Five of the 16 men in the fourth round of singles at the United States Open are at least 6-5, and seven of the 16 women are at least 5-10…
The serve is the aspect in which undersized players most feel the height gap — they do not get to hit down on the ball and thus cannot generate the same power as taller players.
In earlier decades height was not nearly as important for tennis success. Yet:
Returning serve is one area in which shorter players tend to be better than the largest of their counterparts…
Flipkens said shorter players had to learn to analyze the game better, reading their opponent’s tosses to make the most of their return opportunities.
Austin said, “Anticipation is not an overt skill, but it is crucial to develop.”
Once the ball is in play, smaller players frequently rely on superior speed. “Everybody is taller than me,” the 5-1 Kurumi Nara said, “so I try to move well and more quickly than the other person.”
While bigger players are getting more agile, most still are not light on their feet. Low balls at the feet make them uncomfortable.
Glushko said taller players “don’t like the ball hit into the body,” and that applies to serves too.
Smaller players like Siegemund said the best tactic was to stand further back, allowing them to run down more balls — and to let the balls come down to a more manageable height. But to play defense and extend rallies, Seigemund said, smaller players must stay in top shape.
“All the players are fit, but we have to be fitter,” she said.
Some say the opposite approach may be more helpful. “The whole point of tennis is to rob your opponent of time,” Austin said. “You can do that with raw power or by hitting the ball early. Shorter players need to take the ball extra early.”
That is from Stuart Miller at the NYT. In addition to having some interest in tennis, I wonder to what extent this is a property of achievement in general. As the logic of meritocracy advances, and the pool of talent is searched more efficiently, perhaps individuals with a clear natural advantage — whether size, smarts, or something else — become a larger percentage of top achievers. Yet those wonderful “natural athletes” will have their weaknesses, just as Shaquille O’Neal had hands too large for the effective shooting of free throws. So a second but smaller tier opens up for individuals who have the smarts, versatility, and “training mentality” to fill in the gaps left open by the weaknesses of the most gifted. Who are the “taller” and “shorter” players in the economics profession? Politics? The world of tech? Are there any “short players” left in the top ranks of the world of chess? I don’t think so.
And maybe, for these reasons, late growth spurts are a source of competitive advantage?