The deepening embrace between tennis and technology

When Roger Federer whipped that forehand crosscourt on championship point against his greatest rival Rafael Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final, he could not celebrate immediately because Nadal had appealed for a Hawk-Eye review. Hawk-Eye is the computer vision system that visually tracks the trajectory of the ball and displays a profile of its most likely path. It is so ubiquitous in tennis today that an average fan cannot remember a time without it.

In fact, the final three points of that momentous final all had Hawk-Eye interventions. There was as much technology as tennis. The storied rivalry between Federer and Nadal had had its share of cliff-hanger matches, and now the entire world was waiting for Hawk-Eye to declare the champion. Machines loaded with simulation software would decide the winner and the humans would have to wait. The famous words of the television commentator Robert Koenig at that juncture were, “Fate now in the hands of the Hawk-Eye.”

Hawk-Eye called the ball in, and then Federer had a delayed celebration. If John McEnroe had been Federer’s opponent that day, he might have yelled, “You cannot be serious” at the machine. Laws of sports fandom work on a different plane and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find Nadal supporters doubting that decision even to this day. But the bottom line was that technology was trusted to arrive at a better conclusion than humans and there had to be an acceptance of the same, even if grudgingly.

The use of ball-tracking technology to decide line calls is now ubiquitous in tennis.
| Photo Credit:
Infosys Website

The evolution

The use of technology in tennis has evolved over time. Firms like IBM have been associated with prestigious events like Wimbledon and the US Open for over three decades. By the 1990s, with the advent of improved racquet technology, tennis became a ‘power sport’ with the likes of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi leading the way.

When the average speed of the first serve was over 100 mph, the job of a line umpire was not easy. Routine squabbles between players and referees meant something had to be done by the tennis federations and that led to the initial forays of technological support into the sport.

In recent times, it took a non-fiction book titled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis in 2003, along with the adapted version as a Hollywood movie, to show how statistical data can play a significant role in the success of a sports team (the Oakland Athletics team in the 2002 season of the Major League Baseball).

In tennis, the Bengaluru-headquartered IT behemoth Infosys is the technology partner of the ATP Tour. Over the years, over 150 million digital fans have interacted with Infosys Match Centre, including 3000 players and coaches for Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven coaching solutions.

“The Infosys Tennis platform uses dimensions such as player rankings, length of rallies, crowd noise levels, and distance between the ball and the player to provide each point with an AI score,” Sumit Virmani, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Infosys, told The Hindu. “This helps the media rank the best shots of the day. For players and coaches, the platform studies tennis matches and suggests areas of strength and ones to improve.”

Data the new oil

In other words, when a tennis match goes live, every shot is now a data point, whether it is a winner or an error. As fans enjoy the match, a parallel analytics game begins at the back end. Thousands of these data points are fed into data servers and become a treasure for statisticians to analyse and match trends to the granular level of “who will win the next point? What strategy will the player adopt?”

Fuelled by the worldwide penetration of smartphones, the speed, scale, and impact of technology in recent times have witnessed a significant surge. Integrating analytics into sports has also transformed how athletes train and compete, and how coaches strategise.

“The three key aspects where athletes and coaches can benefit greatly are performance optimisation, injury prevention and tactical adjustment,” said Soudeep Deb, Assistant Professor, Decision Sciences Area at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. “In the first aspect, analytics provides detailed insights into an athlete’s performance metrics, including speed, agility, strength, and endurance.

“Regarding injury prevention, monitoring biomechanical data and tracking workload through analytics has become a common practice. The final, arguably the most critical need of analytics is preparing strategies or making tactical adjustments for specific matches,” Prof. Deb added.

Shifting sands

Access to data and the adoption of technology by players and coaches were rare in the earlier decade. A player’s talent was the be-all and end-all and Harsh Mankad, a former Indian Davis Cup player, recalled a traditional method he used during his playing days on the ATP Tour.

“I started professional tennis in 2002, and I played till 2010, and at that point, there wasn’t much analytics,” he said. “We weren’t getting much data either before or after the match. Certain individuals had started putting up cameras behind the courts and recording. Some parents, travelling coaches would hook up a camera stand and record the matches. So, I would say that was the early stage of getting the video data.”

Prof. Deb felt that tennis lagging behind other sports in embracing technology and data is because of three main reasons. “It is possibly connected to the individualistic nature of the sport,” he said. “Traditionally, the players’ skill, intuition, and on-court decision-making have been thought to be the key behind their success. This is in stark contrast to team sports like football or baseball, where statistical analysis is more readily applicable to collective strategies.

