Hardly anyone paid attention in August when tennis superstar Serena Williams whipped Italy’s Roberta Vinci at the Rogers Cup in Toronto in straight sets.
Williams is unquestionably the best female tennis player in the world. She has laid waste to opponents in almost every tournament in the past year. So, when Vinci fell in the quarterfinals in Toronto, hardly anyone blinked. Including Williams.
“Just another step in the right direction,” Williams said in dismissing Vinci out of hand. “I don’t feel like I’m at my best or anywhere near it. But I feel like I’m going in the right direction and I want to keep that up.”
Not many people paid attention to that comment, but clearly it caught Vinci’s attention. The next month, at the venerable U.S. Open, Vinci got her revenge. In a three-set marathon in New York, Vinci upset the heavily favoured Williams and proved in graphic fashion that grit and determination can, sometimes, triumph over superior talent.
That is not a dig at Vinci. She is a very successful tennis player. It’s just that nobody had picked Vinci, ranked 43rd in the world, to beat Serena, the world’s number one female tennis player. Particularly after the dominant American won the first set handily.
“This is an incredible moment for me,” Vinci said in an on-court interview after the match. “It’s amazing, like a dream. I’m in the final, I beat Serena, I’m — phewwww. . . .”
But that’s not where the story of this year’s U.S. Open ended. Vinci would go on to meet fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta in the tournament final. Like Vinci, Pennetta had been successful but had never won a Grand Slam tournament. When it was over, Pennetta stood triumphant on the court and stunned onlookers when she announced that following her greatest tennis triumph, she would retire.
“This was the perfect moment, I think,” Pennetta said after winning and retiring. “Was a really hard decision to make, but I’m really happy that I did it. I’m really happy and proud of myself.”
The U.S. Open had become, in just two matches, one of the most profound demonstrations of grit and determination in professional sports. Two underdogs meeting in the final of one of the world’s greatest tournaments. A champion who used her improbable victory to leave professional tennis on top of the world.
Is there a message in this remarkable story for all of us? Certainly, we all need a measure of grit to face our challenges and find success. However, it’s pretty clear that not everyone has the kind of grit demonstrated by Vinci and Pennetta. Can we learn to become grittier?
Current research suggests that past a certain age, it can be difficult to develop grit if it hasn’t been part of our makeup. However, there are things we can do to push us towards a grittier approach to life.
Start by accepting that failure isn’t a permanent condition and our ability to learn isn’t fixed. In fact, a measure of grit can be cultivated with focused effort that includes setting specific goals, identifying small steps needed to reach that goal.
Make those goals measureable. Set deadlines. Reward yourself for accomplishments along the way. Hold yourself accountable every day.
Most importantly, do not allow yourself to be defined by your setbacks. In failure, we can find the inspiration to go on and achieve things that are beyond our own expectations.
Skeptical? You need look no further than Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta for the proof that grit will – eventually – be rewarded.