Height, size, and tennis

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?


"A good big man beats a good little man."

This adage isn't universally true in sports (soccer is an obvious exception), but it's pretty commonly true.

My impression is that wooden rackets didn't give as big an advantage to tall players back in the Laver-Rosewall-Connors era.

I'm tall myself, but it seems kind of dumb for a sport to reward sheer height. Rules makers ought to be on the look out for ways to reduce the height advantage in their sport.

For example, when I was young, the general progression in basketball was toward ever greater domination by the extremely tall:

George Mikan (6'-10"), then Bill Russell (6'11") then Wilt Chamberlain (7'1") then Kareem (7'2"). After Kareem, it was assumed that Ralph Sampson (7'4") was inevitably next.

But basketball made a few rule changes, like the 3 point shot, that reduced the height advantage slightly, which probably contributes to the game's current popularity. It's still a sideshow sport, but the average height in the NBA has been pretty stable for a few decades now.

That's exactly what I like about soccer (among other things). American sports seem to be freak shows, I don't see how a normal kid could delude himself into thinking he'd make the NBA. In soccer everybody at least seems to have a shot.

Soccer is full of players who were turfed out of top academies in their teens for being "too short" who eventually found their way in the game through a circuitous root. For example Andy Robertson, who Celtic cut loose went ended up at Queens Park (fourth level Scottish side who effectively invented the game) but his talent shone through and went via Dundee United and Hull to the Champions League final with Liverpool and was yesterday made captain of Scotland.
But for every Andy Robertson there are probably forty that have been lost to the game. So while height does not have the same advantage in soccer as it does in many other sports the talent-spotters still put a lot of emphasis on it. You'll never be a centre-back or goalkeeper if you're not six foot.

It’s probably fairer to say that attacking players can be tall or short, defenders and goalkeepers seem to be getting slowly but steadily taller.

What strikes me is how much taller midfielders are becoming. Manchester United fielded an enormous threesome at the weekend. When I played the game I was easily the tallest midfielder I'd ever seen. (Just as when I played rugby a spectator once accosted me to declare me the biggest bloody scrum-half he'd ever seen.)

eh, midfielders can still be tiny, though it's probably true that the strong/tall ones are getting stronger and taller. The move toward prioritizing passing from deep positions has made raw NFL-style athleticism less of a requirement - Kante, Xavi, Iniesta, Cazorla have all played deep central midfield positions with a great deal of success. (Mourinho's insistence on physical power - exemplified by Fellaini playing and nonwithstanding his good performance vs. Burnley - is a source of continued frustration for United fans.)

Wasn't Cazorla wonderful? Different mode, but Kante is very good too. Do you know the joke about the title-winning Leicester midfield? In the centre Drinkwater; on his right Kante; on his left, Kante.

Love it. And agreed on Cazorla, shame his injuries kept him from playing more for Arsenal.

Carzola just about singlehandedly won me Fantasy Premier League! Splendid player.

The soccer players are just as freaky in agility and quickness, it is just less obvious.

specifically balance is I think where most pro soccer players are absurd outliers. you take an athlete from another sport and put them in a soccer game and it's like they're bambi on ice.

So why are soccer players falling down all the time?


Wait, what are we optimizing for again?

The 'short men' in chess might be the ones that make sacrifices that are hard to refute over-the-board, the Azeri "Shak" comes to mind (that's his nickname), the world's #3 rated player at the moment.

Shak only got to #3 because he started to play much more solidly. I think the last one of the really crazy players at the top was Morozevich. Another "short" player type might be players like Ulf Anderson, who basically went into an endgame immediately and then ground it out.

But the best analogy is probably that almost all top players have the ability to memorise thousands of opening lines and try to kill their opponent with prepared computer lines. But some players instead try to be really versatile and get a fresh position and just play.

It is good that the extremely tall have something they are good. When you get over 6'7" there are many downsides. Cars are too small clothing cost more, even flying is very uncomfortable at that height.

