Big data capture and analysis technologies, ranging from IBM’s Watson to the Hawk-Eye tracking system, are working together to digitize tennis tournaments and fascinate fans on and off the court.
Grand slam tennis tournaments — The Australian Open, The French Open, Wimbledon and The U.S. Open — maintain time honored traditions, but in recent years tennis fans have witnessed many technology innovations on the court and on screens.
The U.S Open tennis tournament attracts nearly a quarter of a million fans to Arthur Ashe stadium in Queens, New York, over a two week period starting in late August. Millions more tune in to watch their favorite matches on TV, online and even on mobile apps. But this year, fans will experience a fusion of digital technologies that could make them smarter and more passionate about the game of tennis.
While the caliber of professional competition continues to climb with tennis stars like Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Monica Puig, a combination of cutting-edge technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and 360-degree video capture and replay are poised to pull fans deeper into the sport.
Sports Video Group News reported that Intel’s Voya Axis 360-degree replay technology, previously known as FreeD before Intel acquired Replay Technologies, relies on 36 cameras installed around Arthur Ashe Stadium to freeze a moment in time and virtually spin the image in a full 360-degree rotation.
ESPN stated its the only network to use the tech at a major tennis tournament. Capturing the action from every angle is one of several ways the game of tennis is being digitized in order to bring new fan experiences.
During the U.S. Open, tennis is played simultaneously on up to 19 courts, resulting in more than two weeks’ worth of action. That action broadcasts around the world, but it’s also captured by digital cameras and analyzed by computers in near real-time — to help players dispute bad calls and help fans see every point, game and set score, as well as the speed of a player’s serve.
“The U.S. Open is the most-attended annual sporting event in the world,” said Nicole Jeter West, the former managing director of digital strategy for the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA).
“Yet the tournament is only relevant in the eyes of tennis fans for two weeks,” she said. “It’s critical fans are given reliable and meaningful insight to make the most of their experience.”
Data is at the heart of the U.S. Open digital experience, according to IBM’s Noah Syken. For decades, IBM has helped the USTA leverage cutting-edge digital technologies to connect tennis fans to major tournaments like Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
These technologies have evolved from IT support and the advent of SlamTracker live scoring to the use of IBM Watson to do predictive analytics about the tournament and feed fans the right social media at the right time.
Watson’s ability to analyze large amounts of data, including messy, long-form information, is what allowed the computer to defeat some of the greatest Jeopardy! champions of all time at their own game.
Syken told SportsTechie that cognitive computing power of IBM Watson can read and interpret player press conferences to understand how the player’s mindset might have changed over the years.
“Is that player becoming more positive in how they talk to the press or becoming more optimistic about their game and what is going to happen on the court?” he asked, explaining that this kind of analysis is valuable to players and fans.
Thinking Two Shots Ahead
Great tennis players are able to think several shots ahead, like when they set up winning shot by building long volleys on the court. IBM’s Watson will allow the U.S. Open to do the same thing on social media.
Anyone can look and see what’s trending on Twitter, but Watson’s cognitive computing will predict what’s going to be trending soon, allowing the Open’s social media team to spark or feed memes that peak fans’ interests at the right time.
Watson was first used in this capacity in June, for the Wimbledon tournament, enabling the communications team “to not just look at and respond to trends, but to actually pre-empt them,” Alexandra Willis, Wimbledon’s head of communications, told Forbes Magazine before the start of the tournament.
“We’re hoping this will help in our quest, not necessarily to always be first but certainly to be early into the conversation when critical things are happening,” she said.
“We are starting to use Watson in the programmatic advertising space,” Syken continued. “So, the sports properties (like U.S. Open) should be able to deliver more relevant messages and more relevant engagements through cognitive systems that know more about their fans.”
Big Data Means Better Broadcasting
Cognitive computing will also be gleaning digitized data from action on the court. SlamTracker, the IBM data analysis tool used at the U.S. Open for several years, provides fans with an easily-readable dashboard showing the action on all 19 courts in real time. It also notifies the media team about interesting player stats, like when and where the fastest serve of the year took place or when a player hits a significant career milestone.
Watson processes the tennis data and puts it into perspective. More than 41 million data points of historical Open performances help Watson predict which strategies will work best in upcoming matches.
That information will be used to power the Three Keys to the Match, a popular feature of SlamTracker analysis. Based on historical data, Watson and SlamTracker can come up with three strategies that represent each player’s best route to victory.
“Broadcasters can look at SlamTracker and sound smarter,” West said.
Even players and coaches can someday turn to Watson for on-court strategy advice, something Serena Williams considered in her recent conversation with Watson.
Keep an Eye on the Ball
Technology has helped revolutionize tennis officiating. For the last 10 years, the U.S. Open has used Hawk-Eye tennis system cameras to automate line-judging. Prior to that, human judges had to determine, in real time, whether a ball was in or out, leading to some epic player meltdowns.
Hawk-Eye is able to track the ball and take the objective decisions out of human hands.
The system was originally developed for use by television broadcasters, to monitor how well umpires were doing on close calls.
“What we quickly found out,” said company founder Paul Hawkins, “is that an umpire, sitting at center court had the worst seat in the house. People watching at home had much more information available.”
After some controversial blown calls in high-profile matches, Hawk-Eye was given the chance to make the deciding call on the court, provided it could demonstrate accuracy. The accuracy benchmark was set at an average of no more than five millimeters variation. Hawk-Eye came in at 3.6 mm and was adopted by most major tennis events.
Over the past decade, Hawk-Eye has further expanded its influence to other areas of the game. Replay cameras now assist officials in determining foot faults and other non-line-related decisions.
The next step will be on display at the U.S. Open, when cameras track and provide stats on the real-time location of players and the ball during matches. IBM and Hawk-Eye are both working on the ability to monitor on-court location throughout the matches. While Hawk-Eye uses on-court location information to position the SMART cameras, IBM collects the data and uses it to provide analysis.
“The player and ball tracking data will allow us to analyze not just statistics of what happened, but see where the ball is on the court, what’s happening when it lands and where the players are moving,” said IBM’s Elizabeth O’Brien.
Putting it all Together
Like an experienced doubles team, the ingredients of this year’s U.S. Open have all done well on their own. SlamTracker, Hawk-Eye and data analysis have all enhanced the fan experience at tennis tournaments for years. The difference today, is that the technology is enabling all the pieces to fit together and support each other.
Fans reacting to a Hawk-Eye automated replay will feed the stream of data Watson is analyzing, allowing the coverage to change, based on whether the audience loves or hates what they’re seeing.
All of which should help the U.S. Open to ace the fan experience, both in person and around the world.