Evolution of the Tennis Height

Has the average height of top players in the ATP year-end ranking increased over the past decades? Is the game now solely dominated by bigger and stronger players than ever before? The 2016 tennis season has officially come to end with Argentina defeating Croatia in the Davis Cup final which followed on from the Murray brothers claiming the number 1 spots in singles and doubles respectively. Over the concluding weeks of the season I have continued to be intrigued by the average height of tennis players and more specifically the players in the ATP top 10.

The game of tennis has in many ways evolved over the years. Technology has played a huge role in this evolution; rackets, strings, clothing and training techniques are all responsible for the increased level with which tennis is now played. Has this change in technology also helped bigger players compete better as the generations have gone on? Let’s analyse and compare the heights of all players ranked inside the top 10 on the ATP tour year-end rankings over the past 5 decades:

  • 1976: Connors 5’10”, Borg 5’11, Nastase 6’0”, Orantes 5’10”, Ramirez 6’0”, Vilas 5’11”, Panatta 6’0”, Solomon 5’6”, Dibbs 5’7”, Gottfried 6’0”
  • 1986:   Lendl 6’2,  Becker 6’3” McEnroe 5’10”, Wilander 6’0”, Noah 6’4”,  Edberg 6’2”, Leconte 6’1”, Nystrom 6’2”, Connors 5’10”, Mecir 6’3”, Andres Gomez 6’4”
  • 1996: Sampras 6’1”, Chang 5’8”, Kafelnikov 6’2”, Ivanisevic 6”3”, Muster 5’10”, Becker 6’3”, Krajicek 6’5”, Agassi 5’11”, Enqvist 6’3”, Wayne Ferreira 6’1”
  • 2006: Federer 6’1”, Nadal 6’1”,  Davydenko 5’10”, Blake 6’1”, Ljubicic 6’4”, Roddick 6’2”, Robredo 5”11”, Nalbandian 5’11”, Mario Ancic 6’5”, Gonzalez 6’0”
  • 2016: Murray 6’3”, Djokovic 6’2”, Raonic 6’5”, Wawrinka 6’0”, Nishikori 5’10”, Cilic 6’6″, Monfils 6’4” Thiem 6’1”, Nadal 6’1, Berdych 6’5”

If you are a student of tennis history you will realise how each decade shows a distinct change in the game. In 1976, most players still played with wooded rackets, which made shots a lot slower, much less topspin on groundstrokes and spiny slice serves rather than power. There were 6 players under 6 feet tall at the end of 1976 in the top 10 and the other 4 were only just 6’0″.  By 1986, rackets had evolved to graphite with the size of the racket head also starting to get larger. A huge technical change on the serve also occurred in the 80’s. Players starting using their legs in a different way. That is, jumping and landing on their front leg rather than spinning around and landing on their back leg. This allowed players to drive up a lot more with their legs and create a lot more power. The change in technique coupled with the change in rackets opened the door to the ‘power tennis player’. Taller players started to come into the game and dominate the sport. By the end of 1986, there were only 2 players who finished the year in the top 10 rankings under 6 feet tall.

Over the next 10 years the power game really took hold and in particular the serve became the biggest weapon in the game. Every player in the 1996 list above who were over 6 foot had a huge serve most notably the number 1 Pete Sampras.  If you remember back to this time, tennis was becoming very quick game in terms of point length. Big serves followed by a volley were common sequences. Fans arguably began to grow tired off these quick rallies and the popularity of the game perhaps was going down. The tennis authorities acted upon this and started to slow the courts down and increase the size of the ball.  You will notice as we fast forward to 2006, the player height has not changed drastically, there are still 3 players under 6 foot in the top 10. If the courts had remained fast throughout this period, we could possibly have had a lot taller top 10.

This now brings us to the present ranking in 2016, where there is only Nishikori being under 6 foot. There are also 3 monster 6 footers in their; Raonic, Cilic and Berdych. So how are the taller players now able to compete in this environment where they couldn’t 10 years ago?  Taller players have always had a huge advantage on the serve, which allows them to win many free point and avoid long taxing rallies. But nowadays tall players can also move considerably well and are able to run side to side for much longer than before. They bigger players are now multi-skilled and they are not only known for their serve and volley. They can play very well from the back of the court and are probably much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net. Being able to play from the back of the court has allowed the 6 foot monsters to survive on the slow courts

In my opinion, tennis players under 6 foot still have a chance to be successful on the tour because speed is still a very important trait of a top player. Moving fast on the court is something that a good tennis player must possess.  But I think we will be seeing less and less of them inside the top 10 in the world because as we have discussed even a tall player can move well. The future of the game will be dominated by players that are taller, giving the shorter players less chance to maintain their position in the rankings. You can see how much the game has evolved over the last 40 years and how the height has increased each decade. The game only has one direction to grow with players hitting it bigger and bigger. The equipment will continue to evolved helping players increase power giving the bigger players an edge compared to the rest. The top 10 guys in the future I believe will evolve to a minimum height of 6’2 or 6’3” (unless of course the tour decides to make the tennis courts even slower again to halt the height increase). Tennis players are no longer considered tall when they are 6’0″, this height has become the new short!

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