What constitutes "short players" in chess ?

Possibly those who started late and didn't get systematic training early?

I always told Dirk Nowitzki to go into tennis. Sadly, he did not listen.

"...just as Shaquille O’Neal had hands too large for the effective shooting of free throws"

Apparently, in practice he would make 70-80% regularly. Rick Barry offered to teach Shaq his underhanded method but was rebuffed. Shaq didn't think it manly enough to shoot granny style.

It was mentality rather than large hands which handicapped Shaq.

Also, the existence of Boban Marjanovic, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and of course Yao Ming (all 75% FT shooters) makes me skeptical of any hand size-related explanation for those struggles.

+1 I think though that it might be more difficult of a stronger guy to be real good at shooting.

"As the logic of meritocracy advances" ....Hmm. Meritocracy is not consistent with increased nationalism. Only one or the other can prevail. (Unless we are talking about the meritocracy of a sub-set of nationalists, e.g, the best autocrat among a group of potential autocrats).

Unlike tennis, where slugging it out from the baseline has become the norm, badminton requires response speed and general artfulness to play well. Height is some advantage for reach and angling kill shots down but larger players are a little slower.

World champions can be any size. The world beating men's pair from Indonesia, Gideon (1.67 m, 5 ft 6 in) and and Sukamuljio (1.70, 5' 7") show size is not a requirement to reach the top. Also in the top 10 are the Russian pair Ivanov (1.97, 6' 6") and Sozonov (1.84, 6' 0"). Similarly, top female players include the Indian Sindu (1.77, 5' 10") and the positively diminutive - by Western sports norms, at least - Japanese Akane Yamaguchi (1.56, 5' 1").

It's one of the pleasing egalitarian feature of the game that all body sizes can compete to the top level. And, I guess, a reason why the game is popular in Asia.

Very cool post, this is what MR sometimes delivers.

The same is also true for squash, where being shorter than average is probably much better than being taller than average. Some of the best players in the world such as Greg Gaultier, Ramy Ashour, and Nick Mathew are all in the 5'7" - 5'10" range. The tallest pro player on tour (James Wilstrop) is nearly 6'4" and depends on playing inch-perfect accuracy to compensate for some of the deficiencies that come from his height.

Personally I would love to see tennis take a cue from squash and allow only 1 serve. That would turn it into more of a rallying game and remove the advantage the larger players have. I think it would also flow more quickly and be more fun to watch.

I agree, the emphasis on big serves makes tennis much less interesting, sort of like if baseball games were determined by having a home run hitting contest. (Some people claim that's exactly what's happened to baseball the past couple of years, but HRs are still a rare enough event that there are a lot of other things that go on in a baseball game.)

And/or raise the net an inch or two. This might require more artful shot placement.

Tennis is a game that has failed to adapt to changing participants. The original players were recreational players who had jobs or at least other things in their lives and didn't train multiple hours on most days.

I guess originally getting the ball over the net reliably was a feat at one time. So two serves allowed the game to proceed, rather than giving an extreme advantage to the server.

I’m a big fan of Tyler, but the final paragraph deserves a David Brooks award for dressing up an ancient paradigm as some profound new insight. David. Goliath.

Who are the “taller” and “shorter” players in the economics profession?

Isn't GMU Econ full of very good "short" economists? Of course, Robin Hanson is the best. So good that he plays by his own rules.

Tall players win by reaching tiebreaks, and then the tiebreak is a coin flip. The odds of reaching a tiebreak by holding serve alone are (hold%)^6. So Isner's odds are .92^6, or 60%, although he does break his opponents so his actual tiebreak percentage is lower. Because the tiebreak is a coin flip, Isner odds are significantly better against a superior opponent than they would be in a simple match where the first to reach 15 games, win by two, wins the match. With the tiebreaker Isner gets about two coin flips a match, which significantly increases his odds against superior opponents. Tennis may have to adjust the scoring rules to penalize players that are relying on the tiebreak to win matches.