“Tennis coaching has also traditionally been built on personal relationships between coaches and players, relying heavily on observation, experience, and hands-on guidance. The integration of analytics requires a shift in coaching methodologies.

“The final point is that tennis historically lacked comprehensive and standardised data collection. While basic statistics like aces and unforced errors have long been tracked, the depth and granularity of data were limited.

“It is also imperative to point out that smaller budgets and resource constraints in tennis compared to major team sports might have limited the investment in analytics infrastructure. Teams and organisations may prioritise other aspects of player development over the acquisition and implementation of advanced analytics technologies,” added Prof. Deb.

Granular match stats and player performance data are now aiding in in-depth technical analyses.

Granular match stats and player performance data are now aiding in in-depth technical analyses.
| Photo Credit:
Infosys Website

However, similar to how technology moved from enterprise level to personal computing, a pattern is being observed in tennis as well. An elite tennis player now travels with an entourage of scientific experts – fitness trainers, nutritionists, psychologists, analysts and doctors. The coach’s job is to gather all data dimensions of a player and distil the information into specific actions required to win the next match or tournament. With large datasets now made available, the analysis process is in-depth.

The human element

One could have all the gadgets and tools but what about the human mind? Players burst into anger, break racquets and argue endlessly with referees. What effect do these have on player performances? There are times when emotions are self-directed to channel their motivation to uplift performance. A television commentator once remarked, “Andy Murray speaks to himself more than commentators do with their microphones.”

And at times these are cues for the opponents to note. Most recently, World No.1 Novak Djokovic told CBS News’ 60 Minutes interview that he even observes how his opponent is breathing so that he can strategise. Surely, that cannot be quantified!

“It is well documented that when the energy level is low, the player wants to finish the point faster,” said Mankad. “Contrary to their behaviour in the training sessions, I’ve seen top players rushing through the points when their energy levels dip or due to external situations like a bad line call or the crowd rooting for their opponent.

“The coach’s observation of such situations is paramount to the athlete’s development since this is beyond statistics and data analysis,” added Mankad.

Way ahead

What all of this suggests is that technology is a tool that aids in better decision-making by humans. In the world of tennis, the plethora of products and services available are consumed by athletes, coaches, fans and administrators as means to arrive at finer conclusions.

“When you consider the tennis ecosystem, Infosys has launched over 30 innovations converging the power of AI, cloud, metaverse, mixed reality, and other new-age tech,” said Virmani.

“MatchBeats, Second Screen, and Courtvision 3D are innovative solutions that ingest data from sources like the chair umpire’s tablet, the high-definition cameras deployed by Hawk-Eye, and the speed gun deployed on the court. Then, within a few milliseconds, they produce easy-to-understand visual output for fans,” Virmani added.

In today’s world, a day without technology is unimaginable. But as the oft-repeated mantra goes, ‘AI will not replace humans, but humans with AI will replace humans without AI.’

“Advancements in technology, increased data availability and the success stories of analytics in other sports have prompted a growing recognition of the value analytics can bring,” said Prof. Deb. “As the sport evolves, analytics integration will likely become more commonplace.”

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Tennis is very important but not everything in my life: Sania Mirza, on retirement

Tennis is and will remain a significant aspect of Sania Mirza’s life but the legendary player says that not treating the sport as the be-all and end-all gave her the freedom to unleash her aggressive game every time she stepped on court.

Sania, who is bidding adieu to the game, says she never had the fear of losing in her heart because it makes a player defensive.

ALSO READ | I can now spend more time with my son: Sania Mirza

The 36-year-old conjured up wins against one the best players of her era — then US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Swiss legend Martina Hingis, Nadia Petrova, and Flavia Penneta.

Although she lost her singles matches to the legends of the game — Serena Williams and Venus Williams — she put up a decent fight when she was pitted against the American sisters.

“What made me that aggressive and that mindset was of actually not having the fear of losing,” Sania told PTI in an interview.

“For me, tennis was always and is always going to be a very, very large and big and important part of my life, but it is not my entire life. And that is the mindset I went with, even as a young girl and as a professional athlete. The worst that can happen is that you can lose a tennis match and then come back and try again.

“So, the fear of losing was not there. And I think a lot of people become defensive because they have the fear of losing. They think ‘oh if we push the ball or put the ball inside the court, maybe we won’t lose’. But, in the long run, that doesn’t work to become a top athlete.”

It’s just losing a tennis match

As an athlete you work to get as many wins under your belt as possible and such a risky style would not let you do that. Since she was always prepared to lose matches, did the defeats affect Sania?

