You Must Be At Least This Tall To Win Regularly On The ATP Tour
By defeating Rafael Nadal for the first time in 10 meetings, Diego Sebastian Schwartzman became the shortest player to ever defeat the 19-time Grand Slam champion.
In fact, At 5’7”, Argentina's Schwartzman could become only the fifth player under 6 feet to enter the ATP top-10 since 2010.
David Ferrer, David Goffin, Janko Tipsarevic, and Kei Nishikori are the others who achieved the feat. Had he beaten Novak Djokovic last weekend in the final of the Rome Masters, Schwartzman's place would have already been secured.
The lack of tennis players under 6 feet to win titles is in fact rather shocking.
The last player under 6 feet to win a Grand Slam was Gaston Gaudio in 2004 when he won the French Open. Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi are the other players 180 cm or below to win a Slam in the 2000s.
According to a study done by TopEnd Sports, there were just five players above 6 feet in height between 1960 and 1980 to win Wimbledon. However, since 1980, there have been just five players below 6 feet who have won the title.
One of the most successful players in the history of the sport was just 173 cm (5’8”) and that was none other than Rod Laver.
So, what is the reason for this change over the years?
Well, with the advancement of sport technology and equipment, tennis rackets have changed from wooden rackets to metal rackets to what we see today. This meant that the average speed of the serve has increased phenomenally. However, it is not just the serve which matters.
Big servers like John Isner and Ivo Karlovic have had reasonable success but have failed to win big titles due to the lack of a good return game. While the ability to return has also become better with the increase in the size of the racket head, successful players usually have a combination of a good serve and a great return as well.
If we look at Novak Djokovic, his average first serve speed is around 190 kmph, the percentage of first serve points won is 74% while he's won 34% of his return points throughout his illustrious career. If we compare that to Karlovic, we see that the big Croatian has won 81% first serve points, yet he's only been able to win 21% on the return.
If we look at the decorated career of Spaniard, David Ferrer, we see that he won 33% of the return games he faced, just 1% less than Djokovic, yet he was good enough to win just 63% on his first serve.
Along with Ferrer, Nishikori, Goffin, and now Schwartzman, all have boasted superb return games but have lacked a big serve, ultimately prevented them from unlocking success at Grand Slam level.
While Ferrer indeed had a remarkable career and went on to win 27 titles, we can’t help but wonder if he could have achieved even more had he been armed with a dominating serve. The same can be said about both Goffin and Nishikori, two players who've combined for a respectable 16 titles, yet have just the solitary Grand Slam Final appearance between them.
Considering all these factors, it really comes as no surprise that short players have not performed too well on grass over the years. Gaston Gaudio never got past the 2nd round at Wimbledon, Schwartzman only reached the 3rd, while Nishikori and Ferrer have at least reached the quarter-finals, even if their journey stopped there.
However, the story is a bit different on clay.
The surface is much slower and allows a lot more time to return shots, affording significantly more scope for varied rallies as well, thus providing more opportunities for smaller player to make inroads against the big servers of the game.
If we look at the statistics, 4 out of the top 10 best returners on tour at the moment are players under 180 cm in height.
The French Open was the only slam Gaston Gaudio won. Ferrer’s best performance at a Slam was at Roland Garros too when he reached the final in 2013. While Nishikori reached the final of the US Open in 2014, he has enjoyed more success on clay, winning twice in Barcelona, and having finished as the runner-up at the Monte-Carlo Masters in 2018 as well as the Madrid Masters in 2014.
The stats also prove that Ferrer, Nishikori, and Schwartzman have performed best on clay.
According to the ATP’s performance index of clay court players of all-time, Ferrer is 31st on the list with a win-loss record of 335-14 (71%), Nishikori is 36th on the list, while Schwartzman sits 157th. If we compare this to their Index on grass, both Ferrer and Nishikori are in the 190s, while Schwartzman fails to even crack the top 400.
The heart of the matter right now is that tennis is a tall man’s game.
A combination of a good serve and return are the prime ingredients to what makes a great player nowadays, and unfortunately, short players don’t tend to have a big serve.
However, having seen the success of short players on clay, and with the French Open just a few days away, will we see the likes of Schwartzman or Fognini make great strides and challenge the top guns?
It sure would be a welcome change and give future generations of ‘short’ people hope that they might indeed be able to make it 'big'.
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