Brains versus Brawn: What Wins in Sport – an example from the Australian Open

Tennis water colour by Kate Birrell 2016



Australian Open Match, TSN channel 5. It’s 35 degrees C below in the Western Canadian Arctic Tundra at 8pm in the evening on the day before what it is in Australia, and I get a chance to hear the dulcet tones of Geoff Masters describing an interesting tennis match from Down Under on a big screen. A surreal experience, to say the least.


Watching the match while cooking dinner reminded me that generally in sport, Brains will beat Brawn every time, no matter what the sport or the situation. So the adage “placement versus power will win every time” was demonstrated in the match I have just witnessed. A big, fast, well-placed serve is really handy but, as the 19-year-old Ukrainian realised, it did not win her the match, just the occasional point within a game, not the match itself.


The match showed just how important a positive attitude can be in a sporting contest in spite of the scoreboard. Even when down two breaks of serve in both sets, Caroline just hung in there and ultimately prevailed.
So, in spite of what they call “gamesmanship” by the plucky Yastremska, which involved utilising a toilet break at the end of the first set (which she lost narrowly), and then calling a medical timeout just before the final game, Caroline Wozniacki just hung in there by being so mentally tough. Wozniacki is slight in stature and not terribly tall, but she has a killer backhand and an attitude of “never say die” – and this is after she has announced that she will retire from ATP tennis when she loses at this year’s Open.


It got me thinking of some long revered examples of people who were not big or strong per se but were influential in their sports in terms of attitude and ultimately winning performances.


Ken Rosewall known affectionately in the Aussie tennis world as “Muscles” because he was the opposite(!!), a player who used placement, skill and pace to get around the tennis court, not brute power.


Kevin Bartlett – 7 goals in a Grand Final against the hapless Collingwood Magpies – KB’s pace and skill versus the strength and power of the mighty West Australian Stan Magro, prevailed on one of the greatest days in sporting history (sorry, I had to get that in, no apologies to Magpie fans!!).


Geoff Toovey – a man who could tackle his heart out, kick for the corner, set up his running forwards and just run in spite of being literally smashed every game for the Manly Sea Eagles. (This is to even up my Collingwood reference. As an old Western Suburbs Magpies fan, I have to give credit where credit is due, even to Manly-Warringah.) I could have mentioned my ultimate hero, Tommy Raudonikis, but he was tough in spite of being fairly small. Yes, he could coach but was a power game guy who didn’t win a premiership and, will do harm to the shaping of my overall argument of this article sadly!!!


In Rugby Union, will skill and ability win over pace and power? George Gregan’s try saving tackle on the “diving to score in the corner” Kiwi winger all those years ago attests to that.


Just this last week, in the NFL, the 49ers running game just smashed the Green Bay Packers (sadly) and, in spite of Aaron Rodgers precision passing, they could not overcome the running power of San Francisco in spite of the fact that the 49ers also have a hot quarterback in Jimmy G. Was this an anomaly to my theory?


Yet on the same day, a few hours earlier, the high octane offensive passing show of Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs put away the Titans. So what is more important in sport, power or precision?


The manic skillful running game of the Richmond Tigers, together with accurate kicking and a rock solid yet mobile and tall defence, have triumphed over the tough game control of the Hawks, Cats and the Swans of yesteryear, but will it win them another premiership this year?


Think of the massive Islander teams in Rugby that exhibit all the strength in the world – but without a solid 5/8th like the All Blacks’ Dan Carter, Wallaby Michael Lynagh or a Johnny Wilkinson (it gives me shivers as an Aussie to even type his name) to guide you “round the park” (as it were) with precision, can you ultimately win a match of the game they play in heaven?


So what is better? A friend of mine here in Canada reminded me that Hockey has become a game of skill and, ultimately, how well you can skate and control the puck will determine most NHL fixtures. Gone are the days of a team winning with roughhouse tactics.


So, Dayana Yastremska, you young Ukrainian phenom with talent and power to burn, what will you learn from the loss in the Aussie Open? That a game is won between the ears, not by just the use of raw power, in spite of how good your forehand is. At the end of the game, it was the slight but crafty seasoned veteran Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, who pumped her fist after two hours – well played, and “sweet Caroline” indeed.



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About Richard Marlow

a humble middle-years teacher in a “middle of the road” private school in Brisbane having being a pastor, a youth worker, a school chaplain, a bank johnnie – 3 different banks, worked in Jails, driven a cab and been in bands amongst other things.


  1. Richard, I’ve long thought that he/she who has ‘it’/’the smarts’ between the ears will have the greater chance of emerging victorious in any sporting contest. Maybe it’s mental strength, greater self-belief or simply an iron will. Or are those all variations on the same theme? Wozniacki is a great choice to exemplify your point.

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