In economics, I see the "tall players" as the ones who are just so brilliant that they go out and cogitate about whatever they think is interesting and come up with new theories or insights. The "short players" lack that brilliance so they pick a topic that they figure will be interesting or important or in demand, and then grind out the research, possibly with endless hours of scut work.

My thinking is that critical thinking, logic, research, etc. are increasingly commoditized, leading to a world where right brain oddballs who ask questions not anticipated by deep logic can gain an edge. Once the questions are asked the computers can do all the math.

It's worth noting that the very best players aren't *that* tall. The "big four" are all 6'2 or 6'3. They move well and they serve well. They have no real weaknessses (except perhaps Murray's second serve, but plenty players of his size have good second serves, so it's not a height issue). That said, Nadal and Djokovic are a bit physically freakish in their own ways..

My impression is that this has always been the case in tennis. The best players typically weren't super tall for their era. McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras, Borg, Connors, etc and so on.

This isn't the case in basket ball - where some of the very best players are physical freaks....

I agree with D. If you look at the all-time great men tennis players, they are all between 5-10 and 6-2: Federer is 6-2, Nadal 6-1, Djokovic 6-2, Sampras 6-2, Borg 5-11, Lendl 6-2, McEnroe 5-11, Connors 5-10. Rod Laver was the outlier, but on the low side: he was only 5-8.
Granted, many of the all-timers were from an earlier era, but the fact that Fed, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated the last 15 years is a sign that height has not taken over.....yet.

The above commenters nail it. Tyler's idea is cool to think about but as far as I know is not supported by evidence. There is not a single dominant big gentleman on the ATP tour. John Isner was continually looked at as an up and coming 'big 4' killer, did not happen. Karlović is the only other pretty tall dude, great player but not top-tier. Big people move slow and tire out faster?

That's not true, Cilic, Berdych and Del Potro (and Soderling to a lesser extent) were all seen as possible big 4 killers. Collectively I would say that generation represented the shift in Mens Tennis towards bigger and taller power baseliners. The fact that they didn't individually end up dominating doesn't mean they didn't shift the style of game which is most successful at the top 100 level.

This. It's fairly common knowledge in the tennis community that the 'ideal' height for men's is about 6'1 - 6'2 (diff for women's though), and this has not changed in quite some time (aka decades). The agility and high intensity intervals needed in tennis has meant that there's this sweet spot height wise at the very top of the game.

I do agree that among 'average' pros, taller has meant more success than not in recent years.

I work in engineering consulting and there are two opposed skills: engineering and sales/management. The most gifted for design become totally dumb if a $ symbol is used as prefix for figures. For business, versatility and "filling the gap" is more valuable than the skills of the tall.

If there's no "short" people in chess it means the game is unidimensional. Natural athletes stand out only in the carefully crafted environment of sports competition. Without the "rules" they're behind average people.

Rugby used to pride itself on being a game for all shapes and sizes - fat guys in the front row, tall guys at lock, the scrumhalf was typically small and quick, etc. Since the game went pro, that's not quite the case any longer. I miss the days when you could see a really fat prop who basically just walked from scrum to scrum (e.g. South Africa's Flip van der Merwe back in the 1980s).

"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"

In narrow physical domains, theoretically there are ideal body dimensions/composition/genes for performance. The larger the pool of competitors who approach these features, the more your "short" players will be crowded out, as one's possible comparative advantage in any and all other [obviously less-]relevant characteristics simply cannot outweigh the disadvantage of being outside the mold—consider that the record for the Kentucky Derby was set in 1973 by Secretariat, and that decades of breeding programs have yet to produce a faster one, though there have been many that came reasonably close. This article from the Journal of Experimental Biology has some further speculation of interest:

More broadly speaking, theoretically for any defined activity we can think of there is a most-ideal set of body dimensions/composition/genes/training/environment within the givens of what currently exists—one wonders how humankind will optimize for such in the far future...

