It is a Wednesday morning and I have a sense of foreboding. I have arranged to play tennis with a man who I should in theory have at least a chance of beating but who I know with near certainty will trounce me. On paper, António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, must be the underdog. At 48, he is five years my senior. Nearly two decades ago he broke his right wrist so badly that doctors told him he’d never play tennis again. And late last year, he was signed off work for two months to recover from stress-induced insomnia and exhaustion.
That, in fact, is how our match has come about. In December, just as he was about to return to his job, I met Horta-Osório as part of a Lloyds campaign to convince a sceptical media and investor community that, having been laid low after less than a year as CEO, this Portuguese banker could bounce back and reassume control of Britain’s biggest high-street lender. He certainly looked back to normal – the intense gaze, the fluent conversation, the easy charm were just as they had been. He said that with the help of some tablets he was sleeping again and would be back in the office in a matter of days.
I was never as sceptical as some that a CEO could return to his job after a medical absence. Even so, in the idle chit-chat that followed our interview, recalling that Horta-Osório was a keen tennis player, I sneaked in one last question. Was he back to form? “Yes,” he said, “I’m back playing twice a week again.” Oh, I said, we must have a game some time – the kind of off-the-cuff remark one makes with barely any expectation that anything will ever come of it. Within a fortnight, Horta-Osório’s minder was on the phone to arrange the game – and my heart lurched.
I have long fancied myself as a racket sportsman. I played competitive badminton until I was 16 and still love haring around a court in pursuit of a shuttlecock or squash ball. Tennis has always been another matter, though. I never learnt to play properly and, bar the odd knock about with my family, my racket hasn’t seen much action in 25 years.
So when Horta-Osório’s minder asks if I really am a decent match for his boss, I resolve to invest some effort, and a fair bit of cash, in my first-ever tennis coaching. After 15 – yes, 15 – lessons at my local tennis centre, I go into my big match with the hope that at least I won’t embarrass myself.
The setting is impressive – Horta-Osório has invited me to play at Queen’s Club in west London, where he is a member – and he looks the part, dazzling me with his pristine kit (Queen’s is an all-whites club) and confident smile (also all-white). “The UK is definitely the country I enjoyed working in the most out of the several countries I have worked in,” he tells me later. “But tennis-wise, I would choose Brazil, where I could almost always play under the sunshine,” he adds with a nod to the hitherto soggy London summer.
On the day of our match, though, Queen’s is sun-drenched and the place still seems to hum with the recent drama of Argentine player David Nalbandian’s disqualification for demolishing a hoarding that then gashed a linesman’s leg. There is less rage in our game and a lot less ability, at least on my side of the net. But, at times, it does feel as if we are playing proper tennis. The first two games are tight – the serves are decent, the rallies are lengthy, and after about 10 deuces on my service game we draw level at 1-1.
Taking my coach’s advice, I get to the net whenever I can – off my serve (when it goes in), off his serve (when I can reach the ball after it skids viciously off the artificial grass), and at any other possible juncture. But the snags in this tactic quickly emerge. First, my approach shots are not good enough, either drifting out or bouncing barely past the service line. Second, Horta-Osório is very good at passing shots – his topspin backhand is a killer. And third, on the rare occasion I do manage to pin him into the backhand corner, he unveils his secret weapon – the ambidextrous lob, switching hands coolly at the last second and hoisting the ball over my head, torpedoing any confidence I have left.
Throughout the 90 minutes we play, he rarely misses a ball – I can remember only one volley put into the net, and one passing shot sliced wide. And though we have a fair few 20-shot rallies and even a few more deuces, I’m ashamed to say I never chalk up another game on the scoreboard.
“Are you tired?” asks a beaming Horta-Osório at several changes-of-ends, a rare exchange of words from a man who despite an ever-widening winning margin remains entirely focused. His determination is clearly his greatest weapon. Take the left-handed lob – that was honed along with a whole left-handed game after breaking his right wrist, mid-game, on his 30th birthday.
“They told me I’d never play tennis again,” he says later. “So I decided to learn as a left-hander. I played that way for two years.” Then he defied the medics and restarted as a right-hander, too. When he takes off his sweatband, the scars are still evident on both sides of his wrist.
The drive is evident in the way he plays, too – he targets my weaker backhand side mercilessly until I move so far round to protect it that there is a gaping hole on my forehand side. There is talent as well, of course, but also a vital self-control.
He wins points with measured aggression (big first serve, 70 per cent success rate; only one double-fault). And he doesn’t lose points because he doesn’t take risks.
“You need more practice,” is his direct but incontrovertible conclusion as we shake hands. No wonder Horta-Osório’s minder was so happy to arrange this game: besides proving the boss is fully fit, it was a perfect display of all the qualities you would hope for in a bank chief executive – cunning, risk aversion and a determination to win. All he has to do now is replicate his court tactics effectively in his management of Lloyds.
This month’s deal to sell 600-plus Lloyds branches to the Co-op looks like the evidence. The price is low but the important thing was get the deal done and satisfy EU state-aid demands – and that has been achieved. But Horta-Osório spoils my analogy. “It’s different from a tennis match where the objective is to win,” he says. “In a negotiation, especially in a complex and long-term one such as ours, working together in partnership is the key.” Whether this is tact or disingenuousness, the analysis does not ring entirely true for a bank boss whose determination to beat the competition is legendary.
In among the job of returning Lloyds to profitability, Horta-Osório’s priority now is the Olympics, of which Lloyds is the official bank sponsor. And will he be attending? “The opening ceremony and some of the events,” he says vaguely. Oh? Which ones? “The tennis.”
Patrick Jenkins is the FT’s banking editor
This article has been subject to a correction