When Marat Safin beat Pete Sampras to win the US Open in 2000, the American said the Russian was “the future of tennis”. At 6ft 4in, Safin was part of the new breed of tennis players, tall enough to benefit from a great serve but athletic enough to get around the court well enough to compete.
Until then, it had been generally thought that a height of around 6ft 1in or 6ft 2in was the optimum height for a tennis player. Sampras thought Safin heralded a new generation but over the next decade, it seemed that the old generation was holding firm. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are both 6ft 1in and Novak Djokovic is only an inch taller.
But could Sampras’s prediction – at least in general terms if not exactly in Marat’s case – be coming true, 12 years on? At the age of 26, John Isner seems to be finally fulfilling his potential. At 6ft 9in he is perhaps right on the upper edge of athleticism, in tennis, but at No 11 he is beginning to make real strides after working intensively on his physique.
When you think that the speed of courts has generally been slowed over the past decade, it might seem counter-intuitive that going into Indian Wells, 11 of the world’s top 50 were 6ft 4in or taller, led by No 7 Tomas Berdych, already a grand-slam runner-up and Juan Martin Del Potro at No 9, the first grand slam champion of the new breed (and pictured above).
Isner is next at No 11 and then there is Gael Monfils (14), Marin Cilic (24), Milos Raonic (27), Robin Soderling (29 and a two-time slam runner-up), Kevin Anderson (30), Bernard Tomic (36), Ivan Ljubicic (40) and Ivo Karlovic (42).
Raonic and Tomic are widely tipped as top-10 players in the very near future while Isner is already on his way there. Throw in Sam Querrey, another man who has been in the top 20, and there does seem to be a trend. A look back at the rankings from this time in 2002 shows just five men 6ft 4 and above and in 2007 it was just six.
Not only are there more in 2012 but with four in the top 14 and seven in the top 30, it is clear things are beginning to change. Perhaps the slower court speeds give the taller players that extra time to get to balls? But when I spoke to Kevin Anderson in Indian Wells, he said advances in injury prevention, as opposed to simply training harder, was perhaps the single most important thing when your head is touching the clouds.
“Tennis movement is pretty specific,” he said. “For me it’s about managing injury prevention and seeing just how much time I can afford to spend on the court. Tennis is such a jarring sport, with a lot of pressure on the knees. I’d say there is almost more attention being paid to rehab now.
“The biggest disadvantage of being tall is the movement. But I think fitness training has improved and people are more aware of what needs to be done. If you can get over that, obviously the serve, generating a bit more force from the baseline and better reach are very positive attributes. Tennis is getting more and more athletic and that’s just a sign of the taller people playing, it comes with it.”
There will always be an emphasis on movement in a sport as physically demanding as tennis. Perhaps the optimum height may have risen an inch or two. Andy Murray, at 6ft 3in, is a phenomenal athlete, for example, but it has taken years of work on and off the court to get there.