Andre Agassi is five eleven. His strength was a combination of speed and anticipation. But size does matter, in golf as well as tennis. The number one golfer in the world is six four. In times past, height and large muscles were considered a disadvantage in golf. Not any more. This year's winner of the U.S. Open and PGA looks like a linebacker for the Giants. But there's always the exception: Rickie Fowler is five nine.

Who is the Andre Agassi or Rickie Fowler in economics? It's not the economist who develops complex algorithms (that guy being analogous to the super athlete), but the opportunist (I mean that in a complimentary way) who proposes something heterodox to explain why things are different today.

I analyzed this 2-3 years ago and, at that time, there was a distinct gender difference in that women's champions/finalists were taller, relative to other women, than were the men's champions/finalists in the grand slam tournaments. That may have changed a bit with the accession of Isner, Anderson and Zverev (all tall) on the men's side and the success of Sloan Stephens and Halep (not so tall) on the women's side. I do not have a theory to explain these gender differences, to the extent they still exist.

I think you're right about chess, and I think it's related to why I always found chess less interesting than other arenas of competition.

> Who are the “taller” and “shorter” players in the economics profession? Politics? The world of tech?

Larry and Sergey of Google are definitely the tallest. Just totally brilliant savants, who never really stress out because the money flows easy. Google may not get everything right, but it hardly ever gets anything big wrong, even when no one's really paying attention.

Bezos would be the shortest. Amazon fights like hell to make table scraps in profits. The whole organizations a bunch of rickety half baked tech, that's only held together by Bezos' ultra focused management style.

If Bezos is the shortest, all he needs to win is stand on his wallet.

I guess Milton Friedman was a short economist. Plus he was much better at expressing complex ideas to the general public than most.

I played youth and prep sports with some athletes who had pro careers.

One teammate went on to be a starting offensive tackle in the NFL for over a decade. He was always bigger than almost everyone else but was below average at most sports until his skills started to match his bulk. Hard work in the weight room and agility drills made him a monster by senior year in high school. Four years in college taught him technique.

One prep hockey player wasn't the best on the team. But he just kept getting better every year while others peaked at various levels. He left to play junior hockey. Had 9 seasons in the NHL where he scored 20 or more goals. He was big for a hockey player but I think the biggest difference was his internal drive combined with balance, strong core, and explosive strength.

I played against two players who had MLB careers. Again they were good at a young age but not that much better than the rest. But the trajectory of their development each year was well beyond the rest of us. My claim to fame was that I hit a home run over 400 feet to center off a Hall of Fame pitcher when we were 15. It shocked both of us.

My high school had four basketball players who played some in Europe after college. Two were drafted into the NBA but never made it. Two played in a Final Four. None was a late bloomer. They were always amongst the best at every sport. They just peaked at a level below the NBA. Minor flaws in their game at the college level were critical flaws at the NBA level.

This could the reason that the tall and tennis have found each other, be a reason for growth in inequality. That is those good at earning money and the money have found each other earlier, and maybe their is even a genetic component so now those good at making money tend to start with more. Less randomness in the economy.

"And maybe, for these reasons, late growth spurts are a source of competitive advantage?"

That used to be true of basketball players. E.g. Jack Sikma played guard in high school, had a late growth spurt, and became a center in college and an 8-time all-star at center in the NBA. But he had better outside shooting, passing, and dribbling skills than most centers of his era thanks to his years as a guard.

But for at least 30 years, there's been a strong trend for big men to have small ball skills, dribbling and passing and outside shooting. Old-timers in fact bemoan the loss of the classic low post NBA center (someone like Moses Malone or Artis Gilmore was probably the ultimate expression of this because other greats such as Wilt and Kareem always had such transcendent skills and athleticism that they were more than the stereotypical limited plodding center). Who even shoots hook shots nowadays?

John Williams (the fat one, not Hot Rod) was the first center who I saw regularly bring the ball out of backcourt. Maybe regularly is too strong a statement; he did it frequently when the Clippers played against the Knicks and Patrick Ewing, who liked to hang back and protect the basket. Sam Perkins was the first center who really made the 3-point shot a major part of his game.

