John Newcombe, former world tennis No 1 and former Australian Davis Cup captain, once said that the top Australian players of his era believed that it was their destiny to become tennis champions.
Boris Becker told me that two weeks before achieving his first Wimbledon title (in 1985 when seventeen years old), he felt as if it were predetermined.
As a seventeen year old, Ivan Lendl, who, prior to Pete Sampras, held the No 1 spot longer than any other player in history, was convinced that he would turn himself into the best player in the world. He would even tell you so.
When asked by the media about his chances of winning his first US Open title (in 1975), Jimmy Connors’ response was: “There are 127 losers in the draw — and me!”
What these former greats had in common was an unshakeable certainty that they would win. It is a trait that is shared by all top sports people.
But a question that has always fascinated me is: Are such champions born, or are they made?
Were Newccombe, Becker, Lendl and Connors born to rule the tennis world? Or did they become champions because of the choices they made? Was their success predetermined, as suggested by Newcombe and Becker? Or was it a result of a single-minded dedication to making themselves the very best, as implied by Lendl and Connors?
Are champions a product of nature? Or of nurture?
To be a true champion at tennis or any other sport requires very special qualities. These qualities or attributes can be divided into two categories — the physical and the mental. It is my contention that physical attributes are predominantly a product of chance. They are determined genetically.
For instance, some people are born with a body structure conducive to speed, others to strength, and so on. In this sense, a very large proportion of the population are excluded, from birth, from ever winning an Olympic gold medal as a sprinter or a weightlifter.
It is the same with tennis. The physical attributes that are required to become a champion player are such things as good hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and leg-speed. Without question, these attributes can be developed to their fullest potential with hard work and effective training methods.
But most people are excluded from becoming the best tennis player in the world, no matter how much time they spend attempting to reach their physical ceiling of potential.
Does this mean, then, that champions are born? Were Newcombe, Becker, Lendl and Connors so physically superior to everyone else that becoming the best was just a mere formality?
Certainly not. All four were exceptionally gifted physically, but in my view, there were other players of the same eras who were more gifted than they were.
What separated them from everyone else were their mental attributes: their will to win, their determination, their perseverance, their ability to remain calm under pressure, their ability to bounce back from disappointments, and the belief that they deserved to win — all attributes that not one of us is born with, but that each one of us has the power to develop. The only choice is whether we want to or not.
It is in this sense that, given the necessary or essential physical attributes as a starting point, all champions are not only made — they are self-made.