This weekend’s highly anticipated Davis Cup quarterfinal between the host United States and Spain is more than a meeting of nations who have combined to capture three of the last four titles. It’s a science project.
USTA high performance coaches will convene in Austin, Texas this weekend for a seminar on using technology to build better tennis players. It may sound like tennis is taking a cue from Terminator films; in reality it’s a case of the sport getting up to speed with baseball and football in using video-tagging technology to analyze patterns of play. The USTA has partnered with Dartfish, a Windows-based software program producer, to analyze tactical tendencies of its elite junior and pro players. Dave Ramos, USTA coordinator for coaching education and sports science, will meet with about 20 high-performance coaches to analyze the Davis Cup matches and detail how Dartfish can help player development efforts.
"The old way of thinking about video analysis was working exclusively on players’ technique," Ramos says. "We still use video for the technical aspect, but using tagging with Dartfish enables us to extract tendencies of play during a course of the match."
Dartfish has worked with the International Tennis Federation, the French Tennis Federation, the Swiss Tennis Federation, Tennis Canada, the Argentine Tennis Federation, the USPTA, IMG Academies as well as several Major League Baseball teams. Coaches videotape matches and use the tagging software, which starts a timer at the beginning of the match, to timestamp key performance indicators. For instance, a coach could tag all second serves a player hits in a match, or tag all break points.
"Players and coaches don't want to sit and watch a three-hour videotape right after a match, and if you wait too long the benefit [of video] is largely lost," Ramos says. "But if I said, 'Let's take 10 minutes and watch the key performance indicator points of a match,' we could review those critical match moments in 15 minutes and both the players and coaches are much more likely to watch it.
"We just ordered kits for our national coaches so the coaches can travel with a small hard drive and camera. They mount the camera on the back face and use their iPhone or iPad to tag the match, and sit down to discuss the patterns and defining moments five or 10 minutes after the match, when it’s still fresh for the player.”
Dartfish's tennis software is designed to help coaches and players accurately analyze match-defining moments, to illustrate what patterns a player favored on pivotal points—and determine if those patterns were successful. Sometimes, a player's post-match perception of point construction can be skewed.
"We tagged Andy Roddick's match versus Marcos Baghdatis at the Australian Open," says Warren Pretorius, Dartfish manager of tennis and a USPTA master professional. "When Roddick was serving on the 30-all points, we found his first-serve percentage was 75 percent, his average first-serve speed was 125 mph or higher, and he served down the T 86 percent of the time. Tagging showed Roddick was losing a little more than 50 percent of those points serving down the T, whereas in the 14 percent of the points he served out wide, he won every point. After the match, Andy was asked about his serve and he said he thought he was mixing it up well. It’s amazing how often players will resort to the same tendencies when under stress—they do what they’re most comfortable doing in those moments. A recent study on match charting shows that often what players and coaches think they are doing is not actually always happening, so that's why the ability to chart and review those match-defining moments can be so helpful."
Cost of the Dartfish software starts at around $1,000, with additional fees if Dartfish tags and does the analysis for an organization.
"We lease the software as well and offer a service model where we will do the tagging and analysis,” Pretorius says. “For instance, we’re doing the full service for all of the Nike tennis camps.”
In a global game where some coaches do not always travel to all tournaments, coach and player can still jointly analyze matches using Dartfish. The USTA has created Dartfish TV video accounts for its high-performance coaches and elite players who attend USTA regional training centers, enabling both to review matches. The technology can be used to review past performances and help players prepare for future matches.
“If one of our coaches wants his player to try to develop patterns similar to John Isner, we can create a video of Isner’s patterns, post it to the player’s Dartfish account and the player receives an email alert that the video is available,” Ramos says. “Then the player can see a series of patterns and mimic those. If Jose Higueras wants to review the importance of recognition and anticipation, I can pull a bunch of points and put them together to illustrate exactly what he’s teaching."
Isner says his coach will sometimes use the technology to reinforce his need to apply unrelenting pressure on opponents.
"My coach gets the videos and he’ll look it over and when he thinks I need to see something he’ll have me look at it as well, and that’s why I bring him on the road—he’s great," Isner says. "In my case, it’s not necessarily tendencies we’re looking at. It’s more playing the right way at the right time. There’s a lot of times I’ll just play too passive and since I’m not going to play defense as well as most guys can, I can’t get away with passive play. I gotta play more aggressive and sometimes [seeing the video] of those key points is a good reminder of that."
In other words, the tennis player’s traditional post-match activities—stretching, icing, rehydrating and texting results to family and friends—may well increasingly include firing up the laptop to see where things went right—or wrong.
For more information on Dartfish, click here.