But nowadays this has gone much farther. The 76ers will sometimes isolate Joel Embiid on his defender way out at the 3-point line and Embiid might shoot the 3, or dribble-drive into the lane, or pass to a teammate. That's not unusual behavior if we're talking about Steve Nash but used to be unheard of for centers.

So these days, basketball bigs are learning the same skills that the smalls do.

To me a "tall" player in baseball is someone like Aaron Judge who seems naturally strong, whereas a "short" player in baseball would be someone like Jose Altuve, who just fights like a pitbull. Although, I could also see the argument for the exact opposite. Perhaps someone should define which qualities are "tall" and "short" ones.

In the case of baseball, we have well-known stereotypes (and I suspect the actual data will support the stereotype): small players are more likely to be second basemen (Altuve, Marty Barrett), sometimes centerfielders (Brett Butler), sometimes shortstops (David Eckstein). Catchers might be short in stature but are likely to be heavy-set, which is not part of the short player stereotype.

Because the other part of the short player stereotype is not just about position, but about statistics: less power, more speed and stolen bases. Possibly more singles due to legging out bunts and beating grounders, possibly more walks due to having to have a good eye to be good enough to play in the majors and not being able to make swinging for the fences pay off (whereas if you're Dave Kingman, you can swing for the fences, miss the ball most of the time, and still have a major league career).

And a good glove, to make up for their lack of offensive skills. Of course, there are some short players who had excellent offensive skills (and crummy defense) but I expect that on average these stereotypes do hold in baseball.

Shaq’s free throw issue by almost all accounts was mental. He was a much better shooter in practice. His best season he shot 62% on FTs. His hands were the same when shot 42%.

Tennis is not a team sport, the players have to execute all the moves. That does not necessarily favor one physical characteristic. It is about getting to the ball and setting up the shot.

I found a trick, the three fingered grasp. Curl the little finger up under the rack butt, and grasp with the remaining three. The little finger adds a spring loading action, the three fingers allow another dimension for spin control. Power and accuracy should improve by about ten percent. I was able to sit at the base line and drop balls just a foot or two over the net, never could do that with a four fingered.

The three finger grasp is sometimes used by coached to teach the serve, help get the downward motion. I use it all the time. Then I do not ever use two hands on the racket, both hands available for running. I can change the grip to the proper stroke position with a snap of the wrist, like a ratchet. Thus my entire game is run everything down, two free arms swinging, chase the ball.

Interesting, but I have some quibbles with the NYT article.

All players need to anticipate the direction of a professional serve (first serve especially), or they will be helpless. It comes too damn fast and powerfully to recover if you lean the wrong way, whether you are tall or short. Whether anyone can actually hit down on a serve (meaning it is aimed downward) is questionable, analyses have found that one would have to be even taller to do so as a matter of geometry. However, taller is certainly better for the angle, whatever it is.

The biggest failing in the article was to ignore the huge change in rackets in recent decades, which reward the exercise of power by players far more than before. With the right stroke, it pays to swing as hard as you can to attack a ball with topspin; this didn't used to be true. The greater ability to add spin also permits players to serve harder consistently, since the spin is what brings the ball into the court. The result is that stronger, longer players (e.g. longer arms) gained an advantage that shifted things their direction in competition, versus the inherent disadvantages of clumsiness and size that probably didn't get any worse. The bigger the radius of my swing, the more acceleration I can apply to the racket head. Topspin slugging rallies might have even helped the big guys by making it harder to target their feet with slices.

This also helps explain why top tennis players seem to get injured more often now, they are doing more extreme things to their bodies by swinging hard all the time.

And maybe, for these reasons, late growth spurts are a source of competitive advantage

I don't know about growth spurts and sports, but I think being fat or otherwise not conventionally attractive, and then becoming conventionally attractive is an advantage for entertainers.

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