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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