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Stats say you've got to be tall to be a tennis champion

Roar Guru
18th September, 2009
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22296 Reads
Russia's Dinara Safina shakes hands with Australia's Jelena Dokic after their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open Tennis tournament in Melbourne, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009. Safina won the match 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. AAP Image/Stuart Milligan

Russia's Dinara Safina shakes hands with Australia's Jelena Dokic after their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open Tennis tournament in Melbourne, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009. Safina won the match 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. AAP Image/Stuart Milligan

Until she was upstaged by comeback super-mom Kim Clijsters, Melanie Oudin was THE story of the US Tennis Open.

Slaying Russian giants round by round, and blessed by the extreme self-confidence and enthusiasm that only an American upbringing can engender, naturally the question arises as to whether the 17-year-old native of Marietta, Ga – gotta love someone who hails from a place with the same name as my mother! – is the Next Big Thing of women’s tennis.

On Oudin’s tennis shoes is inscribed the word “believe”.

Well here are some names and numbers that are a matter of fact rather than belief:

Kim Clijsters 1.74, Serena Williams 1.75, Svetlana Kuznetsova 1.74, Venus Williams 1.85, Ana Ivanovic 1.83, Maria Sharapova 1.88, Amelie Mauresmo 1.74, Anastasia Myskina 1.74, Jennifer Capriati 1.70, Mary Pierce 1.78, Lindsay Davenport 1.89, Steffi Graf 1.76.

With one (deliberate) omission, these are the names and heights, in metres, of all grand-slam winners in women’s singles from the last decade, stretching back to the French Open of 1999, Steffi’s last major title.

A remarkable pattern emerges: 11 of these 12 winners, representing 33 of these 36 titles won, are 1.74 m or taller (Capriati is the one exception).

One may also note that two other recent no. 1’s, Jelena Jankovic at 1.77 and Dinara Safina at 1.85 m, are above this watermark.

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So my nearly golden rule of women’s tennis is: a woman needs to be 1.74 m or taller to be a champion.

Indeed, one might even wonder whether there is something magical about being 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) tall, plus or minus a centimetre: it’s almost spooky how often these numbers appear in the above list (do I need to introduce that Martina Navratilova is 1.73 m tall?).

Where does this leave Melanie Oudin, who is 1.68 m tall? Well all is not lost for her – read on! – but I do not like her chances of becoming a champion (assuming that she has finished growing).

What about the men? Here’s the equivalent list to that above for women:

Juan Martin del Potro 1.98, Roger Federer 1.85, Rafael Nadal 1.85, Novak Djokovic 1.87, Marat Safin 1.93, Gaston Gaudio 1.75, Andy Roddick 1.88, Juan Carlos Ferrero 1.83, Pete Sampras 1.85, Lleyton Hewitt 1.80, Albert Costa 1.80, Thomas Johansson 1.80, Goran Ivanisevic 1.93, Gustavo Kuerten 1.90, Yevgeny Kafelnikov 1.90, Pat Rafter 1.85, Carlos Moya 1.90, Petr Korda 1.90, Richard Krajicek 1.95, Boris Becker 1.90.

Once again I have deliberately omitted a single name; otherwise this list includes all winners of grand-slam titles in men’s singles right back to Wimbledon 1995.

And once again there is a remarkable pattern: 47 of the 53 titles covered here have been won by players who are 1.85 m or taller.

Further, of the 5 winners who are under this mark, Gaudio, Costa and Johansson would definitely be categorized as journeyman winners who were far from being tennis greats (Hewitt and Ferrero, the other two, are more debatable in this regard).

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So my nearly golden rule of men’s tennis is: a man needs to be 1.85 m or taller to be a champion.

Further, there also seems to be a magic height for men: is it not astonishing that Federer, Nadal and Sampras, three of the four great players of the last two decades, are all exactly 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) tall?

More generally, there is a clustering of male champions in the range 1.85 – 1.90 m, e.g. also Jim Courier 1.87, Stefan Edberg 1.88 and Ivan Lendl 1.87 m.

So if you have ever felt, like I have, that Lleyton Hewitt (1.80 m) was just a few cm short of being a tennis champion for the ages, above lies the proof. Five centimetres does not sound very much, but at Lleyton’s height it has meant the world.

One may also wonder whether being too tall is an impediment. Certainly players like Marat (1.93 m, 2 titles), Goran (1.93, 1), Krajicek (1.95, 1) and Mark Philippoussis (1.95, 0) did not win nearly as many major titles – in Scud’s case, none! – as they looked capable of.

The newly crowned Juan Martin del Potro (1.98 m) will be an interesting test case in this regard. It may be that success-starved Australians have to start praying that the young prodigy Bernard Tomic, who is already 1.93 m tall, stops growing!

Before finishing, I need to make clear that I am not attempting any causal explanation here, although obviously such would go along the following lines: increasing height confers an advantage in terms of clearing the net (this is what gives rise to a threshold height), but at the same time it confers a disadvantage in terms of the intricate coordination needed to play tennis (otherwise Shaq would be a tennis champion!), and there is an optimum height in the middle.

Rather, I am just pointing out a very strong correlation, much as there is between smoking and lung cancer.

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This analogy is useful. Just as there are smokers who do not get lung cancer, so there are male tennis players who are 1.85 m tall who are not grand-slam winners.

More to the point, just as there are non-smokers who contract lung cancer, so there are relatively rare cases of tennis champions who are below the threshold height for their gender.

The above lists contain some minor celebrities in this regard, e.g. Capriati, Hewitt, Ferrero.

The two great examples of recent times are Justine Henin (1.68 m, 7 titles in the last decade) and Andre Agassi (1.81 m, 5 titles since Wimbledon 1995 and 8 in all): these are the names I omitted from the respective lists above.

The case of Henin gives some hope for Melanie Oudin (also 1.68 m), but at the same time one has to recognize that such a player seems to emerge only once per decade in women’s tennis: Henin in the 2000s, Hingis (1.70 m) in the 1990s, Evert (1.68 m) in the 1980s.

Is Oudin such a once-per-decade player? Time will tell, but obviously the odds are low.

Finally, a tidbit: in all I have given the heights of (by my reckoning) 45 tennis players above, and in only one case did I find that Wikipedia is wrong: it lists Guga as 1.96 m rather than the correct 1.90 m.

I mention this for the benefit of those who propagate the myth that Wikipedia is inaccurate.

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