It’s a question as old as time: does the mental outweigh the physical?
In an individual sport like tennis, a player’s physical attributes can be a major reason why that player wins. There are some pretty obvious examples. Tall players like John Isner, Ivo Karlovic or Reilly Opelka have the height advantage (all stretching out over 2 metres) that gives them the ability to hit the biggest serves in the game.
Conversely, a short player like Diego Schwartzman (1.7 metres tall), who has a low centre of gravity, is one of the most consistent hitters and fittest guys on tour. Then there is a big guy like Matteo Berrettini. Nicknamed the hammer, Matteo has a huge serve and monster forehand due to his “rugby-like” build, according to former world number 1, Jim Courier. So how does a player’s physical prowess stack up against their mental fortitude? In this 3-part series, we discuss the physical and mental in isolation for parts 1 and 2, before comparing the two in part 3. In part 1, we’ve looked at the current ATP top 10 players and compared all of the physical attributes that give them a unique advantage on tour.
Part 1: The Physical
Carlos Alcaraz: Physical Beast
Newly crowned number 1 and U.S. Open champion, Carlos Alcaraz has a lot going for him. Physically, he is a lot like Rafael Nadal. His game style, on the other hand, is an amalgamation of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in that Carlos embodies the best of both worlds. Basically, Alcaraz’s supreme fitness (Nadal) allows him to chase down every ball while possessing the body strength (Nadal) and consistency (Djokovic) to hit every shot with extreme power and intensity. The fact that he does this time and time again and never seems to get tired or drop his intensity is a huge physical asset and is the reason he is now at the helm of men’s tennis.
Casper Ruud: Huge Forehand
2022 French Open and U.S. Open finalist, Casper Ruud has one major weapon: his forehand. Hit hard and heavy with extreme spin, Ruud’s strength is a masterclass in technique. Everything about the shot is basically perfect. He hits it hard enough to be difficult to get back and heavy enough that the ball stays in. Ruud might not have anything physically that stands out from his opponents, but his huge forehand is a major physical advantage. Additionally, he is also very consistent and has an underrated serve. It is his forehand, however, that opponents fear, causing them to either go for too much or try to go to his backhand which becomes a predictable pattern that Ruud has great court positioning to set up for.
Rafael Nadal: Biggest Topspin Forehand
What more can we say about Rafa that hasn’t already been said? The Spanish bullfighter or ‘El Matador’ got his nickname from being one of the fiercest competitors on the tour. Not only is he known as a fighter with a huge heart, but his game is also built on the heaviest topspin forehand we’ve ever witnessed. This enables him to push his opponents back, behind the baseline and mitigates the risk of being attacked off short balls, given how high the ball bounces.
In 2010, San Francisco tennis researcher John Yandell clocked Nadal at hitting a forehand at 4900 RPMs (revolutions per minute) using a high-speed video camera. His average topspin is 3200 RPMs compared to Roger Federer at 2700 and Pete Sampras at 1700.
A large reason behind this is Rafa’s extreme grip, with most of his palm under the racquet, allowing him to generate an insane amount of topspin. No wonder then, that Rafa’s opponents are so afraid of hitting to his deadly, leftie forehand.
Daniil Medvedev: Huge wingspan - Superior court coverage
2021 U.S. Open winner and, up until recently, world number 1, Daniil Medvedev has a game centred on his superior court coverage. With a huge wingspan, Daniil largely stays on or behind the baseline and beats his opponents by basically being a brick wall, hitting flat, hard groundstrokes with uncanny precision. For a tall guy, Daniil also moves extremely well and is aided by a big first serve to set up points. Affectionately nicknamed, ‘The Octopus’, in that he is all arms and legs, Daniil’s lanky frame and unorthodox style works for him, making most players feel like they have to hit 10-15 shots with extreme accuracy just to get past him. Alexander Zverev: Huge wingspan - Aggressive groundstrokes Zverev and Medvedev are very similar, physically. Both tall with huge serves and consistent groundstrokes. They are also unusually great movers on court, for tall, lanky guys.
