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Flying high: Land of the giants


 

Originally published on: 28/09/11 11:37

STEP IN TO THE SHOES of Olivier Rochus, the ultimate pint-sized tennis player whose endearing early ambition in life was simply to be tall. View that dream as unimaginative and it’s fairly evident that you are one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough not to have to consider any top shelf to be a habitual challenge. Despite his obvious limitations in reach and power, Rochus, formerly the world No.24, has reached heights far beyond his 5ft 6in stature and, as if to state a point, he even holds a winning record over the tallest man ever to play on the ATP World Tour.

“It’s different if you are a little guy,” says 32-year-old Croat Ivo Karlovic by way of an excuse for two defeats in three meetings with the Belgian. A gargantuan figure at 6ft 10in, Karlovic still imposes even when crammed into a seat behind a substantially large desk. “Small guys can move quicker, it’s a physiological thing,” he adds. “It’s not easy for a tall guy to move, obviously because of the height, but also because of the weight. If I have to move 110 kilos and somebody little has to move 80 kilos, right there it’s easier for him.”

Of course, significantly tall players like Karlovic, John Isner and Juan Martin Del Potro will never have the explosive court coverage of their much smaller counterparts. Movement is a huge and obvious challenge in a modern day game dominated by supreme athletes and, put simply, because of their sheer size, it takes longer for a taller player to send messages from brain to feet.

At 6ft 1in, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal take up the middle ground between the extremes of Rochus and Karlovic, which begs the question, is that the optimum size for greatness in the game?

“At 6ft 1in or 6ft 2in you’ve got a perfect mix of pace, reach and power,” says Jez Green, strength and conditioning coach to Britain’s Andy Murray. “Look at Sampras, Edberg, Federer and Nadal – they’re uncannily pretty much exactly the same height. There’s a few former No.1s that have been taller, but they tend to be fleeting No.1s and not those that win multiple Grand Slams.

“Guys like Marat Safin and Goran Ivanisevic, at 6ft 4in, have won one or two, but it’s very difficult for a taller player to keep up that kind of agility over five sets and just keep on going.”

That said, Del Potro proved it can be done after defeating Federer for the 2009 US Open title, while Isner came close to the impossible earlier this June when he took Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros. Their efforts can be put down to the stern emphasis on footwork and movement in the modern game, which Green, through his work with the super-fit Murray, understands as much as anyone.

“Tennis is changing,” he says. “It’s different to 5-10 years ago. Training techniques are getting better. These tall guys are getting better trained from a younger age so that by the time they get to their late teens and early 20s a 6ft 6in guy can probably move like he’s 6ft 2in.

“John Isner and Kevin Anderson [at 6ft 9in and 6ft 8in] are decent movers – equivalent to someone of about 6ft 4in – and they have a massive advantage on serve which makes them very dangerous.”

Johannesburg-born Anderson cracked the top 50 this February after winning his maiden ATP World Tour title in his home city, but the 25-year-old has taken slightly longer than anticipated to come good. That, he admits, can be put down to his tactical play, and while he always had a thumping serve, it took him a while to realise how best to utilise his frame. 

“I spent a lot of time on the baseline, where I feel pretty comfortable,” he says. “I was nicknamed ‘the world’s tallest grinder’ growing up, but I think one of my primary goals in the last few years has been to come to the net more. Now I look to be aggressive and look to take my chances.”

That certainly doesn’t mean Anderson spends next to no time on the baseline in the style of serve and volley exponents of previous decades. He is a talented point crafter who has worked exceptionally hard to improve his physical attributes in order to stick with the game’s more proficient movers at the back of the court.

“We work really hard on my leg strength, movement drills and exercises, and for my height I move pretty well,” he says. “You still have to play defence. There are going to be times where you have to scramble, and in spite of my height, that’s still what I do.”

Anderson spent some time working with Green on his movement several years ago, and it’s interesting to note that both believe the South African has reached the level that he has in the game in spite of his 6ft 8in frame, rather than because of it.

“I’ve worked very hard. I take pride in how much time and effort I spend working,” he says. “My game has always been moulded around my height, but I think if I was a different height, my strength and the way I play the game would be a little different too. But I love tennis and I like to think that regardless of my physical attributes I would still be able to get to where I am now.”

While Green agrees, he suggests that Anderson’s frame could in fact prevent him from climbing the ATP ladder as high as his talent merits.
“It’s not a limitation in terms of where he’s going to go personally,” says the movement guru.

“He’s dedicated and he does a lot of things to help him and his height,

but I think it will be a limiter to him as a tennis player globally. He may not get as high as someone with similar talent to him because he can get compromised on his movement against the top guys, but he’s very bloody minded, he’s realised his height is a good thing and I think he’ll maximise.”

Like Anderson, fellow South African Wes Moodie knows a thing or two about playing with an aerial advantage. The 32-year-old Durban native, who reached a high of No.57 during his singles career, measures up at 6ft 5in while his regular doubles partner, Dick Norman, is a rangy 6ft 8in. But even if movement is less of an issue in the team game, dominating the skyline on the doubles court is by no means a guarantee for success, he says.

“Being tall is one thing, but backing it up with weapons is another. When we’re firing on all cylinders, we’re a very dangerous team,” declared Moodie. “When I played singles I wasn’t the best mover out there. Obviously it’s a lot easier to move in doubles, covering only half the court, but the way doubles is going it’s less about feel and more about power. Generally the bigger guys have the bigger weapons.”

It’s the size of those weapons that remains the greatest asset of the particularly tall. Blessed with a colossal forehand, Argentina’s very own tower of Tandil, Del Potro, has set the benchmark for other rangy players to become major champions, even if he is something of an anomaly at the top of the men’s game.

“He moves well for a big guy, but he’s not got the explosiveness because he hasn’t got the leg power or the coordination – it takes him too long to get low – but he gets to most balls because he has such long reach and big strides,” analyses Green.

“The biggest thing with him is that he has such amazing timing. That forehand cross-court he hits is probably the hardest shot in tennis. It’s god-given.”

It’s that combination of immense talent and Del Potro’s ability to maximise his assets that has inspired the likes of Anderson and other long-legged players to believe they can better the quick-fire movers on the biggest stage. It seems the outcome of the 2009 Flushing Meadows final may yet have many more ramifications than simply restricting Federer’s eventual Grand Slam haul.

“When Del Potro played Federer in New York two years ago, he was winning extended rallies,” remembers Anderson. “He looks to be aggressive most of the time, but when he has to play defence he does that and then quickly looks to become attacking again. That’s exactly the kind of game I’m looking to play.”

Inspiring others of a similar physical stature, Juan Martin, the gentle giant with a fearsome bludgeon, has made the impossible possible.

‘Land of the giants’ featured in the September 2011 edition of tennishead magazine. For more details on how to subscribe, click here.

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