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Short Stuff

This is a stimulus-and-response essay. A certain player was insulted in a public forum (not an unusual occurrence, the Internet being anything but a bastion of civility), and the author composed a response. And then decided it wasn't worth sending to the "insulting party." Better to use it here, where people might actually listen to the arguments. Besides, after a very busy few weeks, and with a Davis Cup preview still to write this week, there wasn't time for anything that took more than the most basic research.

So: The thesis: "Justine Henin-Hardenne has proved that short women can still win at tennis. So what was Martina Hingis's problem?"

This is, formally, a perverse line of argument. If being short is not a handicap, then why aren't people bugging Tatiana Panova or Anna Smashnova to become #1 in the world? Either being short is no handicap, or it is a handicap which Henin-Hardenne has overcome (and Hingis also overcame, considering that she won five singles Slams and 40 singles titles and spent four years at #1 and won nine doubles Slams -- none of which Henin-Hardenne has come close to accomplishing, even though she's now as old as Hingis was when things really stared falling apart for the Swiss player).

Any glance at the Top Ten will make it clear that being tall is an advantage. But Henin-Hardenne has largely overcome her disadvantage. Why is she competing as well as she is -- and why did Hingis fail?

If we, in effect, line up Hingis (as she was at her best, in 1997-2000) and Henin-Hardenne side by side, the comparison is interesting:

Forehand: About a draw. Henin-Hardenne probably hits hers a little harder, but she makes more errors on that side than Hingis did. And Henin-Hardenne gets most of her winners off the forehand, which can sometimes interfere with how she constructs points.

Backhand: Henin-Hardenne, as a one-hander, has more variety than any two-hander, but Hingis had more variety than any normal two-hander, and hit harder. Advantage to Hingis, except on grass, where Henin-Hardenne's slice is a very fine weapon.

Movement: About a tie. Henin-Hardenne may be a little faster, but Hingis's anticipation made up for it.

Tactical sense: Huge edge to Hingis. Henin-Hardenne is improving in her ability to construct points -- but Hingis was the Chessmaster.

Net game: Again, edge to Hingis. You don't win a Grand Slam in doubles with Mirjana Lucic if you aren't a great net player! Hingis also had a better transition game; Henin-Hardenne's backhand gives her a better chip-and-charge than Hingis could manage, but Hingis had more and other ways of working her way in, and one of the secrets of success for her was using those tricks to get to net. Henin-Hardenne is better at the net than most of the current generation, but that isn't saying much; Hingis was arguably the last truly solid net player.

To this point, the edge is all to Hingis, Which may explain why Henin-Hardenne never beat Hingis. But, of course, there is the other big difference:

Serve: That's all Henin-Hardenne. This is the biggest gap between the two, bigger even than the gap in tactical sense.

But why? Why is Henin-Hardenne's serve so much more a weapon? This is the point where Hingis is most subject to attack.

This actually has two parts. One is the first serve and the other is the second serve.

The second serve is the easier part to solve. Hingis had something of a neurosis about her second serve: She didn't want to double-fault. And it cost her. She developed a second serve that almost always went in. Problem was, it was a creampuff.

Henin-Hardenne has no such neurosis. It's instructive to compare her second serve numbers with Hingis's first serve. Typical numbers for Hingis: 70% of first serves in, average speed of about 145 kph. Typical numbers for Henin: 75% of second serves in, average speed of about 135 kph.

In other words, for all intents and purposes Henin-Hardenne is using Hingis's first serve as her second serve. What's more, that's the right thing to do. If your first serve goes in 50% of the time (and Henin-Hardenne's first serve percent tends to be pretty low), and 75% of your second serves go in, you'll double-fault one time in eight. But that's still only about four or five double-faults per set. High, but bearable. It's a lot better than firing a Hingis second serve and having an opponent such as Lindsay Davenport win 70% of second serve points. (We've shown, in the past, that if Hingis had fired her first serve on both first and second serve points, she might well have won the 1998 U. S. Open.)

Which leaves us with the Great Mystery: How in the world does Henin-Hardenne hit that first serve?

