Statistics the new force in keeping winners winning on the tennis court
As the former coach of Kim Clijsters and Sabine Lisicki, and the current adviser to world No.4 and recent Serena-slayer Simona Halep, Wim Fissette has been known to quiz his players after matches about certain vital statistics. He might ask, for example where his charge thought she directed her serves to the deuce court? Down the T, or out wide?
“They’re, ‘Yeah, I went like 50-50’, and then I showed them it was 80-20,” says Fissette, who originally logged the statistics with a pen and paper. Used to. And if it is clear that perception does not always equal reality when it comes to tennis patterns and performance, then it is also true that a sport which had long lagged behind the scientific leaders in the provision and analysis of data is now catching up.
Fissette, for example, has exchanged his manual tools for a tablet device delivering comprehensive statistics and on-court tracking information via an app developed by the WTA’s software analytics partner SAP. “It’s easier and much more accurate this way,” says the Belgian, who, like his WTA colleagues, will next year be able to utilise the tablet during sanctioned on-court coaching breaks.
World No.7 Ana Ivanovic suspects that seeing may lead to believing. “It’s one thing when you’re playing and you have certain feelings and things that you think you’re doing right or wrong,” she says. “But then when you have the fact that actually it’s maybe different than what you feel, it’s sometimes very encouraging.”
Or not. Still, now that the data is available, WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster stresses that it is a matter of personal choice whether to use it, while likening the development to electronic line-calling technology in that if “the athlete’s emotional about something, this will be able to calm her down”.
For while WTA players and coaches currently receive post-match point-by-point analysis from SAP, this takes the application a step further; instead of a tool to use in preparation and review, there will be real-time access – with a 15-second delay, to accommodate potential Hawkeye challenges – during matches.
An example: Fissette recalls a time during his successful three slam-winning collaboration with Clijsters, the pair was preparing for a clash with Victoria Azarenka. “Every break point Azarenka was serving wide, and I told Kim that actually before the match,” he says. “But if it happens during the match and I can show the statistics, she will believe it more.
“So what will happen in the future is that you will have to play with more variation, because everybody will know [how you play]. It will raise the game of women’s tennis, for sure. Everybody sees what you are doing, so you will have to be more complete and become a better player.”
Tennis has not been renowned for its cutting-edge use of data and statistics (although Tennis Australia’s acclaimed video analysis program deserves honourable mention), much as the AFL was once measured in basic kicks, marks, and handballs but has now become far more sophisticated.
The 2014 season has been the first in the WTA’s five-year deal with SAP, a German company that also works with golf, formula one, cricket, baseball, basketball, soccer and others. Yet, while Ivanovic and Australian Sam Stosur are known as two athletes with an appetite for the software, the majority still rely on their coaches to filter and disseminate the data.
Experienced American coach Nick Saviano, now working with Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard, warns of the perils of living on stats alone, however much more advanced and useful the data has become. “The transformation has been exponential,” says Saviano. “The information at your fingertips now really helps you to quantify exactly what’s going on, but it’s very, very important that those statistics are augmented by the eyes of a coach, because statistics alone can be very deceiving.”
As to whether the on-court initiative, recently approved by the WTA board, will make a significant difference during matches, Saviano said: “I think it will be helpful but, like anything else, there is the science of coaching and there the art of coaching, and somebody has to use the combination of the two.”
Opinion on the desirability of on-court coaching itself – introduced as a broadcast tool in 2008 – remains somewhat divided, and it continues to be banned by the grand slams and the men’s tour, the ATP. Critics argue that tennis is a gladiatorial sport that should be decided between those competing, and that on-court coaching also disadvantages the admittedly dwindling few without the resources to employ full-time coaches. Or good ones, even.
As Nigel Sears said in a recent interview with London’s Daily Telegraph: “The only thing you could say in its favour is that it would level the playing field for those who can’t afford a decent coach. A weak coach might find it useful; a good one will be logging everything that happens anyway.”
To that end, SAP’s head of tennis technology, Jenni Lewis, says the four key delivery points for coaches have been serve direction, contact return point, rally strike point, and shot placement. But, having started relatively simply, match stats can now be tailored to make them situational.
So, we might know how many aces, but when, where, and in what situations were they served? What tends to happen on 0-30 points? 40-0? Deuce? When the first point is won, how often does the game follow? How does a player’s court positioning change on key points? Do they retreat or advance? And how has that changed since 2008?
As to why it has been so long in coming, Lewis says the technology of tracking is far more advanced now, so it is now more about how best to consume it. Fissette believes it lacked accuracy and clarity previously, while Allaster says tennis has been a traditional sport, and slow to embrace change.
“The information is there today,” she says. “A coach can watch a match on a broadcast and take the handwritten notes or can sit in the stands. But I think, you know, run simple. Run efficiently. Run faster. That’s what this is about.”
There is also a fan-based element, with summary information available at present, and decisions to be made about how much more will come. “How deep do we go?” says Lewis. “We all have to be mindful of gambling and things along those lines. So for us, it’s really focused on the athlete, giving them the detailed information.”
This week, amid the comfortable chairs and huddled groups in the player lounge at the WTA finals in Singapore, directly behind a quietly preparing Caroline Wozniacki was the desk that houses the statistical and analytical nerve centre, available to all. It seems there is a new player in tennis, and it’s not just the likes of Halep and Bouchard that are improving before our eyes.
Linda Pearce was in Singapore as a guest of SAP.