From smart shirts to data-analyzing rackets and courts, new technology is playing a bigger role in the game of tennis.
While you keep your eye on the ball, your racket is keeping an eye on you. It’s your coach telling you to move your feet, your statistician telling you speed up your backhand and put more top spin on your forehand. It counts your strokes, measures the velocity of your serve and tells you when you’re bonking (don’t worry: it can tell you when your opponents bonk too).
The U.S. Open, which started this week at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, is like other Grand Slams in tennis, including the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, in that it attracts massive attention to the sport of tennis. The game, steeped in tradition, has become more global, and in recent years, new technologies have brought new interest in the game from pros, amateurs and fans.
While all eyes are on Roger or Serena, keen observers will take note that the ball boys are wearing form-fitting nylon shirts designed by Ralph Lauren, in partnership with smartwear company OMSignal. These shirts are equipped with biometric sensors that wirelessly measure heart rate and breathing without interfering with the ball boys’ work.
While some parts of tennis have traditionally been slow to embrace change (players will always have to wear white at Wimbeldon), new technologies are redefining how pros, enthusiasts and casual players approach the game.
The introduction of biometric clothing is one of several volleys into the world of smarter, data-driven play. Technology companies and sports-equipment firms are looking for other innovative ways to seamlessly integrate tech into tennis, and one of their biggest goals is using new and emerging systems to improve players’ abilities on the court — at all skill levels.
Building a Smarter Racket
Babolat, which invented natural-gut tennis strings in 1875 and is the longest-running company specializing in tennis products, has focused on enhancing what the racket itself can do. The Babolat Play is the world’s first ‘smart racket,’ capable of delivering a connected experience to users.
“If you watch the tournaments, you see a lot of data and percentages, but up until now there’s been no data coming from the racket itself,” said Susan DiBiase, U.S. marketing director for Babolat Play. “Most people who play tennis with their friends don’t have someone counting how many forehands or backhands they hit, or their statistics. Even people who take lessons with a coach don’t have access to this data.”
The Play has sensors equipped inside the handle that measure movement and vibrations from where a ball hits the string bed, along with a gyroscope, accelerometer and microprocessors. In tandem, these components are able to capture a wealth of data, tracking and identifying every type of stroke and ball impact. The information can then be transmitted to a smartphone or computer and analyzed to measure a player’s performance, as well as areas that need improvement.
Network connectivity is one of the main innovations of the Babolat Play — the racket can link players to a wider community that includes both enthusiasts and tennis celebrities, adding an element of social media that, in a sense, makes a single game part of a continuous worldwide tournament.
“Everybody who has one is inside the global [user] community, and you can choose to follow your friends or the pros who use it. You can compare your games with friends in the community, share stats and have fun,” added DiBiase.
“The application itself is pretty deep, there’s something there for everybody. Some people want to use it just as a performance improvement tool, some want to compete with their friends and for a lot of people it’s a way to motivate them to play the game more.”
Intel’s Chief Information Officer Kim Stevenson has had hands-on experience with the Babolat Play. In a column for USA Today, she explained that, “Like every self-analysis, the initial results can be exhilarating — and deflating. After more than 200 shots, my ‘smart’ racket tallied my results and determined that I was in the bottom quartile of players. My personalized data chart also showed me profiles of players in Japan and London who were hitting in the top quartile.”
Of course, this high-tech device couldn’t succeed unless it satisfied the requirements of a traditional racket.
“Tennis players are typically a pretty conservative group … they don’t like to change products and they can be slow to adapt, because one of the things players are nervous about is changing their specs,” said DiBiase.
Babolat was able to incorporate advanced technology into the racket without altering its size, weight or balance, so that players couldn’t tell the difference between the Play and a regular racket. This degree of seamless integration supports Moore’s Law, which holds that technology will continue to grow more powerful while shrinking in form factor.
“A lot of it is because tech is so much more advanced, processors are so much smaller and sensors are so much smaller,” noted DiBiase. “Our R&D department says that 10 years ago you would have had to carry 25 pounds of equipment and wires to get these results, but today you can use the exact same racket you’re accustomed to.”
A Whole-Court Solution
While Babolat is focused on upgrading the racket, consumer sports technology firm PlaySight has turned its attention to the tennis court as a whole. PlaySight’s SmartCourt is a system of five cameras, coupled with analytics and image-processing software, that enables users to analyze every aspect of a game. It records in real-time video and tracks both player and ball movement to provide a comprehensive picture of activity on the court. All the data can be analyzed immediately and then uploaded to a player’s personal account on the Web.
“Not only is it advanced technology, but it’s brought to you the same way as running apps like Nike Plus. We’re allowing the player to go online and see performance right away — a combination of advanced tech and social media,” said Chen Shachar, co-founder and CEO of PlaySight. “It’s not just a coaching mechanism, but also a system that makes the game more exciting, more challenging and more fun.”
Inspired by techniques used to train fighter pilots, SmartCourt is intended to give players and coaches a quantified, methodological process for maximizing performance. At its core is event-based analysis, or auto-tagging.
“The system automatically classifies every action on the court into a type of event, so the coach doesn’t have to watch two hours of unedited video to get a clear picture of the game,” explained Shachar. “In three clicks, you get a sorted list that reveals all the patterns of what a player’s doing right and wrong. There’s often a big gap between [what] you think happened and what actually happened, and our system closes that gap. It’s a sophisticated objective mirror.”
There’s also streaming capability, so users can upload their videos to the Internet or watch them live. A trainer can login from anywhere to watch the match, allowing for real-time remote coaching.
Apart from performance analysis, the system also provides built-in line-calling, minimizing the possibility of human error from line judges. Another key innovation is that SmartCourt can function without a dedicated operator.
“Once we set the goal that this would be the next step of evolution in tennis, we had to develop a technology that would enable that — it had to be affordable to the tennis club, easy to set up and easy to operate,” said Shachar. “We’re the first complex system of this sort that doesn’t require any operator.”
Ease of access is part of the company’s long-term goal of bringing high-tech capabilities into the hands of mainstream consumers. While watching the U.S. Open, viewers can see a steady stream of detailed statistics and match analyses, and SmartCourt aims to deliver the same level of detail and transparency to non-professional play.
Moreover, the big-data approach exemplified by Babolat Play and SmartCourt could have broader implications for the world of sports.
“Imagine big data — information and video from all over the world — letting you compare your performance with other players, find partners, have remote coaching,” said Shachar. “There are no limitations to what you can do once you have digital capability. We believe it will be the standard in the future, and we can see this type of tech coming everywhere you look in sports. Our product and R&D team has been working to determine which is the next sport where we can apply this technology. It might be basketball, baseball, ice hockey … ”
In the words of Martin Amis, tennis is “a beautiful game, but one so remorselessly travestied by the passage of time.”
As with many sports, even the most promising players among us tend to plateau over time, and performance inevitably deteriorates when we age past our prime.
Big data holds the promise of continuous improvement, and the chance to know how and why we succeed or fail in athletics. Whether you’re Rafa, Venus or a rec doubles player, tennis technology is helping improve your game.