Tennis is an emotional sport. Coaches and players argue the merits of a technique or strategy, using past experience as a guide. But until recently there was little in the way of rigorous evidence to back that up. What would happen if tennis players and their coaches had data to bolster their instincts?
We’re about to find out: The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced that it will for the first time allow on-court coaching breaks aided by customized real-time analytics via a tablet app.
The app, created by the European enterprise software giant SAP, incorporates data from 40 years of matches, as well as point-by-point details going back to 2008. It tracks matches on a season by season, surface to surface basis, giving players and coaches statistics that can be used to make real-time decisions during a match.
Performance statistics in tennis have historically provided only basic percentages based on dividing the court into sectors. Instead of limiting itself to shot placement results from a single graphical point of view, the app will cluster information and provide heat maps to better understand patterns of play.
The data will also be available to fans when the rule change goes into effect during the 2015 season.
“It’s great to know that Anna [Ivanovic] served seven aces. But when did she serve them? Did she serve them at the beginning of the match when she was up 40 love? Did she serve when she was under pressure?” says Jenni Lewis, a solutions architect at SAP. “What we’re able to do is actually have the player understand a little bit more about when they should be going for the ball, when they should be taking risks.”
The WTA believes the app will improve the quality of its matches substantially, while also enhancing fan experiences as they come to understand more about the game and their favorite players.
“We need to make our athletes more accessible than they already are,” says Stacey Allaster, CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association. This new information feed presents an opportunity for the WTA–a traditional league with long matches–to produce content on multiple screens, with video that is wrapped in data. “But we have to do more in-venue, on-air, and online, particularly with rising stars, to help make them household names like Serena, Maria, and Li Na.”
When Lewis and her team began work with the WTA, she asked coaches what statistics they wanted, what contextual analytics they felt would serve them. “We didn’t want to build a solution that only the top 10 or 15 players in the world would benefit from,” says Lewis.
Coaches wanted to better understand break point opportunities versus conversion, for example. Given 10 break opportunities in a match, perhaps five are converted. Fifty percent is a terrible percentage. But what if all five came in a single game? Numbers never lie, but they can be misleading.
“When a coach is looking at this type of information, they can actually see, Is there something that I need to work on?” says Lewis. A coach can tell an athlete that, based on the data, hitting the ball down the center of the court is the way to beat a particular opponent, for example.
Although the app hasn’t been officially deployed yet, the coaches are already thirsting for more data. Lewis recently received an email from a prominent coach at the 2014 French Open. In it, he requested the conversion rate for all his player’s 30-love points this season. The coach believed the player was not taking advantage of her opportunities, and he wanted data to back his argument when he spoke with the player.
“The eye will often lie because [tennis] is about emotion,” explains Lewis. “But as soon as we start to introduce technology into the conversation, the player, the coach, everybody trusts that when we sit down and have a conversation, it’s not based on emotion anymore.”
The current stats-driven tennis conversation started back in 2008. That’s when Hawk-Eye Innovations technology was introduced to tennis for the sake of electronic scoring. Six or seven cameras trace the path of a ball with Hawk-Eye’s technology, and it’s used in tennis to adjudicate line calls. It also produced a wealth of statistics that had never been available before. SAP partnered with Hawk-Eye to take advantage of that information.
“Instead of just having a static image at the end of the match that shows you where all the first serves went,” says Lewis, “we give the coaches the opportunity of interacting with that software to say, ‘Well, I actually only am interested in particular points throughout the match.’”
Those few key points make all the difference in a professional tennis match. “Every player thinks differently and every player approaches different situations differently,” says the WTA’s Allaster.
“What we want a coach to be able to walk out on court and do is look at the trends,” says Lewis. “Look for the red spots. That is where you are being the most successful.”