At this year's French Open, Babolat is debuting prototypes of its new “Play & Connect" racquet, which the company has dubbed the “racquet of the future.” (Steve Tignor, reporting from Paris for TENNIS.com, had the opportunity to see it for himself.)
I have to admit that I'm excited about the technology integrated into this stick. Which, while appearing to like an ordinary racquet, employs sensors in the handle and a USB port beneath the butt cap to record several performance metrics. Information like shots’ power and spin, as well as how consistently you swing and where you pocket the ball on the strings, are all measured by the on-board computer. The racquet can even determine the type of shot you’re hitting—whether it’s a forehand, backhand, or serve.
The idea behind Play & Connect is novel and intriguing: By helping players gather concrete, objective data about their matches and/or practice sessions, such “smart racquets” open up a number of possibilities, including but not limited to analyzing your strokes. It should be a useful tool, not to mention a fun toy.
Although I haven’t yet had a chance to demo the new stick, I’m itching to give Play & Connect a try. Here are three reasons why:
—More intricate, objective feedback can free one to productively experiment
In my early teens, one of my favorite on-court tools was my dad’s radar gun. I’d place the gun beneath the net’s center strap, saunter back to the line, and then proceed to serve a basket of balls, all with the goal of amping up my M.P.Hs. Sometimes my tactics were swinging as hard as I could, but not always. I’d imitate service motions I had seen on T.V.—Pete Sampras’s languid wind up, Andre Agassi’s abbreviated squat—or try out my own imagined contortions, glancing at the gun after each serve to see what had resulted. It was fun experimenting, and I felt a sense of deep pleasure when I added 5 M.P.H. with a slightly deeper knee bend, or a looser arm.
Play & Connect, it seems, will allow for similar experimentation—and not just on the serve. How fun would it be to set up a ball machine and hit your forehand in all manner of ways, and then have concrete data for each trial set before you? Sounds like a promising day in the park to me.
—More accurate ball-pocketing information should make it easier to customize racquets
As I’ve noted in the past, the location of a racquet’s sweet spot is in large part dictated by how weight, and how much of it, is distributed throughout the frame. To put it somewhat reductively, head-light racquets—with their weight distributed more toward the handle—have sweet spots that are lower in the stringbed. On the other hand, evenly-balanced or head-heavy racquets—with their weight distributed more toward the tip—are apt to have sweet spots higher in the stringbed.
Just like racquets, each player has their own personal sweet spot. Skill, playing style, grip choices, and a number of other factors can influence where on the stringbed a player tends to connect with the ball. For high performance, then, it’s important that each racquet match the idiosyncrasies of the player using it.
Of course, integral to marrying players and racquets is knowing, first of all, the nature of the player’s impact zone on the stringbed. Until now, recreational players interested in figuring this out have had to squint at fuzz on their strings, or rely on feel. With Play & Connect, players will be able to receive accurate feedback about their impact zone, for each shot and situation—invaluable information for getting a stick that’s right for you.
—Tennis is collaborative and competitive, and the ability to compare stats with other players will only accentuate this.
The obvious upshot to Play & Connect is that players will not only be able to compare their stats with club buddies; they’ll be able to share their data online with others around the world. It’ll be possible for an online community to form, one where players can challenge and help one another improve. We may even be able to compare our stats with those of the pros. How interesting is that?
While the company is still tweaking the technology—the racquet isn't slated for release until 2013—a few Babolat players you may know had a chance to hit around with the stick the week before the French Open began. Whet your chops with the following video, courtesy of Babolat: