Height and Weight: The Backhand Shot
By: Pedram Bazargani and Manav Chadha
No shot in tennis shows off a player’s basic skill better than their backhand. The difficult shot is subdivided into two main types: one-handed and two-handed. Plenty of the world’s top players, from Rafael Nadal to Novak Djokovic, make use of the two-handed shot, but the one-handed shot only gets effectively and consistently used by a mere 13% of the top players. The once-dominant one-handed shot—used from the 1950-90s by players like Pete Sampras, Stefan Edburg, and Rod Laver—has declined heavily in recent years as opposed to the two-handed’s steady usage. This discrepancy has a lot to do with skill, but the physical build of the players who use or don’t use the one-handed backhand comes into question. Thinking about the kinds of players who use both types of backhand shots, we conducted an analysis of those players’ heights and weights, comparing these characteristics against career service win percentage. This analysis considered the top 15 ATP-ranked men’s players to determine if height and weight play a role in win success for players who use the one-handed backhand. Before moving into our analysis, it is important to highlight one key factor. We have defined career win percentage as career service games won. Operationally defined, it refers to the percentage of games won where the player in question was serving. Due to this definition, we believe that height and weight will play a role in determining service games won throughout the career, but not necessarily Grand Slams won.
The first factor examined for the biological profile of players with a two-handed backhand shot is player heights. The 2-Handed Player Heights bar graph above shows each of the top 15 one-handed players’ height in centimeters. The average height is 186.06 cm and the top four tallest players are John Isner at 208 cm followed by Karen Khachonov, Daniil Medvedev, and Alexander Zverev at 198 cm. There is little variation in the heights of these players except for outliers Diego Schwartzman at 170 cm and John Isner at 208 cm. This data reveals that of the top 15 two-handed backhand shot players, heights are at least 170 cm and the most successful players have a height of around 186 cm.
Contrary to the height factor, the weight factor demonstrates more variation. The 2-Handed Player Weights bar graph above shows each of the top 15 two-handed shot players’ weight in kilograms. The average weight is 80.60 kg and the top three heaviest players are John Isner, Matteo Berrettini, and Alexander Zverev. This data shows that of the top 15 two-handed backhand shot players, weight is at least 65 kg and tends to hover around 80 kg.
An interesting discovery in the data to note is that the two most decorated players in tennis history, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, fall within 5 kg of the average weight and within 2 cm of the average height. In terms of height and weight, Nadal and Djokovic are statistically average amongst the top 15 two-handed backhand shot players despite accounting for a combined 42 Grand Slam titles.
As for the two-handed backhand shot, the first factor examined for the one-handed backhand shot is player heights. The 1-Handed Player Heights bar graph above shows each of the top 15 one-handed players' heights in cm. The average height is 186.87 cm and the top three tallest players are Ivo Karlovic, Marius Copil, and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Similar to player weights, there was little variation among the heights of these players except for Ivo Karlovic who is a significant outlier at a height of 211 cm. Through this analysis, it can be concluded that the most successful one-handed backhand players have a height of around 187 cm and above at least 175 cm.
The Player Weights bar graph above shows each of the top 15 one-handed players' weight in kilograms. The average weight is 81.47 kg and the top three heaviest players are Ivo Karlovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Marius Copil. There is little variation among the weights of these players except for Ivo Karlovic who is an outlier. Overall, it can be concluded that the most successful one-handed backhand players tend to hover around 81 kg and be at least 70 kg.
Similar to the case of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer is statistically average with a height within 2 cm of average and a weight within 4 kg of average. Federer is one of the most statistically average players and has 20 Grand Slam titles. The only players of the top 15 one-handed shot players to win a Grand Slam title are Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka, who only account for 4 combined. The biologically average Federer has five times more titles than the rest of the top-15 one-handed shot players.
The Player Heights v. Career Win Percentage scatter plots above demonstrates the correlation between both of the top 15 tennis players' height and their career win percentage. The data visualization suggests that for the 2-Handed Backhand Career WP plot, height is positively correlated with career win percentage. The taller a player is, the higher win percentage they may have. This positive correlation holds true to a lesser degree with the 1-Handed Backhand Career WP plot. Although height and career win percentages are correlated, the distribution for one-handed backhand shot players is more heteroskedastic and nonlinear than two-handed backhand shot players. This goes to show that even though there is a positive correlation between a player's height and career win percentage, in that the taller a player is, the higher win percentage they may have, the correlation is weaker among players with a one-handed backhand shot.
The Player Weights v. Career Win Percentage scatter plots above demonstrates the correlation between both of the top 15 tennis players' weight and their career win percentage. Similar to the height comparison earlier, the data visualization suggests that for the 2-Handed Backhand Career WP plot, weight is positively correlated with career win percentage. The heavier a player is, the higher win percentage they may have. This observation holds true for the 1-Handed Backhand Career WP plot and also has a more heteroskedastic and nonlinear correlation than the Two-Handed Backhand Career WP plot suggests. This concludes that heavier players have a higher win percentage overall, but with less correlation for those with a one-handed backhand.
A surprising result from the analysis of the height and weight of one and two-handed backhand shot players is that the tallest and heaviest one-handed backhand shot player, Ivo Karlovic, and the tallest and heaviest two-handed backhand shot player, John Isner, both had the highest career win percentage. Despite not winning a single Grand Slam, Karlovic and Isner both have a higher career win percentage than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Karlovic and Isner could be considered as outliers or can also be considered as commonalities to demonstrate that a higher height and weight do indeed correlate with a higher win percentage.
This analysis of the backhand shot with respect to height, weight, and career win percentage among the top 15 ATP-ranked men’s players concluded with surprising results. Taller and heavier players like John Isner and Ivo Karlovic are the most successful players when it comes to career win percentages as career service games won, but their success does not equate to Grand Slams won. Although the taller and heavier players win the most matches, the most average players win the most Grand Slams. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are statistically average in terms of height, weight, and even win percentages, but despite this, they are the players who win when it matters the most. Another surprising result of this analysis is that there is a higher positive correlation between height and weight with respect to career win percentages for players with the two-handed backhand shot than those with the one-handed backhand shot. Although the reason for this may be unclear, it may be a contributing factor to why the one-handed backhand is in decline and the otherwise steady growth of the usage of the two-handed backhand. The future of the one-handed backhand is relatively unknown and it would be interesting to explore its direction in the years to come.