The 2018 U.S. Open may be inextricably linked to the controversial women’s final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, which Osaka won. But the U.S. Open, and the wider world of tennis, are also linked to something else: technology.
Although the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA are leading the sports world in terms of technology adoption, tennis has significant potential to transform both player training and the fan experience using both established and emerging technologies.
That was the consensus view of a panel of tech and tennis experts CDW convened at the U.S. Open last month, and in follow-up conversations with BizTech. Augmented reality, 360-degree video and data analytics can help improve player training and give fans an enhanced view of the game.
Todd Martin, a former professional tennis player who is now the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, said that in sports in general, and definitely in tennis, the importance of technology to impact the business of the sport, the fan experience and player performance is growing by “leaps and bounds,” and that “it’s amazing to think about what could possibly come of it all.”
Video, Analytics Can Help Tennis Players Enhance Training
Technology can be used in a variety of ways to give tennis players and coaches more information about player performance and technique, the panelists noted.
However, they also cautioned that players may get overwhelmed with all of the new data, and that it is incumbent upon coaches to serve as filters, distilling the data into actionable information players can take into account in their training and on match days.
Steven Darrah, a director in Intel’s U.S. Channel Organization, notes that wearable technologies can track performance elements of players, from heart rate to how many steps they are taking to get to a certain place on the court. That data can be gathered and analyzed. Artificial intelligence and analytics can be used to process data on ball trajectory, ball spin and placement of shots, Darrah said. “There is so much that you can provide to the tennis player,” he adds.
Intel’s True View technology was also in use at the U.S. Open. The system uses 28, 5K high-definition cameras, each attached to a server that process terabytes of data every minute. The camera footage is then stitched together in real-time so that broadcasters can deliver fans 360-degree, immersive perspectives from literally any angle of any play.
“You can see a player striking the ball from all different angles, or see what it looks like to hit the ball from their vantage point” Darrah noted. “It really does add to the amount of input that you can provide and analysis of a player’s game.”
Martin said that, when he was coming up as a player, if a coach wanted him to see something in the way he was striking the ball or the technique of a stroke, the coach would advise him to go home and practice strokes up against a large mirror.
Now, however, players have access to a wealth of video data and analysis that can be used to enhance their development, Martin noted. “It’s mind-blowing,” he said. Martin said he was envious he did not have a technology like True View when he was a player.
“In the two-dimensional realm of stroke development, you can look just fine from head-on. But every time I’ve ever been in a coaching situation, I’m walking around the player,” Martin said. “I’m trying to get as many different angles of view.”
The flaw a coach can detect in a player’s stroke while looking from one angle might be different than another flaw they spot on the next stroke from the opposite angle, he said. Further, the ability of a tennis player to see the ball, hit it, hit it in the right way and take into account the opposing player’s position is enhanced by a tool like True View, Martin said.
“All of that analysis that the player is doing or the coach is doing benefits the player without putting the player into incessant repetitions and pounding and abuse of the body,” he said.
Martin and others noted that coaches must play a crucial role in only giving the player the data they need to know. “An individual tennis player has probably less than a second every time the ball goes back and forth on the court,” he said. “All the training that athlete does is to embed instincts and judgment. The moment you start putting extraneous information into that athlete’s head, it stands more to confuse than it does to benefit.”
Andy Eccles, general manager and CTO of services at CDW, said there is a clear parallel to the business world. “In business and in enterprise, we see customers who are at times almost drowning in data that is available, because they are inundated with sources,” he said. “And then making sense of that and orienting as to which data sources and which feeds are actually valuable so that you can make more informed decisions is the most difficult part. “It’s not the availability of the data,” Eccles said. “It’s the intrinsic analysis so that you can make some calls on business decisions or player decisions based on the information.”
360-Degree Video, AR Can Boost Tennis Fans’ Experience
Technology can also enhance the experience of tennis fans in significant ways. Intel’s True View technology is already being used on global broadcasts and showcased on video screens inside stadiums, Darrah said.
The use of technology in sports presents so many possibilities. For instance, AR could be used to give fans more information on players, he said. Fans could hold up their smartphones at a match and hover over a player, and a mobile application would then deliver player information, including their win-loss record, their seed in a tournament, statistics on how often they hit a first serve and other elements of their game.
Martin said that, in his current role with the hall of fame, he is constantly looking for ways in which technology can make the sport more engaging for fans. Currently, AR and virtual reality are difficult to deploy from a price standpoint unless there is a major tech company investing in the solution, he said. However, he said, “it can’t be too far down the road from where we are to being able deliver that to the masses at a much more efficient rate.”
The hall of fame, in Newport, R.I., is exploring using AR for an exhibit on how rackets have evolved throughout history, Martin said. The solution has been designed but not implemented, and it will allow patrons to hold up their mobile devices to rackets in an exhibit case and get digital information overlaid about the players that used that kind of racket, as well as video of the players.
Tennis as a sport must be “agile” in how the sport is presented to acquire new fans, especially those who might be turned off by other sports such as professional football due to concerns about concussions, said Tom Leinberger, business development manager for higher performance computing at CDW.
How Tennis Can Approach Digital Transformation
It will not be enough for tennis to simply embrace new technologies to enliven the sport and attract new fans, Eccles said.
A few months ago, an executive at a customer of CDW’s said that when thinking about digital transformation, her method is to start with the press release announcing what the company has achieved over the past three years, Eccles said. Organizations must outline their vision and then work backward to think through the changes in technology, human behavior and commercial decisions that will be needed to achieve that vision.
It is often forgotten, but should not be, that humans who use technology will need to change their behaviors, as well, Eccles said. “Behind digital transformation is human transformation, and without that you can’t achieve that vision that you have outlined,” he said.
Darrah agreed, and said that transformation in sports cannot just revolve around “technology for technology’s sake.” In the most successful digital transformation projects, the technology is “invisible,” and the focus is in “the experience you want to provide to the user or customer or fan.” The technology “needs to feel personable to them in many ways,” he said.