Big Men, Big Results: Examining the Effects of Height on Modern Tennis (Part 1)

Part 1: 2018 – A Record Year For the Very Tall

2018 was a year of intriguing storylines in the world of men’s tennis. We saw Roger Federer re-ascend to the top of the ATP World Tour Rankings, his first top spot since 2012. We watched the breakout campaigns of the tour’s youngest in Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Daniil Medvedev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas take shape. We looked on as a dominant Dimitrov had a rather lackluster year, falling sixteen ranking spots from his 2017 high of World Number 3. We witnessed a resurgent Nishikori break into the top 10, and an even more resurgent Djokovic claim the year-end world number 1 on the backs of a scintillating second-half of the season.

Amongst the remarkable and surprising storylines, a fascinating story was taking shape right before our eyes. It started with Marin Cilic making the finals of the Australian Open.

This opening act was followed up by Del Potro going on an eleven-match winning streak resulting in two titles – the latter being his inaugural  Masters 1000 title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

A week later, a red-hot Isner defied all expectations and took his first Masters 1000 title at the Miami Open.

Fast forward to the clay season, and Alexander Zverev followed up his Masters title in Rome last year with another one, this time in Madrid.

Switching over to the All-England Club, we bore witness to the tallest-ever semifinal at Wimbledon between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, both of whom were at the stage for the first time.

Moving indoors in November, and an unstoppable Karen Khachanov won his first Masters 1000 Title over an in-form Djokovic.

To end the year off, Alexander Zverev won the Nitto ATP finals, defeating both Federer and Djokovic en-route to his biggest title yet.

There is a common thread amongst these remarkable achievements, and it lies in the heights of the achievers. Last year was an astounding one for big men on tour. By big men, I mean those with a height of 6’4” and up. In the year-end rankings for 2018, half of the top 10 fell into this category: Zverev (6’6”), Del Potro (6’6”), Anderson (6’8”), Cilic (6’6”), and Isner (6’10”).

To further establish this takeover of the tall, knocking on the door of the Top 10 at number 11 was Karen Khachanov, the 6’6” fiend out of Moscow. This staggering amount of tall men at the top of the game is as remarkable as it is rare; in fact, this has never happened before. Below is a table of we have previously qualified as “big men” and their prevalence in the top 10 of the ATP World Tour rankings over the past 15 years.

big men
Year“Big Men” in ATP Top Ten
20185
20172
20164
20151
20143
20132
20122
20111
20102
20092
20081
20070
20062
20051
20041
20031

If we were to take a look further back into the rankings, we would find that the number rarely if ever exceeds zero (save a few times there were 2 and 3 during the 90s when courts were faster and tall serve-volley players thrived).

While this data is fascinating, it begs the question: so what? Athletes around the world are getting taller, so naturally, more tall players will infiltrate the rankings, right? 2018 seems to be the year this transition towards the very tall finally materializes in the world of men’s tennis. For better or for worse, that’s most likely not the case, for two reasons.

Reason One:

All of the five very tall members of the top 10, spare Zverev, have been around for a while. Even Zverev, the youngest of the group, was in the top 10 last year.

It was the first year-end top 10 finish for Anderson and Isner, two players who have been veterans on the tour for over 15 years.

Del Potro, after sustained injuries, has only been able to make sporadic appearances (2008-09, 2012-13, 2018) over the years.

Cilic has been the most consistent of the big men, claiming his year-end top 10 spot in four of the last five years. The ingredients for a tall top 10 breakthrough have always been there; luck or lack thereof would have it that this jump would present itself in 2018.

Reason Two:

Height in tennis has long been held in check due to the delicate balance of the sport. Despite what the mammoth match scores may have us believe (6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5), tennis is a sport that comes down to a few points. Just take a look at the total points won percentage (TPW%) of the top 50 in 2018.

tpw
RankPlayer Name TPW%
1Novak Djokovic [SRB]54.50%
2Rafael Nadal [ESP]55.50%
3Roger Federer [SUI]54.40%
4Alexander Zverev [GER]52.80%
5Juan Martin Del Potro [ARG]53.40%
6Kevin Anderson [RSA]51.80%
7Marin Cilic [CRO]53.00%
8Dominic Thiem [AUT]52.40%
9Kei Nishikori [JPN]51.50%
10John Isner [USA]51.10%
11Karen Khachanov [RUS]52.40%
12Borna Coric [CRO]52.40%
13Fabio Fognini [ITA]51.40%
14Kyle Edmund [GBR]51.50%
15Stefanos Tsitsipas [GRE]51.30%
16Daniil Medvedev [RUS]51.30%
17Diego Sebastian Schwartzman [ARG]51.10%
18Milos Raonic [CAN]52.80%
19Grigor Dimitrov [BUL]50.20%
20Marco Cecchinato [ITA]49.90%
21Nikoloz Basilashvili [RUS]49.30%
22David Goffin [BEL]52.00%
23Pablo Carreno Busta [ESP]50.40%
24Roberto Bautista Agut [ESP]51.70%
25Hyeon Chung [KOR]51.50%
26Richard Gasquet [FRA]51.20%
27Denis Shapovalov [CAN]50.30%
28Fernando Verdasco [ESP]51.00%
29Gael Monfils [FRA]50.60%
30Gilles Simon [FRA]51.50%
31Alex De Minaur [AUS]50.50%
32Lucas Pouille [FRA]49.80%
33Steve Johnson [USA]50.30%
34Philipp Kohlschreiber [GER]50.10%
35Nick Kyrgios [AUS]50.70%
36Marton Fucsovics [HUN]50.50%
37Andreas Seppi [ITA]50.00%
38John Millman [AUS]50.90%
39Francis Tiafoe [USA]49.70%
40Jeremy Chardy [FRA]50.10%
41Martin Klizan [SVK]51.80%
42Adrian Mannarino [FRA]49.10%
43Nicolas Jarry [CHI]50.20%
44Joao Sousa [POR]50.60%
45Malek Jaziri [TUN]49.00%
46Matthew Ebden [AUS]49.60%
47Damir Dzumhur [BIH]49.00%
48Dusan Lajovic [SRB]50.40%
49Taylor Harry Fritz [USA]50.10%
50Robin Haase [NED]49.30%

