The Long and the Short of It
When Usain Bolt runs the 100 metres he needs 41 strides to complete the distance. At 6ft 5in (1.96m), Bolt has long legs. The advantage becomes clear when you compare Bolt with his Jamaican training partner and fellow Olympian Yohan Blake. Standing just 5 ft 11in (1.80m), Blake needs 46 strides.
“So imagine how much more energy that requires,” says Leander Paes, the legendary Indian doubles champion who once beat the 6ft 4in (1.94m) Goran Ivanisevic in a Davis Cup match despite being six inches shorter. “Extra power is needed from the hips as well as the body’s core to produce those extra five strides.”
No need to tell Diego Schwartzman, the little Argentine who has thrust himself into the spotlight by beating a string of far taller players, including the 6ft 6in (1.98m) former champion Marin Cilic, to reach the quarter finals of the US Open. Schwartzman is just 5 ft 7in or one metre 70. Just think of how many more strides he needs to chase wide returns than a man like Cilic.
Schwartzman has spent his increasingly effective career giving hope to all those kids who realise they are not going to turn into giants. Anybody who tells them to forget pro tennis as a career because they are not tall will need to explain Schwartzman’s success or, indeed, that of Olivier Rochus who was an inch shorter but still managed to reach No 24 in the world and win numerous Davis Cup matches for Belgium, as did his brother Christophe who was just one inch taller.
Although he won two ATP titles, perhaps Olivier’s best achievement was reaching the final of the grass court event at Newport, Rhode Island in 2011 and only losing 6-3, 7-6 to John Isner who towered over him at 6 ft 10in (2.08m).
While it is true that athletes are getting taller and bigger with every generation, several sports allow diminutive performers to excel. One need only mention Lionel Messi, who is 5ft 7in (1.70m), as an example. Football (soccer), especially, is a sport that enables small players to enjoy the benefits of a low centre of gravity which is why few teams have a majority of outfield players over 6ft (1.83m)
There have been shining examples of little men making a big impact in cricket, too. Two of the greatest batsman of all time, the Indian pair of Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar were both 5ft 5in (1.52m) yet both scored thousands of runs off giant fast bowlers. “Their lack of height was actually an advantage for them,” says their compatriot Paes. “They were able to get right under the bouncers and hook them!”
But it is no good just being small. You need to be very fast and have exceptional hand/eye co-ordination. The fact that Schwartzman is currently leading the return of serve stats on the ATP tour this year is indicative of that. This somewhat surprising statistic had caught the eye of the 6ft 8in (2.02m) South African Kevin Anderson who has also reached the quarter-finals at Flushing Meadows and is in Schwartzman’s half of the draw.
“Right now Diego is the best returner on the tour,” said Anderson. “I feel he definitely has an advantage in that respect, whereas, on the stretch against some of the guys, I have to go down because the ball comes to me lower, he’s sort of able to hit up a little bit – it’s in his strike zone.”
Anderson, like Paes, points to the serve as the tall player’s big advantage but the South African also talks about movement. “A while back, if you were tall, you had to come to the net and volley because really tall guys didn’t have great mobility. Now you see some of the bigger players covering the court really well.”
Quick movement is essential for small players, remembering how many more strides they have to make to get to the ball, and Anderson thinks much of Schwartzman’s success is due to this facet of his game. “From the back, Diego is an incredible mover,” he says. “His balance, his change of direction – that’s maybe easier when you’re not as tall. Given his size and stuff, he is really able to play great tennis.”
So tall trees are not the only ones in the tennis forest. There are more of them now, of course, certainly more than there were in the days of Ken Rosewall, one of the finest players of all time whose one handed backhand was the most admired stroke in the game during that generation of great Australians like Lew Hoad, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. And Rosewall, like Schwartzman, was just 5 ft 7in (1.70m).