At the Indian Wells tournament last March, Rafael Nadal shared yet another vision for tennis “to keep having a good show and keep having emotions.” “Looking five, 10 years in front, you see every time the people are taller. Tennis will need changes. The net is still at the same altitude. People are not the same. People are much more taller now than 50 years ago,” he added.
During the same conference, the Spaniard declared that “People don’t remember a lot of matches just with serves and aces… they remember matches with long points and rallies” and reiterated the need for a longer clay season, followed by the usual disclaimer: “It’s not for me. I am very happy with this format, because I am having a lot of success with this format, no?”
While some of the gripes were par for the course for the 10-time French Open champion, the Tour’s resident heretic pointed out a significant trend — tennis is becoming a tall order. A 2016 study released at the European Science Open Forum confirmed that the world’s population has grown taller by a few centimetres over the past century thanks to economic prosperity and better nutrition and healthcare. The growth among the tennis elite has been more noticeable.
There was a single player 6’5 or above among the top 20 in 1998 and 2008. Today, there are seven, including five in the top 10. Conversely, those under six feet have gone down from seven in 1998, to four in 2008 and two currently. No man under six feet has won a Grand Slam singles title since 2004, while 6’5 Juan Martin del Potro and 6’6 Marin Cilic are the only ones to have lifted a Grand Slam other than the fab five — all of whom are above 6 feet. On the women’s side, the current top 10 features seven players 5’10 or above — including four six-footers.
Former world number four Jonas Bjorkman, who has worked with Cilic, Andy Murray and Milos Raonic, believes sports science is the reason behind the trend.
“Firstly, in general, people, kids are getting taller,” the Swede told The Indian Express. “More importantly, today, we have a lot more knowledge about fitness training, rehabilitation and training methods. Huge improvements have been made in the last decade itself. The players know how to maximise the training, there are a lot of specifics available. All that has helped the taller guys to be much more athletic than they were 20-30 years ago.”
Of course, 20-30 years ago, height in tennis was largely inconsequential. The Open Era’s first true champion Rod Laver was 5’8, while Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were all under six feet. Martina Navratilova was 5’8, Chris Evert 5’6 and Billie Jean King was 5’4. After losing the 1994 Wimbledon semifinal to 6’4 Goran Ivanisevic, Boris Becker, an inch shorter than the Croat, exclaimed: “I used to be one of the tallest in the locker room. Now I’m medium. Probably in 20 years, I’m the smallest.”
Far from being the smallest, a 6’3 player is of a good average height for the modern game, according to Bjorkman.
“Average height, when I played, was 6’1. Then, Roger (Federer), Rafa came up to take it up to 188cm (around 6’2),” said Bjorkman. “Now it has passed 190, around 193 (6’3) is the perfect average. You get the height for a good serve, you get extra speed and still have the flexibility. If the 2-metre players train on flexibility, and start moving extremely well, it could be the new perfect average.”
Galo Blanco, former coach of Raonic and Karen Khachanov and currently working with Dominic Thiem, believes predicting an average height is tricky. “It varies from player to player. If an athlete is tall but doesn’t move well, then we have an issue,” said the Spaniard. “But a tall guy with good movement presents a lot of advantages. It’s even better if they are tall from a young age, as you can start working with them early. Eventually, using height you can have a bigger reach, and serve harder and better.”
The last bit is crucial. The players who have recorded the most aces so far this year are Kevin Anderson (6’8), Ivo Karlovic (6’11) and John Isner (6’10). USA’s Ryan Harrison is 13th, the only player below 6’2 in the top 16. When it comes to winning points on their first serve, there is not a single player below 6′ in the top 20.
Blanco agrees with renowned coach Nick Bollettieri, who earlier told this paper that “the players are more physical, and taller, because there are not many fast surfaces anymore. The courts everywhere are slower, the bounce is higher and that helps the tall player.”
“In my time, the courts were much faster. Now you can find hard courts slower than some clay courts, which means the points are longer and the bounce is higher, helping the tall player,” said Blanco.
A suitable example is the 1994 Wimbledon final between Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras, which was decided by who could do the better knee bend when returning and volleying. The 6’1 Sampras’ canon serve and smooth crouch meant Ivanisevic had to stretch, bend down and execute the low volley; a task made tougher by the pre-100% perennial rye grass.
With grass and hard courts slowed down, most matches resemble the baseline slugfests of clay. Taller players can wait for the ball to climb up, before thwacking it from the baseline, helped by the large racquets and better strings. The higher bounce is complemented by the agility of the tall players. In an interview last year, world number three Alexander Zverev credited his to experience of playing field hockey and football as a kid.
“You look at Cilic, at del Potro, at me — we all move really well, which is a big change from how it was 20 or 30 years ago,” said the 21-year-old, 6’6 German. “They are low-gravity sports. They taught me how to be low all the time, how to change direction quickly.”
Widely regarded as the possible prototype for a future tennis great, Zverev led the field at last year’s inaugural Gen Next finals, where each young pretender was 6 feet or above. Where does that leave the likes of world number nine David Goffin, the only sub-6 footer in the top 20? Who better than Nadal to evaluate.
“180 (cm, 5’10) is not a drama, you know,” said the winner at the Italian Open earlier this month. “(Goffin) is super quick. He has big talent. So, you know, he’s there because he has everything what — about what a tennis player needs to become top player, I think.”