The important management lesson behind Bianca Andreescu’s US Open victory

Plenty of nature in Bianca Andreescu.
Plenty of nature in Bianca Andreescu.
Image: Reuters/USA TODAY Sports/Danielle Parhizkaran
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Bianca Andreescu’s stunning victory at the U.S. Open this weekend—the 19-year-old Canadian beat 37-year-old tennis legend Serena Williams—has sparked a nature or nurture debate, of sorts, in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

On the one hand, a top-read opinion piece argues that Andreescu is “a born winner.” She “practises meditation… she ritualizes positive thinking (which sounds much more exhausting than playing tennis). She talks a lot about breathing, as if that’s a pastime rather than a biological fact,” writes journalist Cathal Kelly, who also mentions that, a few years ago, Andreescu began writing fake checks to herself for the winning amounts of each US Open.

On the other hand, management guru Roger Martin, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, argues in a separate op-ed that Andreescu had another powerful force in her corner: a strategy for building world-class support for talented young players, one he helped to form in consultation with Tennis Canada and a handful of its leaders 14 years ago. (Martin is also a past chair of the tennis organization.)

“Bianca Andreescu’s triumph at the U.S. Open is first and foremost an individual one,” Martin acknowledges. But in 2005, when Canada was a nobody on the international tennis scene, Tennis Canada chose to strike a new course. Andreescu benefitted from it, and anyone can learn from it—including companies and nonprofits of all sizes, especially if they’re working to shake off a culture of mediocrity, Martin argues.

Put most simply, Tennis Canada “aimed high” and made “distinctive” choices, to use Martin’s words, with a long-term payoff in mind. He outlined three pertinent examples:

  1. They hired an ace coach—as a scout. “[W]e appointed Bob Brett, one of the world’s legendary coaches, as head of our Under-14 program and gave him the task of scouring Canada for young talent that might have been otherwise overlooked, and ensuring these youngsters set off on a path consistent with becoming a top 10 global player, not just an excellent Canadian player,” Martin writes. “Use of a world-class coach of Mr. Brett’s status on young players, rather than already high-ranking professionals, was unprecedented in the tennis world.”
  2. They combined two proven financing systems to create a new funding model. “[W]e created a unique hybrid of the highly controlled French Tennis Federation system and the laissez-faire U.S. Tennis Association system, which funded high-performance Canadian players whether they used their own coaches or Tennis Canada’s—as long as they met our development standards.
  3. They waited for results without switching strategies. “We unflinchingly enforced adherence to the strategy through the successive three-year chairmanships,” Martin explains.

Compared to tennis in countries like France, the United States, Australia, and Russia, Tennis Canada has for years dealt with smaller budgets, colder winters (meaning fewer public tennis courts to draw and perfect tennis talent), a lack of what Martin calls coaching infrastructure, and no great tennis history to speak of. But it chose not to allow those “excuses” to block the plan, he suggests.

It took six years before results were evident. In 2011, Martin writes, Canada was 0-for-492 in Junior Grand Slams Boys and Girls Singles Championships, counting every game since the series’ founding. “But in the 32 championships since, we have won six titles and tied with powerhouse Russia, in second place to the United States, with 12,” he explains. Next, in 2014, there were more signs of a new era rising, when two Canadians were named finalists at Wimbledon. Then came Andreescu winning the US Open, a first in Canada’s history.

Meanwhile, another Canadian sports franchise won a major championship for the first time this year: The Toronto Raptors won the NBA finals, largely by following an organizational playbook that’s known for practically guaranteeing quick results: hiring or poaching star talent. In that case, the star was basketball’s Kawhi Leonard. 

The downside to that method is that stars can’t always be convinced to stay, even with offers of free meals for life or a country’s unconditional adoration and affection.

Martin’s narrative about Tennis Canada’s strategy, by contrast, suggests that Andreescu’s win is just the beginning for Canadian tennis. A trio of Canadian players—Andreescu, Félix Auger-Aliassime, and Denis Shapovalov—are poised to keep taking titles.  

You don’t have to buy Martin’s story about the value of strategy or of nurturing a rich ecosystem that can produce great champions. (Kelly’s article supporting the individualist view pointedly argues that it was not Tennis Canada that helped Andreescu get to her current post as the world’s fifth-best player.)

However, if you substitute the “poor little Canada” in Martin’s telling of the Andreescu victory with the name of any middling company, you’re left with a pithy management lesson: “Most aim to play, not win, and do so by replicating the popular choices of their peers rather than innovating,” Martin writes. “That approach guarantees mediocrity and generates a self-fulfilling prophecy about poor little Canada not really being able to compete in a tough competitive world. But it simply doesn’t have to be the case.”