‘Get Smarter’

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15th April 2024

Early in his pro tennis career, Andre Agassi couldn’t beat Boris Becker.

Agassi particularly struggled with Becker’s serve. “His serve was something the game had never seen before,” Agassi explained.

Studying the videos of Becker, “I started to realize,” Agassi said, “He had this weird tick with his tongue. I’m not kidding. He would go into his rocking motion, and just as he was about to toss the ball, he would stick his tongue out either right in the middle of his lip or to the left corner of his lip.”

If in the middle of his lip, Becker would serve the ball up the middle. If to the side, he would serve to the side.

After discovering this, Agassi said, “The hardest part wasn’t returning his serve. The hardest part was not letting him know that I knew this. I had to resist the temptation of reading his serve for the majority of the match, and instead, choose the moments to use that information on a given point to execute a shot that would allow me to break the match open.”

Agassi won 9 out of the next 11 matches against Becker.

After Becker retired in 1999, over a beer, Agassi said to Becker, “Did you know you used to do this with your serve?”

Agassi said, “He about fell off the chair. Then he said, ‘I used to go home all the time and tell my wife, it’s like he reads my mind! Little did I know you were just reading my tongue.’”

In a collection of biographies, the ancient historian Plutarch writes,

“In the most glorious deeds, there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, Indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes the greatest revelation.”

In the frivolity, in the little moments, in a small thing like a phrase, a jest, or a tongue tick—often, much is revealed.

In “Creativity, Inc.,” Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, writes about one of the principles that guided him in life and in business:

“When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”

Agassi began to study Becker because, after yet another loss to him in the semifinals of the 1988 Indian Wells Open, Agassi writes, “I promised myself I won’t lose to him the next time we meet.”

To make good on that promise, he knew he didn’t need to get better. He needed to get smarter.

“Tennis is about problem-solving,” Agassi says in telling the Becker story. “And the more you understand, the more problems you can solve—in life and in business.”

In sports, in business, in life—when faced with a challenge, get smarter & stay blessed forever.