December 28, 2010
December 26, 2010
I feel bad for any average-size teenager who dreams of becoming a professional tennis player. If such a youngster has been paying attention to the media during the start of this year's U.S. Open, he or she might as well give up such lofty aspirations, as a flood of coverage has been devoted to how power has overtaken the game and why it will soon be impossible for the normally proportioned human to compete with the big people.
It is true that typical professional tennis players are bigger, stronger and taller than in previous generations. But the ideal height for a men's champion hasn't changed much over the last 90 years, and throughout history champions have come in varying sizes.
Since the first tennis boom during the Roaring '20s - with Big Bill Tilden, who was 6-foot-2 - up through the age of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the perfect zone of height has been marked clearly right around 6-1 or 6-2. The majority of those universally considered among the best of all time fit this description and are scattered throughout history: Tilden, Fred Perry, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal.
The one period in tennis history when those under 6 feet dominated, from the late 1960s through the early '80s, was sandwiched between eras when those over 6 feet were clearly better. Players of this epoch included Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
Smaller players also won often in the 1950s and into the '60s, but that was due in large part to the absence of players who opted to turn pro, which disqualified them from playing in the Grand Slams. Kramer, Gonzalez and Tony Trabert, all 6 feet or taller, would likely have ruled the majors in this period had they been allowed.
Andre Agassi, 5-10 at most, was an exception. The Las Vegas native was a prolific champion in the midst of a taller generation. A rarity.
So why this current obsession with height? Is it because Federer had his stunning streak of consecutive semifinals broken by two of the tallest and hardest-hitting players on tour in Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych? If that is the case, why not bring up the most obvious fact? Neither Soderling nor Berdych has ever won a Slam.
None of the other giants on tour - such as Ivo Karlovic, John Isner and Sam Querrey - has come close to claiming a Slam. The one who does have the goods to become No. 1 in the world is Juan Martin del Potro, at 6-6 perhaps the tallest Slam champion of all time. Unfortunately, del Potro is missing from this year's Open due to injury.
Furthermore, consider Wimbledon. Since this is usually the fastest surface of the Slams, one would think it would routinely favor the biggest players. But only three players 6-4 or taller have won at the Big W in the Open era: Stan Smith in 1972, Richard Krajicek in 1996 and Goran Ivanisevic in 2001.
Or maybe the reason so many think tennis has become a paradise reserved for behemoths is because the ball is now struck with so much greater speed and spin, which smaller players can't handle. This is partly true. But is this due more to human evolution or technological advancement? Both, most likely.
It is a subject that has been dissected ad nauseam, this matter of the change of racquets from wood to composites, in addition to the changes in strings. Nostalgia buffs and tennis-preservation-society enthusiasts long for the bygone days of short shorts and wood racquets and think the game was purer back then. One can debate the merits of this argument, but it is undeniably true that the modern racquet has fundamentally altered the game from an all-court affair to primarily a baseline battle. Would the taller, bigger players have less of an advantage had the racquet never been changed? Impossible to know.
Yet it would be interesting to see how current players would fare with wood racquets. It's odd that we haven't seen an exhibition of sorts among the top players hitting with the old swords. Who wouldn't find it compelling? Why not orchestrate an event where we could see if Federer could find the angles and precision or if Nadal could generate half the topspin or if del Potro could hit winners at will from behind the baseline with the older racquets? I doubt the players would be enthused, for reasons of vanity as well as injury concerns.
In some sports, achievements and advancements are easier to measure due to a lack of technological invasion. Take baseball. The bats are lighter but still of wood. The ball, which some have claimed was juiced in years past, is also basically the same as ever.
But the players are taller and bigger, especially pitchers. Yet no pitcher has consistently surpassed the velocity generated by Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard 30 years ago. The tape-measure home run distances are no longer than those of Josh Gibson, Dave Kingman or Mickey Mantle. And there appear to be no outfield arms today any better than Roberto Clemente's or Dave Parker's.
Perhaps humans just hit a wall of achievement and it's impossible to trek any further. No one believes we're going to see a 3:20 mile or an 8-second 100-meter dash. Maybe this will hold true in tennis as well.
When Sampras shocked the tennis world and announced his presence at the U.S. Open 20 years ago, he routinely hit serves above 120 m.p.h. That was unheard of. Now many players average that speed.
Andy Roddick hit a serve recorded at 153 m.p.h. in 2004. But six years have passed since then. Does this translate into tennis power hitting a wall?