It's not just muscle. It's not. (Which should dispose of the foolish theory that Henin-Hardenne has been taking something illicit. Even if she had -- and note the conditional; the author doesn't think she has -- it wouldn't improve her serve.) There are incredibly strong players who can't hit a serve like Henin-Hardenne. The key point here is court geometry. Except for volleys, every shot in tennis is constrained: You can only hit it so hard and have it both go over the net and stay in the court. (And we seem to have achieved that limit, though we can't prove it due to the inaccuracy of radar guns; it appears that tennis will not be getting faster in years to come. It's just that we'll see more players hitting big.) And the key to speed, on the serve as on most other shots, is how high the ball is when it's hit.

And that, of course, is why smaller players can't serve as hard as big. You can plot this -- average serve speed against height -- and there is a fairly steady curve (and it's almost the same curve for the men and the women! -- men's serves are considered better, but the reason is spin and hence kick, not speed). But a few players -- Henin-Hardenne, Thomas Johansson -- seem to be above the curve. Which is theoretically impossible, which in turn means that these players are somehow using different serve mechanics.

We don't know what their alternate "theory" is. Several explanations are possible, though. Observe first of all that Henin-Hardenne is as willing to accept faults on her first serve as on her second. Her service percentage is usually fairly low -- meaning, probably, that she isn't allowing much margin for error. The closer you aim to the service line, the harder you can hit.

And then, too, a player's height is not the same as where she hits the ball. If Henin-Hardenne can leap unusually high, she could hit a better serve. Or if her arms are longer than average, she can serve like a taller player. Or the difference might even be that she's learned to hit the ball near the top of her racquet rather than trying to hit it in the center of the sweet spot -- a technique much harder to pull off but which will allow a bigger serve.

What it comes down to is, there is good reason to think that Henin-Hardenne is a special case: A normal player her height can't expect to serve as big as she does. Asking Hingis to serve like Henin-Hardenne may be like asking Lindsay Davenport to run as fast as Venus Williams: The fact that Henin-Hardenne and Venus are exceptional doesn't mean that ordinary players can match them. It may come as a surprise, but according to the official WTA numbers for 2000, Hingis posted the fourth-fastest serve recorded by anyone her height or shorter (and we suspect that it was actually the third-fastest, because there is reason to think that at least one of the other players' heights is listed wrong), and was within a couple of kilometers per hour of being second-fastest. Being short does cost Hingis in the serve department, and the fact that Henin-Hardenne is exceptional doesn't mean that Hingis can automatically become exceptional also.

And let's not forget another point: Henin-Hardenne still loses to Serena Williams. On clay, she beat her twice this year -- but clay favors Henin-Hardenne's touch and hurts Williams power. Hingis tended to beat the Sisters on clay, too, as well as on Rebound Ace, which is also a slow surface. Hingis, after she started losing to the Sisters fairly frequently, made some ill-chosen adjustments in her playing style: She tried to fight power with power, and it didn't work. Henin-Hardenne doesn't try that -- and will probably continue to lose most of her hardcourt meetings with Serena as a result. But she wins on clay.

Ultimately, the moral is probably "play to your strengths." And that, even more than her serve, is probably what cost Hingis her place at the top of the game. Let's face it: Hingis's game decayed even before she stopped playing. Her forehand fell off, her tactical sense declined, her errors increased, her speed slipped. And she turned into a choker, as her last Australian Open final showed. Henin-Hardenne now is certainly better than the Hingis of 2001. (We're less inclined to say she's better than the Hingis of 1997.) But Henin-Hardenne, like Hingis, succeeds despite being short, not because of it. To win without the size and power of the big girls requires having everything work. Hingis's problem was ultimately tactics, not lack of height, but the latter didn't work to her advantage, either. And, with a foot wrecked by plantar fasciitis and a bunch of damaged ligaments, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that Hingis can never be the player she once was. And while Michael Chang may have been happy to play for years after his game was shot, is it really something you want to recommend to players?

So let's congratulate Henin-Hardenne for being exceptional -- and not expect others to do so.

source: bob larson's newsletter
 

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This is a good thesis....for all the people who wanna compare Henin to Hingis....Henin has WAAYYSSS to go, before she becomes Hingis.

I think the problem with Hingis was her serve and her foot injuries...she became too slow for the game.
 

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Hingis' decline was most of a mental issue...and I agree it happened way before she retired...

Even if she had obvious weaknesses in her game with that baby-serve and her excellent net game she didn't use enough..., the game never passed her by...she decided to pass the game...pitty...

She really could improve her weaknesses and continue to "play to her strenghts" even more...

Still I think that any direct compareason Hingis-Henin in terms of game possibilities is exagerated...Despite existing similarities, they are two different players, Henin being naturally more athletical, Hingis more "anticipational"...
 

