I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR on my way home today. An Indian scientist, Rajat Mittal, was explaining why fish swim faster under water than near the surface. Apparently it has everything to do with fluid dynamics.
Mittal currently teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. But five years ago he was contracted by the US Navy to study the swimming patterns of dolphins, possibly because they are the most efficient swimmers in the water. Mittal explained in a somewhat joking self-effacing manner how he has since extrapolated his findings to explain why Michael Phelps has been so successful in Beijing. It would appear that Phelps swims very much like a dolphin.
Phelps is even built like a dolphin. At 6-feet-4 and 195 pounds, he boasts an unusually small head and a long streamlined torso. When he breathes, his entire stomach concaves inward. His legs and elbows hyperextend easily, making him unnervingly flexible. He also has freakishly large size 14 feet that essentially serve as flippers. And his lung capacity is incredible, allowing him to remain underwater far longer than his opponents.
In other words, Michael Phelps swims like a dolphin. And if you were Hindu, you might even entertain the notion that Phelps may have been a dolphin in a previous life. He certainly undulates and kicks like one.
But Phelps did not invent the dolphin kick. It was of course first used by dolphins duh, and was then expertly copied 20 years ago by Olympic swimmer David Berkoff. In the NPR interview Berkoff himself commented on how he figured out that kicking underwater would help him to move significantly faster than swimming near the surface of the water. He was right. Mittal the scientist explained that this is because there is turbulence and air on the surface of the water that combine to impede fluidity by creating resistance.
The “Berkoff Blastoff” has since been upstaged by the Phelps Phenomenon. Phelps undulates his streamlined body underwater and kicks with his strong legs and flipper-like feet. Thus far, this has helped him win five Olympic gold medals. [He is gunning for the most ever in history.] And here’s how he does it. At the start of a race, Phelps may be just a bit in the lead. But after the turn when he pushes off against the wall and starts undulating those freakishly large size 14 flipper-like feet, he can end up as much as two or three body-lengths ahead. Amazing.
Which of course all got me to thinking of tennis and wondering if there are tennis players with freakishly unusual body parts that give them an edge in this sport. You know, kinda like the way the Chinese female gymnasts are all so incredibly petite that they make our American athletes look like Kentucky-fried overfed Amazons with no chance whatsoever of winning the gold but are instead forced to galumph their way to silver.
I thought first of height. Does a freakishly tall player have an edge in tennis? Iva Karlovic at 6 feet 10 inches immediately springs to mind. And he did recently beat Federer. But Karlovic has never won a Grand Slam – and if I were a betting person, I would bet a zillion dollars that he never will. Because he won’t.
Which does not mean that height is not an advantage in tennis. After all, 6 feet 6 inches Juan Del Potro just destroyed 6-foot Andy Roddick in Los Angeles last week. It was a good match. But I can’t say that I believe that Del Potro won simply because of his height. There was after all Roddick’s amazing lack of anticipation of Del Potro’s ability to easily return his serves. Not to mention Roddick’s stupid slapping forehands that continue to be tremendously overrated.
OK, so maybe freakish height is not a good example of an advantage in tennis.
What about wingspan? Let’s face it, Venus Williams has some long-assed arms. When Venus stretches both her arms wide, she can practically cover the width of a tennis court. Yes I exaggerate, but you get my point.
But is wingspan necessarily an asset in tennis? I don’t think so. Not when your knees are as fragile as a 50-year-old woman’s and you get injured every other month.
Which all brings me to Nadal’s butt. It is huge. It is actually freakishly large. Not in the same realm as J Lo’s or Serena’s but it is certainly up there. Can it possibly help to explain Nadal’s domination of the sport? Is there a muscle pack back there that he can rely on as he sprints low towards the ball and forces his opponents to play defensively? Can it help to explain his sudden, almost frightening eruptions into ferocity? Yes, I think so.