“No, they affected me. But I knew I could try again next week. They affected me in the moment, some defeats more than the others. But I always knew that was not the end of the world. It was just losing a tennis match.”

The gift of forehand

The Indian ripped forehands from impossible-looking angles, a game style that brought much success in her almost two-decade long career in which she won three women’s doubles Grand Slam trophies and as many mixed doubles titles.

So did it come naturally or she had to work to develop such a shot? “I think it was a bit of both. I think I was gifted with the timing. I was gifted with the way I struck the ball. But I think there was a lot of work that went into my grip. There was a lot of effort that went in to bringing variation into the shot.

“That was just repetition, there was a lot of work that went into making the shot deceptive, where people are not able to read it. I think it was a mix of both. Repetitions, I think that is what I can tell you and working different angles of the court.

Don’t know if change in grip resulted in injury

Sania began with a western grip but, on the advise of coaches, she modified it to a semi-western grip. It was the ‘Indian’ wrist that allowed her to create those tough angles. But was it also a reason for her getting a career-threatening wrist injury which later forced her to quit singles?

“I actually don’t know. I mean the thing is I have a very hyper-mobile joint structure. So, I don’t know if the injury would have happened with the western grip also, if it would not have happened with the continental grip.

“I can’t really get into a hypothetical situation. I mean I had a wrist injury and that was it. So, you had to just deal with it.” But there is also a view that she chose the easy route by quitting singles.

“I don’t react to it, I don’t really care what people say.”

I don’t care what people think of doubles format

The doubles format is considered by many a side show as against the singles, which tests all aspects of your game — fitness, movement, ground-strokes, stamina and mental fortitude.

In the fast-paced doubles, the reflexes and reactions become much more important as you cover just half the court.

Sania said her singles success gets overshadowed because of her doubles exploits.

“I got a lot of respect (because of doubles). I am very grateful for that. I had a great singles career.

“I was not number one but I was top-30 which has not happened from our side of the world in a very long time. Never happened for women and even for men, the last person was Vijay (Amritraj) or Ramesh (Krishnan), it was a long haul, we had someone playing as top-30 singles player and I had good success.

“Then I moved on to the doubles because my body was not able to take it after three surgeries and it was a right call. Being number one in the world at whatever you do is amazing.

“It does not really matter what people say. It (success) looks much more in doubles because I was number one in doubles. In the fraternity there is lot of respect for each other.”

The most vulnerable, weakest and the strongest

She is combative by nature but there would be moments, like in any athlete’s life, where you feel vulnerable. When did Sania feel the strongest?

“The weakest I felt was when I had a really bad wrist injury during the 2008 Olympics. I would say that probably was the time when I went through a lot of mental health issues, when I had depression.

“Being at the peak of my career not knowing if I would be able to play again or if I would be able to comb my hair. I would say I had where I felt very weak.

“And where I felt the strongest, I would say there were many times where I felt very strong, but probably the most invincible was during the middle of 2014-end till the middle of 2016. Those almost two years of my playing life were incredible.

“There are not many athletes who get to go on the court and feel like you are not going to lose a tennis match, or any match.

“You feel like you are stepping on the court and you’ve almost half won the match just by stepping on the court. That was the feeling that used to happen when Martina (Hingis) and I were stepping on the court for that period of time.”

They won the Wimbledon (2015), US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016) in an incredible run.

The missed Olympic medal

Sania has medals from many multi-sport big-ticket events like the CWG and the Asian Games but an Olympic medal eluded her. She came closest in 2016, when she and Rohan Bopanna competed in the bronze play-off, but lost to the Czech pair of Radek Stepanek and Lucie Hradceka.

“I am very content with what I have achieved. To represent India in four Olympics has been so so amazing. If I could have one moment back it would be that bronze medal match, or the match before that, when we played the semifinals.”

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Aryna Sabalenka | When power meets poise

Before 2023, anybody who had watched Aryna Sabalenka at her best would have wondered why she had not made it past the semifinals of a Grand Slam singles event. She had the ‘big game’ — a powerful serve and a crushing forehand, a combination that her idols Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova possessed and one that lends itself to going all the way at a Major. 

But in 19 singles main-draw appearances between 2017 and 2022, Sabalenka did not progress past the fourth round on 16 occasions. The three times she did, she exited in the semifinals. In an era of women’s tennis where breaking through is a relatively common occurrence — there were as many as 15 first-time Grand Slam winners between 2015 and 2022 — Sabalenka’s struggles were all the more stark. 