Data

The player who won the highest percentage of points was Rafael Nadal (2), at 55.5%. Second is Djokovic (1), with 54.5%, and third is Federer (3), at 54.4%. These three players have dominated the tour for the better part of the last ten years, and yet on average, they only win 11 points in every 20 they face.

As we proceed down the pecking order, we find that the margins grow increasingly thin for your average top-50 player. These slim margins, paired with the prevalence of shorter points in the modern tennis game (around 70% of all points are over within 4 strokes) have led to greater stress on the first two strokes: the serve and the return.

When it comes to the serve, taller players usually are at a greater advantage, for two reasons: firstly, with added height, the angle at which taller players can serve into the service box is sharper, giving them a greater margin for error (allowing them to exert greater force on the serve) along with giving them more options to kick and spin the serve out of the returner’s range.

Secondly, taller players generally have longer arms, leading to, in simple terms, a greater “whipping motion”, resulting in, again in simple terms, more power.

For these giants of the game, serving has long been a strength, the thing they spend hours practicing and honing, further adding to their natural gift. However, every hour they spent pounding 140 mph serves was an hour not spent working on movement and ground-strokes.

Enter the other part of the delicate balance of tennis: the return – otherwise known as the great equalizer. Service returns utilize both movement and ground-strokes, but are far more difficult and demanding than your average ground-stroke.

To give some context, when forehand speeds of players were measured at the 2014, 2015, and 2016 Australian Open, an event with some of the fastest tennis courts in the world, the highest average forehand speed belonged to American Jack Sock, at a blistering 86 miles per hour.

The average serve speed on the ATP Tour is 114 mph, 33% greater than the highest forehand speed. The service returner needs to handle this extra speed, judge where he needs to move to based on spin and direction, move to the ball explosively, and not only hit the ball in, but hit it deep, adding on to it spin and pace if he would like the chance to continue through the point.

The most common point length on the ATP Tour is one where only the serve goes in, and the returner either cannot return the serve (an ace) or he misses the return. When the returner does return the ball in, the odds aren’t in their favor either, as the second most common type of point on the ATP Tour is the serve-plus-one, wherein the server finishes off the point immediately after the returner’s [presumably weak] return.

For big guys, the horrors of returning are greatly increased. Traditionally, big guys do not have the best return games. Factors such as the aforementioned less emphasis during practice and the difficulties associated with movement at such heights contribute to what seems to be an over-reliance on their serves, quite the double-edged sword.

On an average day, tall, big servers are unstoppable in half of all their games. On a good day, forget about it. But, serves, as mentioned, are only half of the puzzle. They do their best on returns, but what often happens is a series of service holds until a tiebreaker. Take a look at this tiebreaker data set from the five big guys in the top 10 in 2018:

Player NameTiebreaks per Set % (TB/S)Total Tiebreaks Played 2018
Alexander Zverev11.3%23
Juan Martin Del Potro20.5%32
Kevin Anderson28.1%52
Marin Cilic23.7%42
John Isner43.7%73

Data

To give a frame of reference, with these five guys, the ATP top 50 average for TB/S is 18.3%. Without them, the average drops to 17.8%. With them, the top 50 average of total tiebreaks played is 27.6. Without them, the number drops to 25.8.

With these tall players, tennis more so becomes a game of centimeters in that each point is incredibly vital. For years, by the sheer power of proper shot selection, a few “clutch” shots, and quite a bit of luck from their shorter counterparts, tall players have been held back from reaching the top.

These barriers are nowhere from being broken for these guys in 2018. In fact, compared to 2017, Isner’s, Cilic’s, and Del Potro’s tiebreak win percentages all went down.

Something else is happening in their games well before these tiebreakers. The answer as to what that may be lies with the youngest member of this dynamic  group of five, the one who is often the outlier in most data sets involving tall guys, yet somehow is the most successful of them all. Enter, the key to a tall breakthrough: Alexander Zverev.

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