Remember tennis great Ivan Lendl, whose ferocious forehands were matched in intensity only by his meticulous planning and furiously dark glare? Lendl was the #1 player in the world when, in the fourth round of the 1989 French Open, he was beaten down on the clay court of Roland Garros stadium by a diminutive 17-year-old American named Michael Chang.
Playing in only his fifth Grand Slam singles event, and physically no match for Lendl, Chang exploited a tiny flaw he had discovered in his opponent’s game. With stunning nerve, the verve of youth, and the confidence that grew with each passing rally, Chang overcame Lendl in five sets and went on to win the only Grand Slam title of his career.
The heavily favored Lendl was one of the greats of his time, but he was beaten by a 17-year-old who executed a brilliantly conceived game plan. Chang knew that Lendl was physically stronger than he was, but he also knew that Lendl’s game was predicated as much on a methodical approach as on his superior power and pace. Chang used Lendl’s rigor and physical superiority against him, dinking and dunking—even using an underhand serve—to disrupt Lendl’s timing and power.
Lendl hadn’t even worn down physically; it was Chang whose legs were cramping throughout the match. But Chang beat Lendl by frustrating him into making unforced errors and uncharacteristic double faults. For one day at least, Chang was able to surprise and overwhelm a superior adversary.
For his part, Lendl that year lost his spot as the top-ranked player in the world, and he never recovered it, although he played for another five years.
That’s what corporate and industry disruption does: It comes from an unexpected place, often using our own strengths against us. I don’t know what I would advise the Lendl of 1989, but I know the next Michael Chang is coming, whether we expect him or not.