It is inevitable with the increase in sports science, conditioning and growth of technological assistance, that sports stars – across most disciplines – are going to be faster, bigger and stronger than their predecessors.
As species we are designed to evolve and improve ourselves. However, one of sports most endearing characteristics is its ability to always bring you back to the fundamentals. You may be a 6ft plus monster with considerable muscle mass and bulk but, if you don’t have the requisite skill, you simply won’t get to the top.
Tennis has always been one such sport that has wrestled with this concept. The greatest player of the last 15 years, and maybe of all time, Roger Federer, while being extremely fit and relatively tall (6ft1ins/185cm), did not win 17 grand slam titles via brute force. Quite the opposite in fact; his touch with a racquet unparalled.
In the 1990s there was a genuine fear, that the game in the men’s field, was descending into who had the hardest and most accurate serve. That decade had seen an explosion of big men with even bigger serves: Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek, Greg Rusedski, Michael Stich and Mark Philippoussis.
But crucially that group only managed to win three grand slams between them. The real dominant player of that era was Pete Sampras, arguably the greatest server of all time but also someone with phenomenal stroke-making ability.
While the 2000s enjoyed the emergence of big-serving players such as Andy Roddick the fears of the previous decade never really came to pass. Indeed, over the last 10 years, there have been eight different grand slam winners but only Marin Cilic, Juan Martin Del Potro both and Marat Safin (6ft4ins/193cm) can be considered surprisingly tall.
However, none of that trio have dominated, while Safin – who was also world No1 – can be discounted as he was not a specialist ‘server’. Their successes exceptions rather than the rule. But, just like the 90s, fears are again emerging that the giants will soon be taking over.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last month, the 5ft 9ins David Ferrer declared the probablity of a shorter player getting to the top would soon diminish. When asked where he thought tennis was heading, he replied: “I would guess that you will have to be at least between 5ft 11in and 6ft 3in to play tennis.
“I think players like me, around my height, are going to be extinct. People have evolved physically, and they hit the ball a lot harder than before.”
why are tennis players so tall?! even the women are! at 5’2″ I don’t think I’d be allowed to play. I think the smallest one is 5’4″!
— heather (@heatherr_x) July 5, 2013
It’s something his compatriot Rafa Nadal also discussed at the Australian Open, the Spaniard painting a grim picture of the future for players and fans.
“There is a tendency now in tennis that the harder you hit, the less you think. At the end of the day, that is a problem,” said Nadal.
“Players that can come up with a strategy, that think how to play the points, that analyse…I think that is all becoming history. Players now are hitting 300km/hr serves, the next ball is also 300km/hr and if they fail, then they just move on to the next point.
“I think that the next generation are of that type of player. One must adapt. Since I arrived on the tour I believe that the tendency is like this. I don’t know if the viewer will like to watch in a few years’ time.
“It’s not a question of talent. It’s a question of equipment; of racquets, of speed. The taller the people, the bigger impact they can make with their serve. And the tour dictates that there are more and more tournaments on hard court and less on clay. That’s where the serve matters.
“For me as a spectator it doesn’t excite me. You have to ask the spectators if that’s what they want for the future of our sport.”
Although Nadal did not specify which players he is referring to, he seems to be pointing out a group of youngsters currently rising in the ATP ranks. There are seven players – Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Lucas Pouille, Alexander Zverev, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Kyle Edmund, Hyeon Chung – aged 20 and under in the ATP’s top 150. Their average height is 190cm/6ft 2ins.
— Nate Cordova (@NMC_PharmD18) July 2, 2014
Predicting the future is difficult but how do the statistics bear up across the generations?
Certainly in the 1970s elite tall players were in the minority with Stan Smith, at 193cm/6ft 4ins, standing out among contemporaries such as Bjorn Borg (5ft 11ins/180cm), Jimmy Connors (5ft 10ins/178cm) and Rod Laver (5ft 8ins/173cm).
As the graphic above details, the average height of the men’s top 20 in April 1975 was 181.6cm and in 1980 – 183.9cm, now it’s 188.5cm, an increase of nearly 7cm over 40 years. Borg and Connors helped shape the landscape in the 1980s with John McEnroe (5ft 11ins/180cm) joining the best in the world.
But as Ivan Lendl recounted in 2013, attitudes to height have come full circle. The Czech, who stands what will be considered a modest 6ft 2ins, told the New York Times: “When I came in, at 6-2, and there were people saying, ‘Well, he’s too tall; he won’t be able to move properly’.”
There were slight exceptions to the growth of the game in the early 90s in Michael Chang and Andre Agassi but six footers Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier and Sampras were following the new template.
The rise of Ivanisevic and the ilk was suitably mirrored by the huge jump in the average height of the top 20, from 183.3cm to 187.9cm by 1995, but the concerns of the doom-mongers who forecast a valley of the giants scenario proved premature with Lleyton Hewitt and Albert Costa (both 5ft 11ins/180cm) and Gaston Gaudio (5ft 9ins/175cm) enjoying grand slam success in an era of no real dominant player.
However, it’s impossible to get away from the fact there has been a steady rise, and while current world No1 Novak Djokovic is not the dystopian image of a huge-serving, long-armed freak, he would, in previous generations, have been considered a tall player. Now? He stands small next to the likes of fellow top 10 players like Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych.
It’s probably best left to Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, who’s been on tour since 1997 and has witnessed first-hand the development. The 33-year-old says it is too soon to pass a verdict on the next generation and the game remains a place for all different types of player…at least for now.
“It’s a very long debate. You see the average of the players, is between 185 and 180. Everybody is stronger. Everybody serves huge. Everybody hits the ball with a lot of power. The racquets are so powerful,” said world No12 Lopez, a big-server himself.
“Some courts are fast. So, yeah, this is the way that the game is going. But on the other way there’s other places where the courts are very slow and you can mix it up and you can play from the baseline as well.
“It is obvious if the game continues this way, it will be tough to see so many rallies at Wimbledon because everybody is so tall, powerful, everybody serves really big. But we’ll see.
“I think some of the young guys, they are very strong, but there are some others that play with talent as well. I think we have to wait a couple years more to make the final call.”
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