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February 03, 2012

Are Tall Players Taking over Tennis?

You can't watch a tournament without hearing that tall players are taking over tennis.

ATP photo. You won't see the NBA's Yao Ming beating Tsonga or Nishikori at tennis.

It's certainly true that there are more tall men playing on the ATP level than ever before -- but they aren't winning. 

The U.S. Davis Cup team is tall enough to play DIvision I basketball, but lost to Spain, which is led by David Ferrer, all 5 ft 9 inches of him, and Rafael Nadal, a muscular but hardly leviathon 6 ft 1 in. 

This "trend" has been declared about to happen for 40 years -- without ever happening. 

I remember Jack Kramer proclaiming that tennis would soon be ruled by players built like basketall's Michael Jordan -- 6 ft 7 inches and athetlic. Just as Jordan was unable to hit the hanging curve ball during this attempt at minor-league baseball, it hasn't happened, simply because mobility, quickness, hand-eye-coordination, and stamina rule the top of tennis. {Vidcap below from ESPN}


The template for being among the best tennis players in the world is 6 ft 1 inches tall and about 180 pounds, which almost-exactly matches Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal,  Patrick Rafter, Arthur Ashe, Fred Perry and Don Budge while Novak Djokovic "soars" over them at an inch taller, and Ivan Lendl has a 0.5 advantage. Look at these winners and number-one ranked players from the past; if anything the winners have gotten shorter. 

* Pancho Gonzales ( 6 ft 3)
* Stan Smith (6 ft 4 in)
* Goran Ivanisevic ( 6 ft 5 in)
* Richard Krajicek (6 ft 5 in)
* Gustavo Kuerten (variously 6 ft 2.5 to 6 ft 4 in)
* Ellsworth Vines ( 6 ft 3 in)
* Bill Tilden ( 6 ft 2 in)
* Boris Becker ( 6 ft 3 in), and
* Stephan Edberg ( 6 ft 2 in).

In the last 20 years, the year-end number one player on the ATP Tour has been exactly 6 ft 1 inches tall some 13 times, and 6 ft 2 inches or less every single year. (Ok, so Gustavo Keruten's 190 cm translates to 6 ft 2.54 inches, while he's listed at 6 ft 4 inches elsewhere, so it's 19 out of 20. So, sue me.) 

As best I can remember, when the 6 ft 6 in Juan Martin del Potro won the US Open he was the first tall player to win a major tournament since two 6 ft 5 in players, Goren Ivanisiev, and Richard Krajicek each won Wimbledon back when it was still a fast, grass-court touranment not faux-clay. 

Let's compare today's top ten (Feb 3, 2012) with that from 1990.

Top Ten 2012

1 Djokovic, Novak (SRB) 6 ft 2 in
2 Nadal, Rafael (ESP) 6 ft  1in
3 Federer, Roger (SUI) 6 ft 1 in
4 Murray, Andy (GBR) 6 ft 3 in
5 Ferrer, David (ESP) 5 ft 9 in
6 Tsonga, Jo-Wilfried (FRA) 6 ft 2 in
7 Berdych, Tomas (CZE) 6 ft 5 in
8 Fish, Mardy (USA) 6 ft 2 in
9 Tipsarevic, Janko (SRB) 5 ft 11 in
10 Del Potro, Juan Martin (ARG) 6 ft 6 in. 

Top Ten 1990

1 Edberg, Stefan SWE    6 ft 2
2 Becker, Boris GER 6 ft 2
3 Lendl, Ivan USA 6 ft 2
4 Agassi, Andre USA 5 ft 11
5 Sampras, Pete USA 6 ft 1
6 Gomez, Andres ECU 6 ft 4 in
7 Muster, Thomas AUT 5 ft 11 in
8 Sanchez, Emilio ESP 5 ft 11 in
9 Ivanisevic, Goran CRO 6 ft 5 in
10 Gilbert, Brad USA 6 ft 1 in. 
See the huge jump? Neither do I. In fact, the number five player today is shorter than
anyone in the top ten a decade ago, and the average height now is slightly less.  
Now, certainly there have been shorter, top players in between 
from Rod Laver to Jimmy Connors to Andre Agassi.
But there were also taller players that won major tournaments years past. 
Until the "giants" start winning, 
I'm not going to concede that tennis has changed to favor them. 


BallSmallTennis copy

From the series "The Skeptic's Guide to What 'Everyone Knows' About Tennis", click to read more.


Reader Comments

small man's syndrome buddy?

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