Comments on Various Greats


Re: Charles Darwin

One of the really great guys, from my point of view.  Most things I read about these days touching on science (e.g. some of the interesting overlaps between philosophy of mind, physics of time, neuroscience of consciousness, memory studies…) come at their target within the framework of evolution.  Darwin is the giant impetus here, but had to overcome what seemed to be an immutable family pathway laid out for him to join the clergy.  And later in life, he had to battle dominant 19th century English and American ideologies about slavery, race, and the huge religious bias towards creationism – and his own conscience too, about upsetting the world so much with his theory of evolution.

What I didn’t realize before reading your analysis was how crucial chance factors were in his work, as opposed to, e.g., that of Alfred Russel Wallace, becoming legendary in history of science.

Farrel C

Farrel, Many Thanks
Bill D

Re: Tennis Greats

Hi again,

Your information (on “Q& A” page) about the details of Lincoln and FDR’s early lives got me to thinking about a few of my once-a-year greats (when Wimbledon hits the screen). So I went on to Wikipedia to see if I could spot any key chance events in the early lives some male tennis greats, the kind of massive opportunities or jump starts that came, for eg, simply because of the family they were born into. What I did was google Wiki and look at the “early life” bit for Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, McEnroe, Borg, Becker, Connors, Lendl, and Ashe. Amazingly, whenever relevant information was given, every one of these guys picked up his very own, to use your words, “lottery jackpot” (p263 in Greatness) in terms of becoming an exceptional tennis player. (This is leaving aside Federer, McEnroe, and Borg. Wiki didn’t have any useful information at all about Federer’s early tennis years; and not much more about McEnroe or Borg). The rest of these greats were practically out of your book, and the bits I’m giving here are just for starters.

Nadal grew up on an island where tennis wasn’t a sport of any consequence, but he had his Uncle Toni, a former tennis pro, training him from the age of three. Ivan Lendl’s parents were both top flight tennis players in Czechoslovakia. His mom had been number 2 in the country. Jimmy Connors was “coached and trained by his mother and grandmother”, and then his mother moved him half way across the States to get further coaching. Boris Becker’s father “founded a tennis centre in Leimen”, his hometown. Arthur Ashe, the only black great in the history of men’s tennis, grew up in Virginia in the ‘40s and ‘50s. How did the son of a relatively poor black man living in the South manage to get into tennis? Courtesy of his father’s job it seems. Arthur grew up living in his father’s “caretaker’s cottage in the grounds of the 18 acre Brookfield park, Richmond’s largest blacks-only public playground” which, as it happened, had four tennis courts. God, I’m getting hooked. I’ll do one more: Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic’s story is a bit more complicated, and only hinted at by the information given in Wiki. Here’s the gist of what it said: Born 1987 in Belgrade, Serbia, “Djokovic began playing tennis at the age of four”. Two years later he “was spotted by the Yugoslav tennis player Jelena Gencic” who said: “This is the greatest talent I’ve seen since Monica Seles.” She then worked with Djokovic for the next six years. Then, “in September, 1999”, to give him access to an “increased level of competition”, she “contacted Nicola Pilic” and arranged for “the 12-year-old” to move the Pilic Tennis Academy in Germany. Two years later Djokovic “began his international career”.

This account raised a few questions for me. How many kids start playing tennis at “the age of four” without special encouragement? Who was Jelena Gencic? Why would Djokovic’s parents allow their son to move to another country at the age of 12?

I googled the “Yugoslav tennis player Jelena Gencic”. It turns out she was much more than a “tennis player”. She had been a “junior tennis coach” in Serbia for years before Djokovic came along, and had “played a major role in the early development of numerous top class professional players and future Grand Slam champions”, including Monica Seles.

Then I googled something else that came to mind triggered by a “12-year-old’s” move to Germany “in September 1999”. I googled “Yugoslavia history”; and from scanning this, googled “NATO Bombings of Yugoslavia”. And there it was, the missing information. Between March and June 1999, there were almost three months of NATO bombings of among other places, Belgrade, with almost $30 billion in damages and between 1.500 and 5,000 civilians killed. Not a bad time for the 12 year old, whose parents “ran a fast-food parlour”, to cash in on a chance to escape Belgrade. That chance was The Pilic Tennis Academy near Munich, Germany. If you google: “Top Tennis Academies in the World”, you’ll find the Academy there. It’s Number 4 on the list.

Wow, Sean.

You’re spot on re all of this as far as I can see. Amazing Google research re Djokovic. You sure you didn’t write some of my book notes??!! I’d love to have some info re Federer’s early life, not to mention the world that came along with that “golden tennis racket” Borg’s father gave to his son, thus “beginning his career”.

In case of Becker I can give you a bit more elaboration – not available on Wiki – but no surprise given, as you noted, that his father “founded a tennis centre in Leimen”, Becker’s hometown. As John Radford discusses in his book, Child Prodigies and Exceptional Early Achievers (1990, p66-7):` “Becker had certain advantages: he lived almost next door to the Baden training centre at Leimen (the one his father founded); his family co-operated with him and supported him; he had one coach consistently. This meant not only that methods and philosophy remained the same, but that the whole regime was a steady progression”.

And more to it, Becker had the same coach “almost every day.. for nine years.. from the age of 6”. The same coach who had coached Steffi Graf – the Boris behind the scenes, Boris Breskvar. “One of the first things Breskvar noticed in Boris – at 6 – was his determination to reach every ball, as a last resort throwing himself to the ground like a goalkeeper. Accordingly one of the first things he taught him, which he had not done with any other pupil, was how to fall and roll without injury, thus capitalizing on a natural inclination.” Beyond this, “an important part of the Baden Tennis Association’s programme, within which Boris’ training took place, was a detailed series of physiological measurements to allow.. accurate prediction of ultimate growth. Boris Becker was expected to grow to 1.90 metres; his adult height is 1.91 metres. This made it worthwhile for training to concentrate on the serve-and-volley game”… as in “Der Bomber”, “Baron von Slam”, or was that “Boom Boom”.

Funny the little chance details that somehow always seem to get omitted in our heroic accounts of greatness..

Thanks again, Sean. I can’t believe how you got stuck in and did all that research. Impressed.

Bill D



If you’d like to send along comments re a particular Great of interest to yourself, please use the form below. Anything that you find intriguing, unique, or otherwise special about this person is fine. Include a reference if you have one handy, be that Wiki or, say, p 108 of Chompsom Slymer’s First False Narrative of the Ican Dynasty.

If you can relate your comments to some aspect of Greatness all the better. If, for eg, you want to give a short example of the role of chance / luck in relation to your particular Great, here’s a few short egs from the book which might trigger an idea or two:

Bill Gates, p176-7  /  Isaac Newton, p140  /  Frida Kahlo, p80-1  /  Louis Armstrong, p138-9  /  Tchaikovsky, p224  /  Hitchcock, p82.

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