Like Medvedev, Sasha has a huge wingspan that allows him great coverage of the baseline. Where Zverev differs from Medvedev, is in his lateral movement. Sure, Medvedev covers the baseline very well, but is not as good at playing aggressive and generating power on his groundstrokes as Zverev is.
This is largely because Zverev moves so well from the back, for a big guy, and uses all of his 6 foot 6 (1.98 metres) frame to generate heavy topspin and power off both wings. Basically, he has the ability to blow his opponents off court when he peaks and plays aggressive.
Stefanos Tsitsipas: Huge and Aggressive Topspin
Stefanos Tsitsipas is another case with nothing striking about his physique (apart from those long, luscious locks and enviable Mediterranean looks). An aggressive player, Stefanos uses his powerful groundstrokes, particularly on the forehand wing, to do all the damage. When on, it is a high-risk but extremely effective game.
This is largely due to the amount of topspin he gets on his forehand as a result of his Eastern grip. When not hitting winners, he comes to the net more than the average modern player to finish points off. This is made all the more easy given how much he pulls opponents off-court with his topspin rate and aggression.
Novak Djokovic: Athletic and Efficient Mover
A player whose achievements speak for themselves, Novak Djokovic is a physical specimen. One of the most efficient movers on a tennis court, Andy Roddick famously said about Novak, “first he takes your legs, then he takes your soul.”
This is because Novak is like a brick wall that closes in. It begins with his amazing return of serve and anticipation, followed by a simple game plan to play the safe margins until he gradually squeezes his opponents into making impossible shots.
Novak’s athletic build and incredible flexibility also give him the ability to reach wide shots without giving up too much court, thus allowing him to recover quickly. All in all, Djokovic does all the easy things better than most, but can also do the hard things extremely well when he needs to.
Cam Norrie: Big Engine
British number 1, Cam Norrie is an interesting case, a classic example of the overachiever in tennis. A player that doesn’t have the best technique (particularly his ‘shovel-like’ backhand, not dissimilar to Mannarino) Norrie nevertheless seems to trouble a lot of players. A large reason for this is his huge motor. His heart rate was clocked at between 180-200 BPMs for 8 mins straight against Kyle Edmund in 2020, in a ‘Battle of the Brits’ event, which is truly astonishing. Most players would pass out at that rate after 2 minutes.
Norrie’s huge lung capacity also gives him the ability to outlast his opponents with his incredible endurance on court. Opponents now expect to be in a tough physical battle on court with Cam, which is a large part of the reason for his rise in rankings over the last two years.
Andrey Rublev: Cannon-like groundstrokes
Andrey Rublev is another player with groundstrokes as his major weapon, particularly his cannon-like forehand. The difference between him and a player like Ruud or Tsitsipas is that Rublev is a pure, ball-striking machine, that largely stays on the baseline.
He also hits the ball much flatter with a compact swing, allowing him to prepare earlier and swing through the ball faster. Rublev is at his best when dictating the play, although struggles against consistent players that don’t give him much to work with. One of the best frontrunners in the game today, Andrey can blow his opponents off the court when he is in full swing.
Hubert Hurkacz: Athletic and flexible
Rounding off the top 10 is Polish number 1, Hubert Hurkacz. Hubie is one of the most gifted tennis players on tour and is blessed with an athletic and flexible physique. Not only does this make Hurkacz a great defensive player from the baseline, but it also gives him the ability to chase down short balls and still get there in time to make a ridiculous shot. With a tall build, 6 foot 5 (1.96 metres) Hurkacz can also use his full height and wingspan to be aggressive and accelerate into his shots when he needs to, particularly on the stretch. He has been known to throw his athletic body around to hit spectacular diving volleys too, ala Boris Becker. A talented player with a lot of tricks up his sleeve.
So there you have it, the ATP top 10 and their unique physical strengths that give them an advantage over their opponents.
Next week, we focus on these same 10 players’ mental attributes and where they sit, in comparison to one another and the rest of the tour.