Petite power on the WTA Tour
Inspired by Justine Henin, a new wave of smaller players are playing big games
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Small players are doing big things on the WTA Tour. No. 2 Simona Halep is 5-foot-6 and reached the French Open final this year; 5-3 Dominika Cibulkova got to the Australian Open final and is ranked No. 13. The members of the top-ranked doubles team, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, each stand at 5-4, with Errani also getting as high as No. 5 and Vinci No. 11 in the singles rankings. At Indian Wells in early March, 5-2 Lauren Davis defeated an injured 6-foot Victoria Azarenka, and 5-6 Camila Giorgi ousted 6-1 Maria Sharapova. Sharapova also lost to 5-4 Carla Suarez Navarro, a French Open quarterfinalist, in Montreal earlier this month.
They are among 12 players in the top 50 who are 5-6 or shorter, helping show that size does not have to matter on a tour where most of the competitors are at least 5-8 and several are taller than 6-foot.
Traditionally, shorter players have kept up with their taller counterparts with speed and consistency -- the trademarks of the petite. But the recent surge of smaller players is also marked by something else. They may lack height, but they do not lack power.
Halep, 23, credits her entry into the top ranks to playing more aggressively, positioning her small but powerful frame on top of the baseline and taking the ball on the rise to "open up the court very well, open up the angles."
Despite being one of the most diminutive, Cibulkova is known for packing a punch. The "pocket rocket" from Slovakia doesn't hold back, unleashing on the first ball she can.
"I go for my shots and I just play very aggressive and most of the time I feel like I push the other players. So yeah, I'm small, but I have a lot of power," she told ESPN.com. "The way I hit the shots, they go pretty flat and fast from my racket."
Their lack of height does show when serving, for neither Halep nor Cibulkova has a strong delivery, but both possess the foot speed taller players typically lack.
Cibulkova has defied those who told her to play a game more suited to her size.
"Of course they did before, when I was small and younger and everything, but it was a style of game that I really liked and it became part of me," Cibulkova said. "It's challenging for me to beat the tall players and the best players in the world, and yeah, that's something I have inside of me."
Even players who do not have power games such as Errani and former 5-5 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone possess spin-heavy strokes that require a lot of strength, and Suarez Navarro and Vinci are among the few WTA players to play with one-handed backhands.
Seeing them has inspired others. Japan's Kurumi Nara is 5-1 and ranked No. 32, a career high.
"Sometimes, [I ask myself], 'Why I'm short?' " she said to ESPN.com, but the 23-year-old now is changing her ideas about what her game should be.
"I'm very [often] watching Cibulkova, Halep," she said. "I try to hit hard now, because little bit my shot is not hard now.
"Yes, I every day watching top player, like Halep. They play like more heavy ball, like spin. My shot is [flat], so I try to [put] more spin now."
Davis is not concerned about her height when facing bigger players.
"I know I'm small, but I'm very, very strong so I generate a lot of power and I have really good racquet-head speed," the 21-year-old American told ESPN.com before her big win against Azarenka. "Girls who are 6 feet don't have the things I have. And me being 5-2, I don't have all the assets they have, but I think they equal each other out."
Melanie Oudin, 23, gained prominence for getting to the second week of the US Open in 2009 as a 17-year-old and also for being 5-6 among what was then an increasingly tall group of newcomers. These days, as she aims to return to the top 100, there are plenty her size there.
"That's actually pretty funny, because people made such a big deal of my height when I started," Oudin told ESPN.com.
She attributes increased training as the reason smaller players are able to keep up, compensating with strength what they lack in height. "I think the physical aspect of tennis now is so big and important," she said. "People are in the gym a lot and doing strengthening of legs and upper body.
But perhaps the most important influence has been a player who is no longer on tour -- Justine Henin.
Oudin was known for citing the 5-6 Henin as an inspiration when she was first coming up, particularly because of her size. The seven-time Grand Slam champion was able to hit with bigger players using her shot-making ability, variety and net play.
"Her footwork was amazing. Loved the way she played. I admired how she was on the court," Oudin said. "But a big part of it was that yes, that she was one of the smaller players. That she was able to compete with the taller players. They didn't have any more strengths than she had."
Oudin isn't the only one. Several of the smaller set point to Henin as an example, even if they do not play the Belgian's distinctive game.
"Henin. She was the player I really liked," Cibulkova said. "My game is absolutely not like her, she was going a lot to the net, but she was a player that I admire. She also had a lot of power."
Halep has also named Henin as her favorite player, saying: "We are a similar size, and I liked her style."
Henin may have been small, but she clearly had a big impact -- as others her size are now having.
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