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Props to Bob on another good column.

My answer on the serve issue has always been the same is that different people have different talents. Not everyone who was the same size as Graf could hit Graf's forehand, could they?

In general, bigger people hit the biggest serves, although there are always exceptions to the rule.

Roscoe Tanner in his day was the biggest server in tennis, not the tallest player, just the biggest server.

We will have to see how Justine plays out the rest of her career and how she fares against the Williams sisters, if and when they return to tennis and if they play enough to keep up their skills.

So far, Martina has by far the better record against the big girls.
 

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Fingon said:
there is so much crap and ignorance in that article that I don't have the time to answer it.

later.
That's so negative of you. I rather enjoyed it. Whether its believable or not, I could care less. Thanks for posting
 

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That was a very interesting article from Bob Larson.

The biggest difference between Henin and Hingis is that Henin has the firepower and good serve that Hingis never had. And while Hingis had better court sense than Henin, Henin can do more with her shots than Hingis could. Among the top WTA players, Justine Henin's variety of shots is unparralelled in todays women's tennis. She can slice, topspin, hit flat and hard and she has plenty of touch, too.

I would love to see the Hingis of 1997 play the Henin of 2003. :D I think Henin would win becuase she's stronger, faster and less predictable than Hingis was. But that doesn't really matter. I miss Martina. :sad: And women's tennis misses her, too.
 

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I have to disagee with 'the cat', i dont think henin can do more shots than hingis, yu could ask hingis to lob, volley, slice or topspin and she could do it better than all the rest of the girls on tour (minus the power), her entire game was about mixing it up, i am sure henin could do all the shots in the book aswell but not as good as martina. In fact take away the power justine has gotten over the last year and justine drops way below the rest of the top 4 players on the tour. Thats what was great about martina, without the obvious weapon of power which justine has martina was still able to give the power players a run for their money.
 

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Thanks for posting this article, tennischick. I have never taken the time to compare Justine and Martina because, in my mind, they aren't alike in the least. As the author finally concluded, stature has very little to do with their success or lack of success in the current power game of womens' tennis.

I'm in total agreement with tennisjam, especially the use of the new word ""anticipational". ;) Justine needed to build on her natural talents to make her mark in the current environment. Martina had already made her mark in a previous era. She wasn't willing to figure out how to change "her" game in order to remain in the winner's circle. I appreciate her contribution to the sport. But, I'm glad she got out before she really embarrassed herself and I'm glad she's staying out. Her foot is bad and her game is obsolete. She's young, rich, retired and happy. I hope she enjoys it.
 

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You cannot even compare Justine to Hingis. Hingis was just a total all around player who did not rely on power at ALL to win against her opponents. Hingis had an sense of the court, she was very aware of tripping her opponents up. I just don't see that with Henin-H.
 

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Bezz said:
I have to disagee with 'the cat', i dont think henin can do more shots than hingis, yu could ask hingis to lob, volley, slice or topspin and she could do it better than all the rest of the girls on tour (minus the power), her entire game was about mixing it up, i am sure henin could do all the shots in the book aswell but not as good as martina. In fact take away the power justine has gotten over the last year and justine drops way below the rest of the top 4 players on the tour. Thats what was great about martina, without the obvious weapon of power which justine has martina was still able to give the power players a run for their money.
Word! That´s why I can´t see Serena or Venus losing to Justine on a fast court....simply because what people think that makes Justine special: her variety, they have already seen it and better! That´s why the sisters have Hingis to thank that they have become as good as they are....
 

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Ballbuster said:
That's so negative of you. I rather enjoyed it. Whether its believable or not, I could care less. Thanks for posting

I actually read the whole article and nearly everything he says is wrong, the author has no clue whatsoever, the article posted here is not the whole version

things like "Hingis hit the backhand harder than Justine", when somebody says bullshit like that there is not point in keep talking.

Saying that being short is not an issue because otherwise Panova should be pressure to win a GS is another humongous piece of crap, the issue of being short is considered a liability that of course, players like Justine or Martina can overcome, that doesn't mean that every short player could win a grand slam, that comment is so stupid that is really difficult to argue, it's like it let me speechless..

saying that because Justine hits more winners than Martina off the forehand and because of that it doesn't make her construct points as a liability is very accurate huh? so having a weapon that produces winners is bad because it doesn't make you make a bigger effort :confused:

and don't even get me started on the serve bullshit, geometry, height whatever, he is giving his stupid physics theories and the players he is talking about is probing him wrong at the same time. He failed to mention that although Martina was a technically sound player, her service was not, it wasn't technically a good shot as she served mostly with the arms and not using the whole body like Justine does. If the author had forgotten about his physics books and had actually watched matches me would not look so stupid.

