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Sun, Feb. 23

Howard Column: What separates a good athlete from a great one?

What differentiates a good athlete in sports from a great one?

In the world of tennis there are many notable players that have crossed the line of excellence in performance and results, but there are few who have reached the goal of being No. 1 in the world as many as three or more times in year-end rankings.

Since the advent of Open Tennis in 1968, names in this category include: Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, Ivan Lendl, Steffi Graf, John McEnroe, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and Rod Laver.

To sustain the top spot for three years (consecutively or otherwise) is quite an achievement and many of these players did it even longer,.

But why them? What did they have going on that drove them to push over and beyond the normal one or two year span of being the top dog?

The beginning of the journey normally begins with very supportive parents and opportunity. That was certainly true of Jimmy Connors, who had both his mother and grandmother teach him the game of tennis. They were accomplished players in their own right.

Chris Evert's father was a very good amateur player having won the Canadian Championships in 1947 and became a career tennis professional in Florida who took the time to teach all of his children on a daily basis. Martina Hingis had especially her mother and father in that same capacity.

Good genes are also a nice quality to have, but in most of the cases in the people mentioned, they are/were not killer physical specimens in general, but during their time as professionals were certainly were in very good shape.

Martina Navratilova came to the States to play and found her way to too many fast food eateries, but in mid-career showed how becoming fit helped her reach the top. Chris Evert watched and joined the bandwagon in the same manner, as did Lendl.

Most all of these players are known for their drive, perfectionist work ethics and attitudes.

The right coaches at the right time doesn't hurt, the strongest desire to do their best - willing themselves to win, hating to lose.

The steely look and reserve of Borg, Lendl, Seles and Evert. The relaxed yet powerful demeanor of Sampras and Court. The skillful shots and high-strung emotions of King, McEnroe and Connors. The majestic balance, shot selections and all court strategies of Federer, Henin and Hingis.

They all had something extra special they brought to the table and that just might be the biggest difference in their staying power. They were as good as the others ranked in the

top 10, but had one or more exceptional abilities that made the difference.

Most players on the tour get there because they've worked hard in every regard possible. They give up the normal day-to-day fun things in life just how far they can make it. It's a gamble and a journey that has no guarantees.

Dedication, consistent skills, long and short-term goals, enough money and time, focus, positive mental toughness, the right type of game for personality traits, who you're surrounded by, enough confidence, aptitude, healthiness and a bit of luck are all part of the package.

The simple repeated physical and mental actions, sometimes lightening fast and other times slow and off-paced make up the essence of the game of tennis, the big question comes down to how well you can perform these skills under pressure.

You can be well conditioned and seem to have it all together, but the hard truth comes at crunch time in the match. You can have a high IQ or be as dumb as a stump, but the question still remains, how are you going to react when it's time to perform in tight situations?

The great ones do well most of the time, and the players who say, "I should have had them," well, they look forward to the next match.

Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 35 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at or 928-642-6775.

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