When Laura Siegemund, who once reached 26th in the women’s tennis rankings, had to drop down to the I.T.F. Pro Circuit as she came back from an injury, she noticed a significant difference in the players there that went beyond skills and polish.
“There were far more small players down there, and the higher you go on the tour, the players get taller,” said Siegemund, who is 5 feet 6 inches tall. “So taller players have an advantage.”
The former United States Open champion Tracy Austin, who at 5-5 was fairly average in her day, would be undersized today.
“Martina Navratilova was thought of as tall back then, and she was 5-8,” Austin said.
She added that she was now “awe-struck” by the size and strength of the players she sees in the locker room.
Even Julia Glushko, who stands 5-7, said, “On the tour, I feel so small.”
While the greatest players are hardly giants — Serena Williams is 5-9; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are 6-1 — the balance of power has shifted toward the tall, and smaller players must adapt, and not just by adding an inch or two to their player bios.
“You must have special assets, or we are not seeing you on the tour — you are playing on the I.T.F. Circuit or the men’s Challenger Tour,” Austin said.
Size does matter — for reach, pace and angles, at the net, on groundstrokes, and especially on the serve. Five of the 16 men in the fourth round of singles at the United States Open are at least 6-5, and seven of the 16 women are at least 5-10.
Lack of stature is not disqualifying, by any means. The defending champion Sloane Stephens is 5-7, and she was joined in the fourth round by the 5-5 Ashleigh Barty, the 5-4 Carla Suárez Navarro and the 5-3 Dominika Cibuklova. The top-ranked woman, Simona Halep, is just 5-6.
One of the biggest upsets on the men’s side came in the third round when Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is listed at 5-10, knocked out fourth-ranked Alexander Zverev, who is eight inches taller.
Kohlschreiber said he liked playing tall players. “I move the big guys around a lot,” he said. “It is one of my best strengths.”
He pointed to the variety of shots in his arsenal as a potent weapon against taller players. He used the backhand slice more than usual against Zverev to keep the ball low.
“I hit low balls and high balls and lots of angles,” Kohlschreiber said.
Shorter players tend to be faster and more agile with better footwork than their N.B.A.-size rivals, but Austin said they also had to have superior technique and shot accuracy. She added that successful shorter players needed “emotional stability” and the “warrior mentality” of a Michael Chang or David Ferrer, who played his final U.S. Open this year.
Some smaller players, like Cibulkova, pack a punch in their games. Ricardas Berankis, who is listed at 5-9, routinely blasts in 120-mile-per-hour serves, but he is never going to match the speeds cranked out by 6-10 John Isner or 6-8 Kevin Anderson.
The serve is the aspect in which undersized players most feel the height gap — they do not get to hit down on the ball and thus cannot generate the same power as taller players.
“I don’t get a lot of aces, so I have to have a plan on my serve,” said Tim Smyczek, who is listed at 5-9. “Variation is one of my strengths, and I try structuring points off the serve plus the first shot instead of just the serve.”
The 5-5 Kirsten Flipkens, who beat the 6-1 Coco Vandeweghe in the first round, said it was especially important for shorter players to work on their serves because against the tallest players, when breaks are hard to come by, holding serve is crucial.
Returning serve is one area in which shorter players tend to be better than the largest of their counterparts.
While the top 10 servers on the men’s tour are either very tall or named Federer or Nadal, six of the top eight players in return rating are 6-0 or below, including the 5-7 Diego Schwartzman, who is second over all.
In the WTA this year, Halep has the best record, winning 49.4 percent of her return games before her Open loss, while Stephens is second, the 5-7 Daria Kasatkina is third, and the 5-6 Monica Niculescu is fifth.
Flipkens said shorter players had to learn to analyze the game better, reading their opponent’s tosses to make the most of their return opportunities.
Austin said, “Anticipation is not an overt skill, but it is crucial to develop.”
Once the ball is in play, smaller players frequently rely on superior speed. “Everybody is taller than me,” the 5-1 Kurumi Nara said, “so I try to move well and more quickly than the other person.”
While bigger players are getting more agile, most still are not light on their feet. Low balls at the feet make them uncomfortable.
Glushko said taller players “don’t like the ball hit into the body,” and that applies to serves too.
Smaller players like Siegemund said the best tactic was to stand further back, allowing them to run down more balls — and to let the balls come down to a more manageable height. But to play defense and extend rallies, Seigemund said, smaller players must stay in top shape.
“All the players are fit, but we have to be fitter,” she said.
Some say the opposite approach may be more helpful. “The whole point of tennis is to rob your opponent of time,” Austin said. “You can do that with raw power or by hitting the ball early. Shorter players need to take the ball extra early.”
Berankis plays aggressively, which he said, combined with his speed, “can make opponents uncomfortable.” But he acknowledged that “it puts much more risk on my end, and so sometimes it’s important for me to find a middle ground.”
Smyczek said: “You can get in trouble staying back and running all day, but if you move in to take time away from them, but they are hitting big shots, then you are also taking time away from yourself. You need to be able to do either — to be aggressive based on the opportunities you get.”
Berankis said that with the sport becoming more physical and focused on power, he was concerned that “there is not too much thinking on the court.”
Glushko added 10 pounds of muscle to gain more firepower and said, “I feel so much better on the court.”
But Vania King, who is 5-4, said, “There’s only so much more bulk I could add without comprising myself in other ways.”
As players get taller with bigger serves, Austin said, she worries that long rallies will vanish. “You need versatility and conflicting styles to keep it interesting,” she said.
But many smaller players are not fretting.
“Shorter players will not become totally obsolete,” King said. “There is a way to combat size — we just have to be quicker and craftier.”