Critical ability. In a nutshell, it’s performing your best when it matters most. It’s something top professional athletes possess. And as I sit here watching the final tennis match of the U.S. Open between number one ranked Novak Djokovic and number two ranked Rafael Nadal, I can’t help but admire how much these two possess of that important trait.
Brian Rogers, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, went looking for evidence of critical ability in the real world to see how it would affect different events. Conveniently enough, he found it in data on professional tennis matches. Tennis, Rogers said, is well suited to a study of critical ability because different points throughout the match have different levels of importance. Take the Djokovic-Nadal final. So far, there have been 32 break points. The outcome of these points are important because the receiver has a chance to win the match by winning that point. In tennis, servers are seen to have an advantage, so break points are an opportunity for the receiver to distance him or herself from their opponent or catch up.
But for Djokovic and Nadal in this U.S. Open final, break points don’t appear to be the only ones where critical ability is, well, critical. Many rallies have lasted a dozen volleys or more. Each volley in those instances seems to ratchet up the pressure. The length of the rallies is part of the reason why, as of this writing, there Djokovic has had 42 unforced errors and Nadal 31. You could argue that the eventual winner has an edge in critical ability, but it’s probably a slim margin given the ferocity of the match.
Update: Djokovic won.
Photo by asterix611.