For 2½ hours in New York earlier this year, tennis was given a glimpse – a terrifying one, depending on your viewpoint – into the future.
In a contest that featured no breaks of serve, three tiebreaks and 81 aces – a record for a best-of-three-sets match – 6ft 11in Reilly Opelka triumphed 6-7, 7-6, 7-6 over 6ft 10in fellow American John Isner at the New York Open.
It was fast, ferocious and with barely a rally in sight – welcome to men’s tennis in 2019: the land of the giants.
Opelka, who thinks he may have grown to 7ft since he was last measured, is the joint-tallest player in the history of the sport and at the vanguard of the change. Still only 21, he is ranked No 58, and reflects a new normal in tennis where size most definitely matters.
Where once players of Opelka’s size were viewed as too tall and consequently too immobile, now those negatives are outweighed by the huge advantage this sort of height confers on the player’s serve and forehand – increasingly the most important shots in tennis.
As Opelka, whose uncle Mike is a famous conservative radio host in the US, explained to The Sunday Telegraph: “With my leverage and long levers I have more natural power, especially with the serve and the forehand.”
Opelka’s long levers have already propelled him to a first ATP title at February’s New York Open – backing up the talent he showed as a junior in winning the Wimbledon Boys’ event – and even on the slower clay courts at Roland Garros he is an awkward opponent no one will want to face.
In Madrid this month, Opelka led Dominic Thiem, the third-favourite for the French Open, by a set before having to retire with injury. Opelka has been pushing 7ft since he was 16 and has learnt how best to harness his physiological gifts.
Like Isner and fellow 6ft 11in giant Ivo Karlovic, Opelka’s main asset is his serve. The returner is often having to cope with a ball that’s bouncing at around shoulder height. The additional power that Opelka gets from his muscular frame and long legs helps explain why he has won more than 90 per cent of his service games this year.
The drawback of Opelka’s height is that he can struggle to get to balls played low at his feet. For this reason, he believes that the optimum height for a tennis player is closer to 6ft 6in.
“Six feet 11in or 7ft is a bit extreme,” says Opelka, who was born in Michigan but is now based in the tennis hotbed of Florida. “But I think you are going to see more tall players. You look around already and there’s Felix [Auger Aliassime, who is 6ft 4in], [Daniil] Medvedev [6ft 6in], [Alexander] Zverev [6ft 6in]. You look at the guys coming up and 6ft 3in to 6ft 6in is going to be the ideal. That’s the new normal.”
The success of the tall up-and-coming players – 6ft 4in Stefanos Tsitsipas and 6ft 6in Karen Khachanov are other examples – gives credence to the idea that tennis is increasingly becoming a tall man’s game.
The change in the half-century of professional men’s tennis has been marked. When rankings began in 1973, the average height of the world’s top 20 was a mere 5ft 9in, while the dominant players of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, were all under 6ft. By 1989, the average figure for the world’s top 20 had increased to 6ft, and now stands at 6ft 3in – with only three top-20 players shorter than 6ft.
At the extreme end, 15 of the 21 6ft 8in and taller players to have ever competed on the ATP Tour are currently active. One of those, Kevin Anderson, has reached two grand-slam finals, and in doing so come close to becoming the tallest man to win a major (a record jointly held by 6ft 6in Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro). Not since 2004 has a man shorter than 6ft – 5ft 9in Gaston Gaudio – won a grand slam event.
The switch has been so rapid in the past decade that the “Big Five” who are all between 6ft and 6ft 3in already look Lilliputian. The change can be explained by tennis’s increasing emphasis on power, which comes more easily to those like Opelka who tower over their opponents. Shortly before we spoke, he had bullied Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman – a baseliner giving up 16 inches in height. As ever, pictures of the handshake at the end of the match went viral on social media.
The fear for spectators who enjoy long rallies and court craft is that tennis will be overtaken by big-serving giants. David Ferrer, who is 5ft 9in and retired this month after a career that saw him grind his way to No 3 in the world, said in 2015: “I think players like me, around my height, are going to be extinct.”
Opelka, who curiously grew up idolising Ferrer, is less pessimistic about the chances of his shorter brethren. “There are advantages and disadvantages whatever height you are,” he says. “A guy like Schwartzman can run down a lot more balls than me, and can obviously get a lot lower than me.”
But even if players of Ferrer’s type can still achieve some success, it appears only a matter of time before the giants start dominating men’s tennis. The only question would seem to be when the change will happen, with this month’s French Open potentially offering a few clues. Will the main challenge to Rafael Nadal come from the relatively diminutive 6ft 1in Thiem, or will the long levers of a Zverev or Tsitsipas knock him off his stride?
At Wimbledon, the revolution has already well and truly begun, with last year’s epic between Isner and Anderson pitting two players against each other with an average height of 6ft 9in – a record for a grand-slam semi-final.
With Opelka at the forefront, expect many more tall tales in the years to come.