Difficult as it is to believe, it took tennis, a sport often mocked for its antiquated traditions, to prove that my smartphone technology needs modernizing. Granted, I’ve had my Samsung Android phone long past my upgrade date, but a day on the court with the Babolat Play Pure Drive made me feel like Bill Hader in a T-Mobile commercial.
Thankfully, the Babolat team who invited me to test out their much-anticipated frame prepared for a dinosaur like me and had test phones available. Along with a writer from Popular Mechanics, I got a firsthand test run with the Babolat Play Pure Drive ($399) on an indoor court in Boulder, CO., near the French company’s U.S. headquarters. The frame has the same specs and performs like a traditional Pure Drive, with one incredibly unique feature: A sensor in the handle records various playing statistics that can be analyzed and tracked over time. The data can be used for match analysis, stroke refinement, or to just compare with fellow users on the Babolat Play community.
“Play is a mirror of your game,” says Eric Babolat, the company’s president. “You can do what you want with it.”
It obviously helps to be tech savvy to use Babolat Play, but it’s not overly difficult to operate. I struggled with my set-up, but the writer from Popular Mechanics (Tim Newcomb) had no trouble with his iPhone. Players need to download an app for their smartphone and then pair it with the racquet via Bluetooth or with a supplied USB cable, which is inserted in the handle. The same process can be done with a personal computer or tablet. Once the software is in place, the user needs to set up a quick profile before playing. Pierre Macé, one of Babolat Play’s software designers, says tutorial videos have been made to assist users in getting acclimated.
After properly setting up my racquet and phone connection, I hit the court for a quick test. I got paired with a Babolat rep with a most enviable one-handed backhand and went through a typical warm-up. I’ve played with the Pure Drive before, but it’s stiffer and more powerful than my usual frame. Plus, it was strung with a full bed of Babolat Xcel—normally I use polyester—and we were playing at mile-high elevation. Control was not my friend. I started with some ground strokes, moved up for volleys and overheads, and finished with serves. After that we played out a game with me serving. It wasn’t by design, but the game went to several deuces—we actually had to resort to “next point wins”—so I got a little more data than expected.
Once the nearly 12-minute hitting session was complete, I rushed courtside to see the results. (Members of the Babolat team told me that analyzing the data can get addicting and there’s definitely a kid-in-a-candy-store anticipation for the feedback). Downloading the information from the racquet to the phone takes mere seconds.
There are numerous broad categories to digest, including time the ball is in play (always lower than you think; here a mere four minutes), longest rally, shots per minute, and even an estimation of energy spent. Then you can delve into individual strokes—forehands, backhands, serves, and smashes—to see how many you hit, and then go even deeper to see with how much power, spin, and proficiency. It’s a lot of fun to take apart. (Check out a detailed description in the video below).
The numbers from that session can then be compared to previous sessions and get added to an overall playing profile. For anyone who has played a sports video game with a career mode, it feels a lot like that. No matter how good a player is, he or she starts at the beginning and can work their way through seven different playing levels. Improvement is achieved by reaching certain performance goals with strokes and playing time. These numbers are all taken into account for a user’s tennis “Pulse”—a measurement of power, technique, and endurance. The pulse can be looked at for individual practices and matches, and as an ongoing metric that can be compared with fellow users.
The company is extremely optimistic about the community aspect presented by the frame. They believe younger players, who are already so connected with social media, will be more drawn to a sport that often gets labeled old-fashioned. Plus, it puts like-minded players together in a forum in which they can compare, compete, and congregate.
“Tennis is an individual sport, but Play is like having someone on the court with you,” says Babolat. (That's him in the photo, with me.)
Is Babolat Play flawless? No. But what first-generation device is? In the future I’d love to see a category on volleys, which now gets lumped in with ground strokes. I suppose flat and slice forehands will most likely be volleys, but that will be harder to ascertain on backhands, where slices and flat shots are more prevalent from the baseline. Also, power is determined to be a percentage of a certain number; generally a best-case scenario figure that top pros can achieve. For instance, Mace said that 80 percent power on the serve is the neighborhood of 220 K.P.H. My fastest delivery clocked in at 78 percent, but I’d prefer to see the actual number rather than the percentage. Same for spin generation: There’s a grading of one-to-five tennis balls, and I’d prefer more numerical feedback.
And while the hardware doesn’t seem to have any glitches—which is most important—there will undoubtedly be a few software bugs. The numbers on my serves seemed a little skewed. Of the 14 points I played out, the racquet recorded only two second serves. I’d like to believe my first serve was clicking at that rate, but something was amiss. After hitting a first serve, there’s a three-to-10 second window that senses if another serve is hit; if so, it’s recorded as a second serve. I was either reloading too quickly, or not quickly enough. And the second hitting session for my fellow playtester from Popular Mechanics—he was looking for comparison numbers—didn’t download properly, which he was told has infrequently occurred when someone tries a double session.
However, these are minor, fixable flaws, and no one at Babolat is claiming upgrades won’t eventually be in order. They realize it’s a work-in-progress and there will be tweaks along the way. It was remarkably refreshing to hear them speak how they’ve ventured into uncharted tennis waters and they expect a little chop. But in the end, the game, and its participants, will all be the better for it.
As Babolat put it with his tongue firmly in cheek: “It’s not easy being a pioneer.”