December 1, 2000


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The height of absurdity

Rohit Brijnath

Important message for parents who have tennis-playing-Grand Slam-dreaming daughters shorter than 5ft 7in and sons less than 5ft 11in.

Cancel the court bookings, sell the rackets, fire the coach, present the balls to your local streetside cricketer. Read: forget it. Your kid has as much chance of winning Wimbledon as Spain's basketball team has of being invited back to the Paralympics.

Yes, yes, I know your daughter's got better hands than Picasso and is a better mover than Garry Kasparov; and your son's as ferocious as a Calcutta commuter and as quick as an Italian pickpocket. But if you back him up against the wall, take out the tape and he doesn't measure up, what can I say.

Only that it's the height of absurdity.

Sport has never looked down at people who couldn't look over fences. My memory could be fuzzy, but Sachin Tendulkar, Sunny, the Don, Maradona, Kevin Keegan, Jahangir Khan, Rudy Hartono, Mike Tyson, Maurice Greene, Haile Gebreselassie could easily pass beneath a high jump bar set at 6ft and they never did too badly. Neither did tennis players Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, all men with no fear of low ceilings.

No longer. Now 'How tall is he/she?' are the four most important words in tennis; next on the list is 'How much do you lift?'. Meaning, that if you're vertically challenged at least ensure you're horizontally muscled. John McEnroe once looked like the kind of guy who'd collapse carrying his mother's groceries; these days Serena Williams could probably bench-press him and the groceries together.

Thing is, I'm mesmerised by the stretching trapezius muscles in Serena's back; I am in awe of Venus's first serve that arrives from a second storey building; I am besotted by the muscle Linday Davenport can casually introduce into a rally. They're the heart of tennis.

But I'm also wondering why the single best tennis player of the female species can't win a Grand Slam title these days.

We're talking about Martina Hingis, of course.

Martina HingisHingis is Chris Evert without the verbal grace or the refrigerator demeanour. She is as calculating as a Gestapo officer; has passing shots of such accuracy, they could belong only to some hi-tech weapons system; changes pace flawlessly; fights like a hyena; has an anticipation that allows for a second career as a psychic; and is technically superb. Gift for gift, she is to Venus, Serena and Davenport what McEnroe was to Lendl. She composes tennis; they belt a yellow bouncing ball.

Except in the past three years -- 1998-99-00 -- Hingis has won just 2 of 12 Grand Slam titles. In 1997 itself she won three.

This year she finished the year as No.1, far too accomplished for the second rung of players. But did she win a Grand Slam title. NO.

In her last five Grand Slam tournaments, from the US Open 1999, she has lost, in succession, to Serena, Davenport, Mary Pierce, Venus, then Venus again.

What gives?

What gives, is height, is muscle.

In an earlier generation of Monica Seles 5' 9 1/2', Steffi Graf 5' 9", Gabriela Sabatini 5' 8" and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 5' 6 1/2", Hingi, at 5' 7" would have still been short, but fitted in.

Today, standing amidst Davenport 6' 2", Venus 6' 1 1/2" and Serena 5' 10", she's like a midget at a stilt-walker’s convention.

With Venus 169 pounds, Serena 145 and Davenport 175, Hingis at 130 pounds also lacks the requisite wallop.

The result is scary.

When Venus first came on tour, Hingis beat her four times out of five. In their last five meetings, Venus has won four times out of five.

With Serena it's the same. Hingis won 3 of their 4 first meetings; now Serena's won four of their last 5 meetings.

With Davenport it's scarier. Hingis has lost 6 of their last 8 meetings.

It got to the insane point where Richard Williams revealed he had a surgeon friend, who could cut off Hingis's legs and attach longer ones. It's a suggestion as bizarre as the problem.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov suggested the other day that Venus's technique was woeful, that she won on her ability to generate power. It is a trifle unfair, for to win requires not just muscle but tactical savvy, precision, ferocity. Venus has much of it, Hingis has more of it, but when they face off, most often it's the American's height, and the accompanying virtues of big serves, longer levers, superior reach, extra power, that gives her the edge.

Venus WilliamsAs Martina Navratilova once said to ESPN: "Hingis is always looking up, whether she's playing against Lindsay Davenport, Serena Willimas or Venus Williams. It's intimidating. It's tough because you know no matter how good you are -- if they are the same level that you are -- they've got that extra six inches of reach or more. You're always at a disadvantage, so you have to be that much better to compete."

Some people might think it's fun to watch; others think it's also making a joke out of tennis.

And no one under 5' 11" is laughing on the men's tour.

Take two statistics: first a height comparison between 1980 and 2000:

1980 Top 10
Bjorn Borg 5' 11"; John McEnroe 5' 11"; Gene Mayer 6'; Jimmy Connors 5' 10"; Guillermo Vilas 5' 9"; Ivan Lendl 6' 2"; Harold Solomon 5' 6"; Jose Luis Clerc 6' 1"; Vitas Gerulaitis 6' 0"; Eliot Tetlscher 5' 10".

2000 Top 10
Marat Safin 6' 4"; Gustavo Kuerten 6' 3"; Pete Sampras 6' 1"; Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6' 3"; Lleyton Hewitt 5' 11"; Andre Agassi 5' 11"; Magnus Norman 6' 2"; Alex Corretja 5' 11"; Thomas Enquist 6' 3" ; Tim Henman 6' 1".

Secondly, remember this: no man under 6ft, barring Andre Agassi, has won Wimbledon, the US Open or the Australian Open in the past decade and more. Only in the French, where the serve, and thus power, has the least effect have shorter men like Thomas Muster and Michael Chang succeeded.

There's something too basic, too absurd, too lopsided, about a game where a player like Hewitt (his ATP Tour Guide height of 5' 11" was clearly measured when he was wearing 2 inch heels), who has the demeanour of bare-knuckle pugilist, can be mercilessly bullied, as he was this week, by a taller Safin.

It makes you wonder, is tennis a test of inches or racket skills; is it decided by who hits hardest, or who is cleverest?

I grew up reading men like Rex Bellamy, Frank Deford, Lance Tingay, who wrote about altertness, angles, subtle changes of pace, discretion, shrewdness, patience, how players probed each other for weaknesses, or maintained as Bellamy wrote, "a delicate balance between sparring and a commitment to attack".

I fell in love with one game, I am watching quite another.

Tennis has to slow itself down, refind its character, its particular rhythms -- what was ballet has now become rap and not for the better.

After all, if that little genius Ken Rosewall was born today would we have to tell him to find another profession?

Rohit Brijnath

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