David Ferrer at 5.9 feet has proved for almost ten years that you can be small and still belong to the world elite. These days, Isner, Raonic and Del Potro all reach or exceed 6.5, will there be more?
Statistics can sometimes be misleading. Twenty-two players of the ATP top 100 this week are all 5.9 ft. or less. The prize of the smallest player belongs to both Italian Flavio Cipolla and Yankee veteran Michael Russell at 5.7 ft. But it’s slightly misleading, as only eight of these players are part of the Top 50, with four of them measuring just 5.9. It used to be, that as minimum, in order to belong to the world elite, you could be the size of Andre Agassi. In comparison, ten tennis players are over 6.4 ft. in the top 100 and seven of them are part of the Top 50. In this strange world, Ferrer (5.7 ft.) and Tipsarevic (5.9 ft.) have both been camping for a while in the top ten without displaying the height of basketball player. They owe this to great tennis qualities, exceptional footwork and killer mental ability. However, are they a breed in danger of extinction?
In the 70’s, Eddie Dibbs (5.6 ft.) and Harold Solomon (5.5 ft.) were shinning on both sides of the Atlantic (semi-finalist and finalist at Roland Garros, Editor's note). Connors was only a 5.8ft, Borg and Mcenroe only a few inches taller whilst strong striking babies had already begun to rule the courts - Stan Smith Ashe Curren, Lendl - were all between 6 and 6.4 ft. "Times have changed, the way people eat too” the analysis of Dr. Bernheim, morphological medicine specialist in Paris. Back in the day, the top category of boxing, along with the heavy weights, was the middleweights (160 pounds, Editor's note) whereas now, it’s rather the super middleweights (168 pounds, Editor's note). It follows the evolution of human bodies in Western societies. In France, the average men gained several inches in twenty years (from 5.6 to 5.8 ft., Editor's note). This change also applies in sport. Tennis is a sport where the serve matters a lot, and the taller players are, the stronger their serve, because the ball comes from above. It is therefore logical to find tall people among the world's best.”
"What handicaps the smaller players, gives them a monstrous lift”
Historically, the big servers - From the Australian of the 60's, to Krajicek, passing through Curren or Tanner - have always existed. In general, they coexisted with smaller players at the highest level. When you look closer, since the early 80’s, the perfect size seems to be between 6 and 6.2 ft.: Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Courier, Sampras, Kuerten, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic... With a few exceptions of course. Agassi and Hewitt (5.9 ft.) dominated the world for a while. Not to mention Rios (5.7 ft., world number 1), Chang (5.6 ft., three Grand Slam finals and a victory) or Gaudio (5.7 ft., winner in Paris in 2004). At the other end of the spectrum, Del Potro (6.5 ft., winner of the U.S. Open) and Marat Safin (6.3 ft., two Grand Slams). "In basketball, players like Dirk Nowitzki (6.9 ft. and 17.8 stone, Editor's note) proved that someone can be very big and at the same time relatively swift and able to demonstrate extraordinary coordination," continues Dr. Bernheim. Cilic, Isner, Raonic or even Del Potro have all proved this recently, including on clay...
The levelling of surfaces works for both parties. The "Small ones" can now shine on fast surface and the taller ones no longer suffer on clay. The Fantastic Four - Federer and Nadal (6.1 ft.), Djoko (6.2 ft.) and Murray (6.3 ft.) - have the perfect size and of course the necessary talent. Not particularly encouraging for the near future but not prohibitive either. That’s the opinion of former tennis player Christophe Roger-Vasselin. "The gauge has changed, the players were smaller on average. What handicaps the smaller guys is the really powerful lift, for example, the lift of Nadal on clay, he plays at shoulder height, which brings a lack of power in the exchange and in the service. For the rest, there will always be players smaller than others, even if the average keeps rising. Among them, from time to time, there are phenomena like Agassi, Rios, Hewitt yesterday or Ferrer today that emerge, argues the semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 1983. They’ll make up for it with other weapons: a good view of the game, an early strike of the ball, good footwork and better physical condition than the others. Against them, believe me, it will never be easy." QED.
By Rico Rizzitelli