Little Big Men

Friday, July 25, 2014 /by
Dudi Sela, 5'9", has more than held his own against taller competition. (AP Photo)
Dudi Sela, 5'9", has more than held his own against taller competition. (AP Photo)

Every once in a while, you get a match or a pairing that demonstrates that the human factor in tennis can trump any trend, theory, or body of conventional wisdom. There’s a point at which you can throw everything we know—or think we know—about the game right out the window, and surrender to the fact that the sport is buffeted daily by inchoate, shaping influences that resist easy analysis.

Wednesday was just such a day at the Atlanta ATP 250, where Dudi Sela took a sharp axe to the trunk of 6’6” Sam Querrey and chopped him down. Today, in the quarterfinals, Sela faces another giant, Wimbledon doubles champ Vasek Pospisil. Pospisil isn’t as tall as Querrey; he’s merely 6’4”.

That’s still a considerable height advantage over Sela, who is 5’9” and won’t crack 150-pound mark unless he spends a week gorging on blooming onions from Outback. Given those shortcomings going in, you might have thought Dudi’s parents could at least have named him something a little more menacing, like Hannibal, or Moloch.

Sela, an Israeli, is 29 and presently ranked No. 94. In the first round at Atlanta, he waxed Donald Young, 6-3, 6-0—an embarrassing blow for the American, who had crushed Sela by a comparably lopsided score at Roland Garros this year. Worse yet, Young lives in Atlanta; he was playing before some of his most ardent supporters.

How does a player turn it around so dramatically, from one match to the next? It’s a good question that likely never will be answered, and we probably don’t want answered anyway. This is one of the main reasons we follow and watch sports. Each day is just new enough to ensure that anything can happen, even if most of the time it won’t. No enterprise for the determined player is utterly hopeless. Every player is a web of mental, emotional, and physical properties that interacts differently with the web from which every opponent is made.

Thus, small men survive in tennis.

Our attempt to analyze the periodic David and Goliath match-ups in the game begs for us to reach into issues of character and employ words and phrases like “heart,” or “mental strength,” or “indomitable will,” all of which are frequently applied to the biggest little man of them all, 5’9” David Ferrer.

But apart from its religious meaning, the David (not Ferrer) and Goliath parable itself is a cautionary tale warning us not to read too much into differences in size and the implied disproportion in power. David did not slay Goliath because he had more “heart” or a stronger will. He killed the giant because he was a crafty little devil whose aim with a stone and sling was outstanding.

This leads us back to the realm of the physical in tennis, and how certain aspects of the game play into the hands of the smaller players like Ferrer or Olivier Rochus, who lists himself in the ATP media guide as 5’6”. Other sources have him at 5’5”, but by any standard he’s the shortest player to thrive on the ATP World Tour in recent years (he’s 33 years old now, out of the Top 500, but still plugging way in qualifiers and Challenger events).

As if his height disadvantage wasn’t enough, Rochus also played with a one-handed backhand—not exactly a disadvantage, but in an era of increasingly aggressive, power tennis, it’s certainly a more vulnerable stroke than the two-handed version. Like his female counterpart, Dominika Cibulkova, Rochus is extremely quick around the court, and his conspicuously low center of gravity appears to be more of an advantage than it possibly could have been. Smaller players also have less bulk to lug, stop, turn and move the other way on the court. In nearly everything, smaller usually means more mobile, and tennis ultimately is a game of mobility.

In his prime in 2005, Rochus hit No. 24 in the rankings. He had wins that year over Tomas Berdych (twice), Novak Djokovic (twice), James Blake, Nicolas Kiefer (twice), Gael Monfils, and Guillermo Coria. Before that, he was the junior doubles champ at Wimbledon with a Swiss kid named Roger Federer. Rochus won a Grand Slam doubles title at Roland Garros with fellow Belgian Xavier Malisse.

But when you talk about the surprising performance of some short players, the first name that pops into my mind may surprise you: Billie Jean King. She stood just 5’5” and probably represents the perfectly realized small player. She was quick, aggressive, and capable of generating good power. She volleyed precisely, at nose level to net, and artfully anticipated her opponents’ passing shots. She turned grass-court tennis into a kind of shell game.

Small players tend to be good at that. You can’t beat true aim with a slingshot.

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