The French Open is underway, which means it’s time to resume debate about the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both have 20 grand slams, and 13 of Nadal’s are from the slow red clay of Roland Garros—so he’s odds on to overtake Federer within a couple of weeks. That would make him the greatest player ever, right?
Not so fast.
Let’s start by celebrating the truly extraordinary period we’ve had the privilege of living through for the better part of two decades (full disclosure: I aspired to be a professional tennis player until reality intruded). To have Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic competing at the same time is staggering (and don’t forget Serena Williams on the women’s side, fighting to equal Margaret Court for grand slams wins): since Wimbledon in 2003 (2003!), the so-called Big Three of the men’s game have won 58 of 70 grand slams, with Djokovic himself on 18 and a safe bet to wind up with the most.
Which gets us back to how you measure greatness. In March, Cristiano Ronaldo took to Instagram for a bit of a humble brag about passing Pele as the top goal scorer in professional football history. He’d earned it: Ronaldo was celebrating scoring 770 goals at the highest level, the clearest measure of his unsurpassed ruthlessness. The man’s simply deadly when given a chance to score. Still, is he “better” than his great rival, Argentine wizard Lionel Messi? And does it really matter?
I think it does. Give me the artistry of Messi over the clinical finishing of Ronaldo any day: the creativity—the astonishing ability to create gaps from nothing, to read opponents seemingly weeks in advance, and to simply take your breath away. Messi is the kind of player who does something so mindboggling, you immediately turn and yell “Did you see that?!” before realizing you’re sitting by yourself.
It’s for similar reasons that, for me, Federer’s the default Greatest of All Time in men’s tennis until someone better marries athleticism and the science of sheer relentlessness with the beauty of the regularly unexplainable and the often inexplicable. Look no further than novelist David Foster Wallace’s famous essay for chapter and verse on the artist that is Federer. In Wallace’s words, watching him is akin to a religious experience.
All of which gets me to content, believe it or not. It’s not easy, but easy enough, to craft content that ticks all of the theoretical boxes. Fresh insights? Check. Actionable advice? Check. Well written? Check. Nicely presented? Check. Let’s call that “Nadal content”: it works hard; is very, very good; and does the job. But, by definition, if everything merely meets that standard, nothing’s distinctive.
Don’t get me wrong: Federer has won hundreds of matches in relatively pedestrian fashion; Messi has scored hundreds of straightforward goals. And again, good-quality content is good-quality content; it’s important and will be consumed and valued by people who need it. But what stands out in a commoditized content world is much, much tougher to create because the way the individual elements come together to form something truly compelling and engaging involves a little alchemy that’s hard to define and even harder to capture.
One thing we do know: you won’t get a different result from doing the same thing over and over. Save a little room for experimentation. Take a few risks with the format, channel, structure, and narrative. Ditch the jargon (always). Push to make content real and relatable. See if, in the act of trying something new, the pieces now and then fall into place to create something transcendent. Federer content won’t happen on demand, of course. But isn’t it the scarcity of true brilliance that makes it special?