The Secret to Winning Pro Tennis: Big Data
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Moneyball’s impact is still being felt in other sports, and tennis is next.
By Kevin Fixler
Move over Billy Beane — baseball isn’t the only sport that’s buddying up to big data.
Tennis pros — often driven by their coaches — are increasingly turning to data recorders from the likes of IBM, SAP and other tech firms that track the distance players run, where they hit important serves and all sorts of other metrics. Essentially, these datasets can help players pinpoint certain patterns or preferred strategies of opponents, as well as predictable tendencies in their own game that they may want to avoid. And you can bet that numerous figures were closely scrutinized during the Nov. 9-16 ATP World Tour Finals in London — the last event of the season, where distinguished names like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray duked it out on court.
Within five years’ time, tennis will become completely caught up to the analytics revolution.
Supporters of this approach say numbers can be the difference between winning and losing a match — and can also help a pro making the leap from good to great and enter elite status in the rankings. Some even argue that if a player isn’t already incorporating significant statistical analysis into their training regimen, they’re operating with a notable handicap. “I firmly believe that all players will enjoy a greater percentage of success once they tap into it,” says Craig O’Shannessy, the Aussie founder of the website Brain Game Tennis and a leading advocate of the analytics movement in the sport. “Within five years’ time, tennis will become completely caught up to the analytics revolution. That wave will have crashed.”
Indeed, James Blake, a former No. 4 player in the world, has wondered how his career might have played out differently had he been able to access the amount of analytical data available in the sport today. The 34-year-old self-admitted stat geek (he spent two years at Harvard as an economics major and more recently took up the hobby of playing cash poker) retired last year after an impressive career that included winning the 2005 ATP Comeback Player of the Year Award after breaking his neck the season prior. He was also a three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, though he never collected one of tennis’s annual crown jewels: a major singles title. Could data have been his secret weapon? “I wonder if it actually would have been a huge benefit to me, or [whether] I would have thought about it too much,” Blake tells OZY. “I really can’t say for sure, but I think the more knowledge you have, the better chance you have.”
Advanced data-driven rumblings in tennis date back to 2002, when Hawk-Eye — a line-review officiating system that uses data-capturing cameras, 3-D positioning technology and virtual reality software, among other technical prowess — rolled out to determine whether a ball bounced in or out of the court. The system displays the outcome of a bounce within five seconds of the ball landing to players, the umpire and fans — and, on average, helps get 30 percent of calls overturned, according to the company’s website. It also saves “statistical stories relevant to the match in hand,” though many players have only started using this information to help perfect their game in recent years. Since its debut, though, the volume of statistical knowledge at the sport’s disposal has increased dramatically.
… now it becomes possible to really have that analytical, ‘Moneyball’ effect.
But not everyone from the sport’s old guard is sold on this numbers-centric approach. Former world No. 1 player Andy Roddick argues talent and strategy on the court — not a digital breakdown of every move — is the ultimate indicator for success. “I don’t think [it’s] in the analytics or numbers; I never really bought in too much to that,” the 2003 U.S. Open winner tells OZY. During his heyday, Roddick used to look at just two stats that told him “the story” of all his matches: his first-serve percentage and break points won. “You can play a great match and if you go 0-for-8 on break points, you’re going to be on the wrong side of it,” he says.
Even O’Shannessy can’t point to a single player currently on tour who is employing a coach specifically dedicated to analyzing and interpreting all this data. But based on what’s happening with the level of research in all of the other major sports, he doesn’t see it too far off in the future. On top of that, he notes, some players may just be tight-lipped about their scouting techniques in the interim. “They should be somewhat secretive with what they’re doing in this area,” says O’Shannessy.
Blake, who was a runner-up to Federer in the 2006 ATP World Tour Finals (then known as the Tennis Masters Cup), which is sometimes thought of as the fifth major of the season, will never know for certain whether analytics could have helped him in the end. “I think it would have made me a lot more studious, because scouting reports were pretty basic [then],” he says. “With the ability to really see all the groundstrokes, the pace that they’re going, where they’re going — now it becomes possible to really have that analytical, Moneyball effect.”