The Role of Height In Tennis

by Thaddeus McCarthy

It strikes me as slightly odd that the three greatest players of the modern era (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras), all share exactly the same height, i.e. 1.85m. I know that having above average height helps a tennis player, as they can get greater trajectory on their serve (a point originally made by Bill Tilden, who at 6 foot 2, was a big man for his era). But what I think is obvious here, is that being simply ‘tallish’ is not good enough. There is in fact an optimal height, and that being too far below or above that, can hinder your rise in the game. In this write up today, that is what I will be discussing.

As a tall man myself (1.96m, or 6 foot 5), I would in fact be the second tallest man to win a Grand Slam, if was to do so (which will never happen). The tallest to actually win a Slam was of course Juan Martin Del Potro, who stands at 1.98. Before that the title was held by Richard Krajicek (1996 Wimbledon), who stood at 1.96. Other tall players who have recently won slams include Marat Safin and Goran Ivanisevic (who both stand at 1.94). Although the tallest players on tour right now are 2.08 (6’ 10’) and 2.06 (6’9’) respectively, it is hard to see either of them winning a slam. John Isner has a great serve and rarely gets broken, but he is vulnerable in his return game. The tallest tall man of them all, Ivo Karlovic, has the record for the fastest serve in history, at 251 km/h. He has had a lot of trouble in the past few years with injuries though, and fell as low as 200 something in the rankings last year.

In the cases of Safin and Ivanisevic it would have to be said that neither reached their full potential. But this is more due to their mental fragilities than injuries or flaws in their games. With Karlovic, Isner and Del Potro two facts emerge; one is that taller players are more susceptible to injury, and the second is that their great serves’ are often balanced out by their weaknesses on the return.

When we think of the greatest women’s players of all time we think of names like Evert, Williams, Navratilova, Seles and Graf. The greatest of these (as rated by Steve Flink, in ‘The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time’) was Steffi Graf, who stood at 1.76; which just so happens to be the same height as Serena Williams. Graf and Williams have totally contrasting styles of play though, so the fact that they are same height really doesn’t mean anything. Seles stood at 1.78, Chrissie Evert at 1.68 and Navratilova at 1.73. So they are all of somewhat similar height. Admittedly there is a difference in the heights of great players of the 70s/80s (like Evert) and of the 90s/00s (Graf, Williams). But this is the same as with the men’s’ game. Players like Rosewall and Laver (at 1.73 and 1.70 respectively) would have looked puny compared to the players of today. But this trend is true in all sports, and indeed with life in general. People have gotten taller.

Although as the heights of each decades greatest players has generally been increasing over time, the fact remains that if a player is too short or too tall, they are not going to enter the immortal leagues. It could almost be said that we have reached the point now where players can get no taller and be great. But I wouldn’t agree with this. I think that the optimal tennis height moves with the times. Of course there will be outliers, like Del Potro, and it was probably the case that Tilden was like the Del Potro of his time (1920s).

So the question now becomes whether we will ever see a 7 foot Grand Slam champion one day, which I don’t think is out of the realms of possibility. As the height of the general populous continues to increase, 7 foot or 2.13m, may even become (sort of) normal. This may seem crazy now, but it would of seemed crazy in the 1920s (Tilden’s time) that a 6 foot 5 guy can walk down the street without someone giving him a sideways glance. How do I know this? Call it experience!

Karlovic and Isner

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