so I started reading. Turns out that it is very insightful.

    It’s also relevant beyond mobile in the SAP world, especially in light of SAP’s new exposition of its core vs. edge strategy. Most businesses are not comfortable innovating in their core processes, which have made them successful and generate most of their profit. SAP understandably wishes to cater to this and allow its customers to be comfortable with SAP’s products and strategy, so SAP talks about keeping “core” stable and providing infrastructure for innovation in the “edge” area.

    As you point out, this is ultimately counterproductive if your strategy is innovation. If a company is committed to innovation then it is innovating in its core processes. It is changing its whole game. And when push comes to shove it is going to go with the new strategy over the old.

    Not a lot of companies can or want to do this regularly and successfully, and that is completely OK. Going for incremental improvements in edge processes is a very popular and comfortable way to try to compete in the marketplace. It’s fine for SAP to cater to this, and the software strategy itself may well be innovative. But I wouldn’t use the word “innovative” for the customer business and IT strategies that we are enabling with core/edge strategies.

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