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How Data Analytics Is Changing Tennis For The Better

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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Angelique Kerber and Lindsay Davenport discuss SAP’s big data analytics technology, used this month in-game for the first time

In professional tennis, players and coaches can now access real-time performance data on an iPad during live match play.

The SAP Tennis Analytics for coaches, powered by SAP HANA, was used for the first time ever at the recent Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University, California.

During the tournament, TechWeekEurope caught up with current World No. 11, Angelique Kerber, and former World No. 1 turned coach/commentator, Lindsay Davenport, to find out why analytics tech is a game changer.

Lindsay Davenport and Angelique Kerber

Lindsay, as a commentator you’re used to having access to real-time analytics. Now we’re giving it to the players and coaches. What impact do you think this will have?

When we’re in a booth we’ve always been very spoiled by being able to get whatever data we want. That could be where the forehand goes, where the serve goes, where the second serve goes. For me, I’d be at home watching other sports and, for example, in American football there’s not one play that isn’t completely covered that the coaches don’t know about and the players aren’t getting. And in tennis you’d have the tennis coaches sitting there not being able to track the games properly. They’d have to track so much in their heads. When you’re able to have the data in front of you as a tennis coach it just seems like the natural, next frontier of helping the coaches help the players to play better, and that’s really what it’s all about.

I’ve been able to experience it on all three sides. I retired at the 2008 US Open, and on-court coaching had just come into play. So I got to experience it in that US Open series. Then I got to experience it as a broadcaster, being able to see what the coaches bring to the court, and now being a coach myself as well. There are so many advantages that a tablet and stats can bring to a coach, but also to a player. It’s interesting to see how a player can utilise it, examining their opponents’ weakness, seeing their opponents’ patterns. I have to think it’s only going to help the level of tennis out there.

Bank of the West Classic - Day 3

Angie, how do you prepare for matches?

My coach is watching my opponents before I play, then we sit down together the night before and talk a little bit about my next opponent. Now it’s much easier for the coaches. I think the partnership with SAP is the perfect idea. It’s good for us to see everything so much easier. The coaches can come to us with a tablet and show us how we can get more information about players and about the first points and break points. That’s really important for us. I think it’s good for the players to get more feedback and information to prepare for matches and our opponents.

You’re a player who takes advantage of on-court coaching. What are the types of things you’ve focused on during a match?

When I’m struggling I call my coach and he just reminds me what I should do and what we talked about before – plan A and, of course, we also have a plan B if something isn’t right. I think my coach is very excited that this is coming out right now. He’s been talking with me the past few weeks about this and been preparing for this technology coming out so now let’s try it. I’m really looking forward to it.

It’s a big step for the future and a game changer for the players. Every player is different and they’ll each decide if they want to use it or not. I will use it for sure because it will help my game and can help me to turn around a match if I’m struggling. My coach can come and show me something and I can change it. Now I have a lot more things to talk about during the on-court coaching. Maybe we’ll need more time!

Lindsay, you currently coach World No. 16 Madison Keys. How do you prepare for matches as her coach?

The big thing about being a coach is to not only give your player the best chance to succeed with their own game but also give them tips about their opponent – what their weaknesses are, what their strategy will most likely be and how do you combine the two to be successful.

I share coaching duties with my husband and we decide before, months in advance, who’s going to a tournament, who’s going on court etc. But we definitely feel we know what is important for Maddison to be doing. She hits the ball very hard. Sometimes too hard! For a player who has a big serve in a big game we’re more concerned about the first few shots in a rally rather than eight to 12 ball rallys. So, perhaps our data analysis would focus on where she’s serving, what’s her opponent’s best return.

We pre-programmed one of the tablets before the tournament and it was exciting the night before the tournament began to have it with us. I got in trouble from some people because it looked like I was on my phone but we were actually on the tablet trying to figure out what was going on in matches. I think when the coaches get more experience using this and they know exactly what they’re looking for it’s going to be fantastic.

Television commentators’ analysis will also get a little bit better and everyone will get closer to the player/coach relationship.

Angie, how aware are you of match stats while you’re playing?

It’s more my coach who is thinking about that during the matches. We talk about statistics and analytics during practice but out on the court you’re not thinking about the stats. You play your game.

But it’s important that when something’s going wrong during a match and your coach comes to you and explains something, you understand what he’s saying because you’ve talked about it beforehand. It’s really important for me and I’m sure it is for the other players.

SAP has great technology. They’re also working with our national football team, Germany, and they won the World Cup, so what can I say? It’s a German company and everything is great, so it’s the perfect partnership.

Bank of the West Classic - Day 3

Lindsay, is Maddison aware of strategy in relation to the stats during a match or is that something she leaves to you?

I don’t think she worries about that stuff on court. She’s a player that 100 percent believes in the coaching visits and getting information and getting helped during matches. It’s fantastic for us as coaches to feel you can have a real impact during a match.

As coaches, we’re completely geeked out that we can actually show the player, and give her visual proof of, what’s been going on in matches. During the match players have a lot of things to think about and stats can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s up the the coach to make it very easy for the player and I’m very positive that this technology is making that happen.

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