OPINION | What Federer, Nadal and Djocovic teach us about investing in a crisis


Ask the question "Who is the best (insert sport here) player of all time?" and the probability of a consensus answer is low. One of the reasons the topic is so interesting is because performance in sport is always relative to your competition.

Golf is good example. Jack Nicklaus has won 18 majors in his career, Tiger Woods is second on the list with 15, Walter Hagen third with 11 and Ben Hogan and Gary Player shares 4th place with 9 each. However, all of these players ‘winning-spans’, bar Nicklaus and Player, do not overlap at all. Nicklaus has a winning-span of 1962 – 1986, Woods 1997 – 2019, Hagen 1914 – 1929, Hogan 1946 – 1953 and player 1959 – 1978. You can make the argument that these players were just so good that they did not give their opponents a chance; however, you cannot make the same argument when it comes to tennis.

Roger Federer is the player with the most majors, currently, with 20 Grand Slam Tournaments. Second is Rafael Nadal with 19, followed by Novak Djokovic with 17, Pete Sampras on 14 and Roy Emerson on 12. Mr. Emerson, the first man to win 12 major titles has a winning-span from 1961 – 1967. Pete Sampras, the man to break Roy Emmerson’s 30 year record had a winning span from 1990 – 2002. Novak Djokovic won his first title in 2008 and the last in the recent 2020 Australian Open. Nadal bagged his first major in 2005, no points for guessing at which tournament and his last in the 2019 US Open. Whereas Roger Federer’s span ranged from 2003 to his last major title at the 2018 Australian Open. Arguably, based purely on Grand Slam Tournament wins, the three best players to ever play the game, has a winning span that overlaps, with all three players plying, for 10 years!

Have we been in the midst of a major outlier effect? I would argue yes. Even though the dataset of golf and tennis is very small and far from complete, two types of sport where skill plays a much larger role than luck, there might be a distinct reason why these three legends of the tennis game have managed to stay on top for so long. And, for the sake of this article, the reason is that they focus on what is in their control by making the smallest number of unforced errors.

The website tennisabstract.com provides a plethora of statistics on the game and a must visit for tennis lovers. It is a well-known statistic in tennis that the players that make the least errors win the game, though, there is one type of unforced error that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic has limited versus the competition and that is the double – fault.

An unforced error by definition is an error made by your own doing and not forced upon you by your opponent, almost something that is avoidable. I would argue there are unforced errors and then there are unforced errors. A forehand, backhand and net unforced error is ensued through returning a shot from your opponent.

When you serve on the other hand, bar the wind or sun in your eye, you are the only variable. If you serve a double-fault, YOU are responsible for the error, 100%.  Given, you can have a defensive/low quality second serve and rarely serve a double-fault, but to be a professional tennis player, this is rarely if ever the case.

Focusing on unforced errors, tennisabstract determined the tour average of unforced errors attributable to double-faults at 10.4%. Djokovic has a double-fault percentage of unforced errors at only 7.9%, Nadal 7.4% and Federer a maestro low of only 6.2%. You see these superstars place an immense amount of focus on what is in their control and are making fewer errors than their opponents. 

In investing, a large amount of factors that have influence over the outcome of your investment is not in your control. You cannot control how the market will perceive new information. You cannot control the growth rate of the economy. You cannot control what the outcome will be of the next monetary policy committee meeting, inflation, retail sales data, jobless rate or when the enquiry into state capture will ever end.

You cannot control what mood Donald Trump will wake up in, when Putin will, if ever, step down, what effect Brexit will have, when a new trade deal will be signed and if anyone really cares about Mexit.

And you certainly can't control whether you'll wake up to a coronavirus outbreak.

However, you can control whether you have an investment strategy and plan in place. You can control the asset allocation of your portfolio to make sure it aligns with your objectives while being aptly diversified. You can also decide if you want to pay higher active fees in the hope of ‘outperformance’ or lower passive or index tracking fees.

Whatever it might be, determine if it is within your control, if it is, spend time one it and make sure the controllables align with your goal. If it is not in your control, let it be, and if you want to pay attention to ‘it’, regard it as light entertainment, read: Mexit.

For all the tennis fanatics, please do not read this as the serve, and, more specifically, the second serve, being the only aspect of the game you need to focus on. Except if you are Goran Ivanisevic. The Croatian played in four Wimbledon finals, three of which were five setters. The first in 1992 and he finally won his only major in 2001 against Patrick Rafter.

Where the tour average for unforced, double-fault errors is 10.4%, Mr. Ivanisevic boasts a percentage of unforced errors due to double-faults of no less than 21.9%. However, he compensated by having an ace percentage of winners of 44.9% versus a tour average of 25.8%.

He has one major title, how many do you have?

Hannes Viljoen is a Chartered Financial Analyst. Views expressed are his own. 

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