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Growth Spurt
L. JON WERTHEIM
February 01, 2010
As the Australian Open shows, the men and women on tour are taller than ever—but no less athletic
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February 01, 2010

Growth Spurt

As the Australian Open shows, the men and women on tour are taller than ever—but no less athletic

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When Croatia's Marin Cilic faced Argentina's Juan Martín del Potro in the fourth round of the Australian Open last week, they met at the net for the coin flip to determine who would serve first. A jump ball might have been just as fitting. With a combined height of 13 feet—Cilic and Del Potro both go 6'6"—they look more like basketball players than tennis players. Or do they? They were joined in the round of 16 by 6'9" John Isner of the U.S and 6'10" Ivo Karlovic of Croatia. "I was actually kind of tall when I first came on tour," says Andy Roddick, 6'2". "That's just not close to the case anymore."

For several years Big Babes, as broadcaster Mary Carillo nicknamed them, have been a force in the women's game. Venus Williams (6'1"), Maria Sharapova (6'2") and Dinara Safina (6 feet) are the prototypes, and many up-and-comers—say, Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer (6 feet)—are just as big. "If you're insecure about your height," says Martina Navratilova, "stay away from the women's locker room."

In the past, height has been a mixed blessing in tennis. Extra inches help generate power and leverage, especially on the serve, and a sprawling wingspan is handy at the net. But players with cranelike physiques have tended to lumber around the court, wilt in battles of attrition, lack touch and be vulnerable to low-bouncing balls. No more. While Karlovic might be the classic ace machine, armed with a serve and little else, most of today's giants resemble basketball's agile, versatile 6'8" point guards.

Perhaps none more than the No. 14--ranked Cilic, a 21-year-old who cudgels the ball but gets around the court just fine. On Sunday evening he knocked off the No. 5--ranked Del Potro in five sets, navigating the court with something approaching elegance. "It's all about the movement," says Bob Brett, a veteran coach now working with Cilic. "You can be a big guy and still take small, quick steps."

The Chicken Littles worry that this influx of size presages an era in which tennis resembles an amusement-park ride: Players must be yay-high to enter. But that fear is unfounded. Through four rounds in Melbourne, the most dominant male player was Russia's No. 6--ranked Nikolay Davydenko, hardly Brobdingnagian at 5'10" and 154 pounds. On the women's side both Sharapova and Safina were knocked off by Maria Kirilenko, a 5'8" Russian (shorty!) with a game predicated on angles and nuance. And in her first major tournament since unretiring, 5'6" Justine Henin of Belgium defeated a slate of bigger opponents with guts and superior shotmaking.

It speaks well of the sport that it can accommodate such a variety of physiques. Still, if you're a big tennis player, your prospects are looking up.

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