Rise of diminutive Henin, Ochoa is case of perfect timing

The Belgian Henin resembles a reed but hits with such ferocity that her racquet must feel like a swishing cane to her opponents; a magnifying glass is required to discover muscles on the diminutive Mexican Ochoa, yet she is tied 6th on the LPGA Tour for driving distance. The message is clear this year: power to the petite, writes Rohit Brijnath.

The most immodestly gifted woman in tennis is modestly sized and looks like she might need to be tied down in a gale. The woman producing the most towering feats in golf these days is a bonzai champion who could well be outweighed by her golf bag. These women are lightweight champions literally but heavyweight performers, vertically challenged heroines with the loftiest of ambitions. One might chance a pun and say the dominating performances this year of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Lorena Ochoa have been worth weighting for.

The Belgian Henin resembles a reed but hits with such ferocity that her racquet must feel like a swishing cane to her opponents; a magnifying glass is required to discover muscles on the diminutive Mexican Ochoa, yet she is tied 6th on the LPGA Tour for driving distance. The message is clear this year: power to the petite.

Most sports have a fascination with height and weight because long levers and mass can take you a long way. Basketballers are soaring fellows unwelcome at most shoe shops, but even here room exists for the unique. Yao Ming (7 ft 6 in) looks down on Allan Iverson (6 ft), but in terms of skill must be looking up to him.

Gymnasts are concise fellows, with the men astonishingly muscled and the women remarkably lean. Here being four-foot something is a blessing for women, and when Svetlana Khorkina bounded onto the mat all 5 feet 5 inches she was considered too elevated for the job. Whereupon she won Olympic and world championship golds by the basketful.

Football is a democratic pursuit claiming room for everyone, yet despite a distinct advantage during crosses, fellows with the rather ironic moniker of Crouch (6ft 7in) are a rarity. A lower centre of gravity aids balance, though an ability to challenge aerially is vital, and while Maradona, at 5ft 5in or thereabouts had springs in his feet, one presumes only with a trampoline could he have legally out-reached the arms of Peter Shilton (6ft 1in) with his head (Hand of God, remember?).

Presumably there is a middle range in football which is ideal, ranging from Cruyff (approx 5ft 8in) to Ronaldinho (approximately 5 ft 9in) to Pele (approx 5ft 9in) to Zidane (over 6ft). Of course, six feet and possibly an inch or two further is the height men's tennis adores, for much shorter takes away heft from the serve and much taller (Richard Krajicek 6ft 5in) results in stern complaints from the back and knees while bending for volleys.

But Henin's return to year-end No. 1, a feat last achieved by her in 2003, is not just worthy because of her height (5ft 6in but only at tiptoe, in a world of six-footers Sharapova, Davenport, Venus, and even Hingis at 5ft 7in is officially taller than her).

No, what makes Henin, and Ochoa, who is also 5ft 6in when stretching every fibre, unusual is their seemingly invisible muscle. In build they're not so much the model player as model-like.

The smiling and very slender Ochoa, who occasionally seems to write haiku with a golf club, owns none of the heft or swollen shoulders or veined forearms of the dominating athlete. Yet she drove the golf ball an average 269.7 yards this year, which is longer than women far more bulkier than her. Henin, whose wiriness suggests millions of strands of wire twisted together, is similar, in that she produces a power her body does not seem to possess, as if some deep desire is adding extra poundage to their shots. At 126 pounds, she stands as an impostor among Davenport 175, Venus 160 and Serena somewhere thereabouts.

In a sporting world so obsessed with velocity and muscle and size, or at least obvious representations of it (Oh, look he's so tall, Oh check out her muscles), it is liberating that women can take ownerships of entire sports despite their seeming disadvantage in centimetres and kilograms.

But perhaps the point of all this is something completely different. That propelling a ball some distance in golf, or with a particular violence in tennis, is not merely a factor of muscle, or levers, but of timing. And it is this Ochoa and Henin achieve with a pleasing purity.

They do not appear to the naked eye to do anything special, but these women marry hand, eye, feet, confidence, into strokes of extraordinarily precise impact. Most of us have visited this moment occasionally, just leaning into a cricket drive that accelerates away, turning the shoulder into a forehand that feels faultless coming off the strings, swinging a club once in 18 holes if we're lucky where the sound of the ball exiting our presence is sweet to the ears.

These women do it again, and again, and again, always perfectly marshalling their strength.

Often we associate a certain other worldliness to great athletes because they do things even talent and size and practice don't seem to account for. This is one of them, a blessed dance of technique and rhythm and feel. Here, just a shoulder turned too early, an arm not fast enough, a club face aligned a few millimetres incorrectly, a ball hit a fraction of a second too late, a foot not placed precisely enough to keep the body balanced, will not give them the perfect collision, and thus the power, they look for.

There is something almost holy to this, a connection of racquet and club with ball as clean and as pure as a Yo-Yo Ma bow stroking a cello. Is it harder for Henin to do this on the reflexive run, or Ochoa to have so long to think about it and start from a stationary position, who knows. What we do know is this: in a time of bellows and biceps, they are the most fluid and elegant of champions.