<
>

These little guys belie conventional wisdom that bigger is better

Dudi Sela is one of the smallest players on tour but came up huge last year in Israeli Davis Cup. AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Little guys used to rule men's tennis. No, really.

The Roger Federer -- or perhaps better -- of his time, Rod Laver, stood a relatively minuscule 5-foot-8, with fellow Aussie Ken Rosewall a solitary inch taller. Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were all under the six-foot barrier.

Those days are long gone, and this month's final at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas was the perfect example: 6-6 Sam Querrey downed 6-7 Kevin Anderson.

Michael Chang and Gaston Gaudio, both 5-foot-9, remain the shortest Grand Slam winners in the past 20 years. Not surprisingly, their success came on clay, the surface most adept at neutralizing power. Only five other Slam champions in that two-decade span are under six feet, all at 5-foot-11.

Here's a look at a few of the smaller pros lurking among the giants:

Philipp Kohlschreiber
Country: Germany
Age: 24
Height: 5-10
Rank: 27

You want passive? Look for another guy.

Kohlschreiber, he of the glittering one-handed backhand, is all about being aggressive from the baseline. Plus, he can volley, as Andy Roddick painstakingly discovered at January's Australian Open.

Kohlschreiber's third-round win over Roddick might have opened a few eyes, but he was making noises well before then. He earned a Davis Cup debut against Belgium last year, won his opener against Olivier Rochus and then claimed his maiden title in Munich a month later.

With the fragile Tommy Haas turning 30 in a few weeks, Kohlschreiber appears to be the present and future of German tennis.

"He's good for German tennis," Davis Cup captain Patrik Kuhnen said. "He knows exactly what he wants. He has goals and is going for them."

There's more to suggest Kohlschreiber loves the big occasion, apart from his Oz performance. He's 5-1 in so-called live Davis Cup matches and topped perennial Russian top-10 player Nikolay Davydenko on clay, in Moscow, in September's semifinals -- no small feat.

He was close to pulling off another notable upset in Dubai this month, taking the first set from world No. 2 Rafael Nadal and squandering early chances in the second as part of a three-set defeat.

Kohlschreiber's year-end ranking has improved the past three seasons.

"I think he has one of the best backhands in the world, but his shots overall improved the last three years," Kuhnen said. "And I think now what's following is his fitness, his stamina. The whole package has a lot of potential to improve. That's what he's working on, and I'm pretty sure he'll improve his ranking over the next few months."

Olivier Rochus
Country: Belgium
Age: 27
Height: 5-6
Rank: 71

Rochus must have donned some boots for his 2008 measurement in the player guide -- he was bumped up from 5-foot-5 the season before to 5-foot-6. Still, he's the shortest player of any note on the circuit.

That Federer guy from Switzerland, yeah, he's got game. Rochus, it seems, is up there, too.

"You can't really compare it to Roger Federer because he's more complete, but when you talk about skills and talent, I think he has the best hands there are on the tour," said Filip Dewulf, a French Open semifinalist in 1997 and former Davis Cup teammate.

Rochus, blessed with blazing speed and, like Kohlschreiber, a sparkling one-handed backhand, hasn't mirrored the achievements of Federer, his old friend from their junior days. But he has shown flashes of brilliance. He's come closer than anyone else to finally ending the world No. 1's winning streak on grass -- which stands at an imposing 54 -- squandering four match points in the quarterfinals of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany two years ago.

Rochus strung together solid back-to-back seasons starting in 2005, reaching a career-high ranking of 24th and winning in Munich for his second career title.

Perhaps inevitably, given how hard he needs to work to win points, his form dipped last year, and this campaign his record is a modest 5-7. Not helping is a lingering injury to his serving shoulder that will require surgery at the end of 2008, according to Dewulf.

"I'm not sure how long he will last or if he can get to the same level that he did two years ago," he said. "It's going to be difficult because men's tennis is getting more and more demanding, certainly on the physical front."

Rochus has outshone his older and slightly taller brother, Christophe. The latter cracked the top 40 in May 2006, but now hovers around 200 in the rankings and spends most of his time on the challenger circuit.

Dudi Sela
Country: Israel
Age: 22
Height: 5-9
Rank: 61

Sela became a national hero last September and made history in the process.

Then outside the Top 100, he triumphed in both his singles matches against favorites from Chile to propel Israel to the elite world group for the first time since 1994, when noted shot-maker Amos Mansdorf, also 5-foot-9, led the way. Both encounters, including the clincher against the combustible Fernando Gonzalez, lasted more than five hours, making Sela the first man to win a pair of five-hour singles battles in the same series.

"Everyone felt in the air that maybe something magical can happen," said Ofer Sela, his brother and a former Davis Cupper himself. "When he won it was unreal."

Amid the jubilance in Ramat HaSharon, captain Eyal Ran proclaimed Sela the "king" of Israel and a bamboozled Gonzalez wondered why he wasn't in the Top 50.

The ranking indeed rose the rest of the season, thanks largely to success in challengers. In 2008, though, he's competing regularly at the top echelon for the first time (and without a clothing sponsor, despite the Davis Cup heroics), and has won two of eight matches. Gonzalez gained some revenge by eliminating Sela in Las Vegas.

Ofer Sela, 13 years his senior, says his kid brother continues to make adjustments -- he has beefed up his serve since August and recently began working with a physical trainer. Ofer figures Dudi will be a complete player by the time he's 25.

Strengths include his pace, variety and one-handed backhand. He needs to be more aggressive with his forehand, the elder Sela quipped.

"In junior it was really easy for him," he said. "Everything came to him naturally. But now with all the big players and so much power in the game, he has to know more how to play against individual players. The last seven or eight months I think he knows more about men's tennis than before."

Sela's marathon magic almost never happened. He contemplated retirement in 2006 after breaking his hand but decided to stick with it.

Arnaud Clement
Country: France
Age: 30
Height: 5-8
Rank: 75

The bandana-toting Clement, sunglasses often in tow, was as quick as they came when he patrolled the baseline in his prime; his playmaking was similar to that of Nadal and Djokovic nowadays. (He also likes to linger between points.) Unlike the dynamic duo stalking Federer, Clement cracked the Top 10 without a huge game -- though he owns a stellar two-handed backhand and a deceptively good serve, and is a clean ball striker.

"Arnaud and those kind of players, they're exceptional athletes," said Brad Stine, the former coach of Clement's good friend, Sebastien Grosjean, and Jim Courier, among others. "Those guys have certain athletic qualities that have allowed them to be successful regardless of the [era] that they're playing in."

Chugging along in his 13th year on the pro tour, Clement's apex came at the 2001 Australian Open, when he knocked off a young Federer, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Grosjean in the semifinals before succumbing to Andre Agassi, a towering 5-11 in comparison.

Agassi, and Nadal, Djokovic and Roddick, have all fallen prey to Clement's guile at one time or another. Clement helped France win its last Davis Cup title in 2001 by going a combined 4-2 in singles in the opening round, quarterfinals and semis.

He, too, is in the record books: He took part in the longest match in the Open era, a six-hour, 33-minute tussle with compatriot and diminutive craftsman Fabrice Santoro at the 2004 French Open, and claimed the doubles title at Wimbledon last year with the eccentric Michael Llodra.

Just for good measure, Clement even starred in a TV commercial for Lacoste, his clothing sponsor.

"For a fairly moderate player, he's had an unbelievable career," said Dewulf, 0-1 in their head-to-heads. "He's an example for any player starting really, that no matter what your skills are, with enough belief, willpower and hard work, you can achieve your dreams."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.