Said that, the author is known as a Hingis and Anna apologist, he has defended them all the time as they can do no wrong. He predicted that Bedanova would be ranked higuer than Justine and he also said Justine would take two years to reach the top 10 if ever (he said that in 2001).

So if you enjoyed it, good for you, I don't enjoy being flooded with bullshit where nearly everything said is wrong.
 

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I think you are Jealous of this authors eloquence. It's o.k. fignon. There are better things in life to twist your panties in a not over.

But calling people stupid over what they think is unfair.
 

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Fingon said:
I actually read the whole article and nearly everything he says is wrong, the author has no clue whatsoever, the article posted here is not the whole version

things like "Hingis hit the backhand harder than Justine", when somebody says bullshit like that there is not point in keep talking.

Saying that being short is not an issue because otherwise Panova should be pressure to win a GS is another humongous piece of crap, the issue of being short is considered a liability that of course, players like Justine or Martina can overcome, that doesn't mean that every short player could win a grand slam, that comment is so stupid that is really difficult to argue, it's like it let me speechless..

saying that because Justine hits more winners than Martina off the forehand and because of that it doesn't make her construct points as a liability is very accurate huh? so having a weapon that produces winners is bad because it doesn't make you make a bigger effort :confused:

and don't even get me started on the serve bullshit, geometry, height whatever, he is giving his stupid physics theories and the players he is talking about is probing him wrong at the same time. He failed to mention that although Martina was a technically sound player, her service was not, it wasn't technically a good shot as she served mostly with the arms and not using the whole body like Justine does. If the author had forgotten about his physics books and had actually watched matches me would not look so stupid.

Said that, the author is known as a Hingis and Anna apologist, he has defended them all the time as they can do no wrong. He predicted that Bedanova would be ranked higuer than Justine and he also said Justine would take two years to reach the top 10 if ever (he said that in 2001).

So if you enjoyed it, good for you, I don't enjoy being flooded with bullshit where nearly everything said is wrong.

I think you´re getting blinded by hatred...the points the author stated all seem pretty reasonable....plus he´s right. Hingis, even retired already, was better than Justine is right now and Justine has ways to go before she matches Hingis´s career acomplishments....eventhough she´s old as Hingis was when she retired.
 

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I didn't think the bit posted above was that far from the truth aside from a few broadly drawn conclusions.

I guess the reason why Martina would be less successful today with her style of play is because she grew up learning to win matches against players who had relatively less power than the ones she contended with later in her career.

By then it would have been a massive step to restructure her game.

Justine doesn't really have that problem, she's had to learn to deal with the power pretty much from the start.
 

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Kart said:
I didn't think the bit posted above was that far from the truth aside from a few broadly drawn conclusions.

I guess the reason why Martina would be less successful today with her style of play is because she grew up learning to win matches against players who had relatively less power than the ones she contended with later in her career.

By then it would have been a massive step to restructure her game.

Justine doesn't really have that problem, she's had to learn to deal with the power pretty much from the start.
a good thesis....Hingis wasn´t used to the power, but Henin pretty much came up during the power era..
 

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Kart said:
I didn't think the bit posted above was that far from the truth aside from a few broadly drawn conclusions.

I guess the reason why Martina would be less successful today with her style of play is because she grew up learning to win matches against players who had relatively less power than the ones she contended with later in her career.

By then it would have been a massive step to restructure her game.

Justine doesn't really have that problem, she's had to learn to deal with the power pretty much from the start.
That's the key difference imo. Which makes the statement "1997 Hingis is better than the 2003 Henin" wrong imo. Sure, Hingis was more dominant at the time than Henin is now, but both with the level of play of their primes, Henin probably has the bigger chance of winning if they would play eachother.
 

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bandabou said:
This is a good thesis....for all the people who wanna compare Henin to Hingis....Henin has WAAYYSSS to go, before she becomes Hingis.

I think the problem with Hingis was her serve and her foot injuries...she became too slow for the game.

Why would she ever want to become Hingis ???

Justine is Justine, that's much more promising for the future.
 
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