In a recent article on Liverpool’s dominance of the English Premier League, John Burn-Murdoch created a visualization of the height and weight of EPL, NBA and NFL players. This got me interested in how current ATP players compare to the build of those other professional athletes and whether the build of top players has changed since the beginning of this century.
When Burn-Murdoch recently compared the height and weight of elite male athletes, it may come as no surprise that EPL players looked rather average next to top NBA and NFL players. Would we expect the same of the best male tennis players?
Thanks to some impressive scraping by Martin Ingram, I was able to get my hands on the publicly-listed heights and weights of several decades of top male tennis players. Below is my attempt to reconstruct Burn-Murdoch’s height and weight comparison (Hover over the points to see which player is represented).
To help compare this to the chart that inspired it, I’ve include Cristiano Ronaldo, who appears to be close, if somewhat taller and heavier, than the average build on the EPL. From this reference point alone it is clear that the build of tennis players and soccer players is very similar and the most comparable among these four sports.
We often see tennis players kicking tennis balls around a la Salah. And if we really think about it, that playful gesture is telling us something about the nature of elite tennis. Most of the best players have and continue to come from Europe. Many of them grow up playing soccer and some, like Federer, considered pursuing it as a profession. So, despite the differences in the look and feel of the two sports, the similarity in the build of the most successful players in these sports suggests that their biomechanical demands may be more similar than we thought.
It makes me think back to those videos of Djokovic training with Ronaldo during the off season. Perhaps that cross-training wasn’t just a matter of PR.
When we compare the 2000 and 2020 top 100 players, we also see more similarity than differences. Though the differences that are there are worth pointing out. First, we don’t see any of the serving giants like Isner and Karlovic among the best players in the 2000s. Another characteristic that seems unique for the current era is a number of players who are unusually lithe for their height, think of Andrey Rublev and Alexander Bublik.
Major shifts in playing styles can influence which body types have the most potential to reach the top of a sport. Given that agility tends to be inversely related to height, does the success of the very tall suggest that the baseline era was actually to their advantage? or was the competitive pool of past decades too small to result in as heavy-tailed a height distribution?
This simple chart already raises a number of intriguing questions. It makes it clear to me how adding trends to anthropometric charts of athletes could tell us a lot about the evolution of a sport. I hope to continue to see more examples like these from sports data scientists.