So when the 24-year-old won her maiden Grand Slam in Australia this year, it felt like validation — not just for Sabalenka but also for her supporters and those who rated her game. It was also the culmination of an inspiring journey of self-discovery which had started at rock bottom.

Twelve months earlier, her serve was in pieces, leaving her in tears as her confidence was shredded under attacks of debilitating nerves. Reduced to serving underarm in a disastrous lead-up to Melbourne in 2022, she was suffering a severe case of the ‘yips’. Over the season, she dished out more than 400 double-faults! 

Malfunctioning weapon

Imagine a point-ending weapon, a cannonball serve, malfunctioning when you most need it. It isn’t merely unnerving, it’s career-threatening. That was Sabalenka’s plight for a large part of 2022. But it was also a year in which her resilience stood out, for she began piecing her serve back together and fortifying her mental game, simply refusing to yield. 

Sabalenka has a tattoo of a tiger on her arm, which has earned her the nickname ‘The Tiger’, but it wasn’t until last year, she said, that she really started living its spirit.

“I became more of a fighter than I used to be,” she said. “Before it was just, like, a nice tattoo. [But last year] I was fighting with myself, which is a completely different fight, and I learned a lot about myself. The [2022] season started as the worst season, but in the end I think it was the best season for me because I became even stronger, and like mentally stronger.”

Sabalenka approached her problems with an open mind, seeking solutions not just from her coaching team but also from a sports psychologist and a biomechanical specialist. 

During her run to the semifinals of the 2022 US Open, she was working with a biomechanics trainer to confront the technical root of her issues and build a new service motion. Tweaking technique mid-tournament is hard enough; full-scale reconstruction is incredibly risky. But Sabalenka’s courageous attitude shone through.

Full-scale reconstruction: Sabalenka worked with a biomechanical specialist to build a new service motion — a courageous decision that has certainly paid off

Things began to click into place at the WTA Finals, where she won a significant psychological victory. Although beaten in the final by Caroline Garcia, Sabalenka toppled Iga Swiatek in the semifinals. 

It wasn’t merely the avenging of a loss: Swiatek had defeated Sabalenka in the semifinals of the US Open. It was also affirmation that Sabalenka could beat an ‘unbeatable’ player. Swiatek, in addition to having a dominant head-to-head record against Sabalenka, had built a streak of 37 wins and had not lost in 15 matches against top-ten players. But Sabalenka subdued the World No. 1, sealing the massive upset win with the last of 12 aces.

Sabalenka carried this momentum into 2023, winning the Adelaide International 1 title ahead of the Australian Open. She did it, moreover, after dropping her sports psychologist in pre-season — a big decision, but one she was convinced of.

Taking responsibility

“I realised that nobody other than me will help, you know?” she explained. “I spoke to my psychologist, saying: ‘I feel like I have to deal with that by myself because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem.’ I decided that I have to take responsibility and deal with that. I’m my own psychologist.”

In Melbourne, she was often imperious. She did not drop a set on her way to the final, her power game overwhelming opponents. The shaky serve that had haunted her so badly was now a thing of the past, replaced by a cleaner, meaner version. 

And never was her new mental steel better illustrated than under the glare of the Rod Laver Arena lights in the final, where Sabalenka clawed her way back after losing her first set of the tournament (and year) to beat Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

First-strike tennis: At her best, Sabalenka overwhelms opponents with her crushing forehand

First-strike tennis: At her best, Sabalenka overwhelms opponents with her crushing forehand

She needed four match-points to serve out and clear the final hurdle, a double-fault costing one of them as the tension became almost unbearable. But the new version of Sabalenka kept calm and carried on where the old one would have wilted, to become the Australian Open champion.

“I still feel like I’m on another planet trying to understand what just happened,” she said. “It was just too crazy, I was just super happy that I was able to handle all the emotions and break through this wall.”

So what now for Sabalenka, who will be a marked woman and regarded very differently when she next hits the circuit as a reigning Grand Slam champion? “Yeah, it’s going to be different,” she said, adding that she was enjoying her time off because she needed “to calm down and start over again”.

There will be opportunities to add to her trophy cabinet, but she does not yet know if she will be able to compete in Wimbledon, where the grass suits her style. The Belarusian, a semifinalist in 2021, was one of several high-ranked players blocked from Wimbledon last year after the All England Club implemented a ban on Russian and Belarusian players in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While her Grand Slam schedule may have an air of uncertainty about it, there are no doubts over what she can achieve once she sets her mind to it. For, her success in conquering her inner demons proves that Sabalenka now knows how to find a zen-like peace while losing none of her inner competitive tiger.

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