© Ella Ling

Nadal fan

Playing mini tennis in the land of the giants


How do the little people cope on the tour?

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about the proliferance of tall players in the men’s game, with 11 of the world’s top 50 (going into Indian Wells) listed at 6ft 4in or taller. Power and height are such useful assets in the modern game and it is hard to imagine now just how the pocket rocket, Rod Laver, winning two calendar year grand slams at the grand old height of 5ft 8in.

Only eight of the current top 50 are shorter than 6 feet tall, which is pretty incredible really. The highest-ranked of the lot is David Ferrer, ranked No 5 and at 5ft 9in, the shortest of the lot. It is a credit to his outstanding fitness, endurance and skill that he has managed to stay in the top 10 for so long in a world of increasing giants where he is so penalised for his genes.

When Belgium take on Great Britain in the Davis Cup this weekend, the match will be notable for several things; the absence of Andy Murray and the home side’s quest to climb up to the world’s elite among them. But the one that fascinates me is the presence of Olivier Rochus, who at 5ft 6in, a tennis midget. No one shorter is ranked above him and it is absolute testament to his ability with the racket, rather than his physique, that has kept him competitive.

I imagine that Rochus is not a particular fan of the song “Short People” by Randy Newman, the prolific American singer-songwriter, who sings of “little hands and little eyes” and of people who “wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet”. Newman’s song was very much tongue in cheek, of course, but Rochus has spent his whole life trying to prove he can compete with the big boys and he has done a pretty amazing job of it, reaching No 24 in the world in 2005.

His ambition as a child, according to the ATP Tour website, was “to be tall”. Well, that didn’t happen, but he has made up for his lack of height with a stunning technique that really puts a lot of players to shame. To beat the big guns, when you’re short, you need to be better at everything else than serve, and if you ever get the chance, take a few minutes to watch the Belgian practice and you will see a player whose technique is near-flawless and who uses his strengths to nullify the more natural strengths of others.

Of course there are benefits to being short(ish) on the tennis tour. If you are 6ft 9in like John Isner, or 6ft 10in like Ivo Karlovic, getting your long levers to move quickly and in rhythm is a hugely tough task. For someone like Rochus, with a lower sense of gravity, moving comes easier and he is able to cover the court efficiently and quickly. In the modern game, with modern racquets, balls and strings, those benefits are outweighed by the disadvantages, it is surely fair to say, so for someone like Rochus to stay close to the top 50 is an impressive achievement.

As former world No 1 Marat Safin, who lost three times in nine meetings with Rochus, said: “He’s small but he doesn’t look like he’s running almost. He has great anticipation, great touch, great hands. He’s a very talented guy. Me? I’m big. I have power but I don’t have touch. I think he’s a great, great player.”

The chances of winning a grand slam title, however, appear to be diminishing with each passing year. You have to go back to 2004 and Gaston Gaudio’s French Open victory to find the last grand slam singles winner who was shorter than 6ft. Gaudio was 5ft 9in and his opponent in that final, Guillermo Coria, was the same height. It is hard to imagine a similar final happening now.

That said, Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt were both 5ft 11in, Janko Tipsarevic and David Nalbandian are the same height and Nikolay Davydenko is 5ft 10in.