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Smarten Up

Monday, January 20, 2014 /by

At the end of February the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference will be held in Boston. Since 2007 the two-day event has become the premiere occasion for sports eggheads to gather and discuss the increasing role of numbers and data in professional sports. Panelists this year include best-selling pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, statistician Nate Silver, and Hall of Fame basketball coach Phil Jackson. The conversation generally focuses on how analytics—it was started by business school grads after all—should factor into organizational decision-making and coaching.

When an analysis of 30+ professional sports was done to rank them in order of most-to-least analytical, boxing brought up the caboose. Even though it’s the sweet science, it’s not terribly surprising that given its objective—pummel the other guy in front of you—the sport focuses less on cold data and more on what can’t be quantified such as heart, passion, and instinct. Care to guess which sport came just ahead of boxing? Here’s a hint: It’s another individual sport, almost as old and steeped in tradition as boxing, and the reason you come to this website.

Sorry, tennis, but it’s you. Ironically many have considered tennis boxing without the physical contact; although according to the numbers intelligentsia, it appears the added gentility has done little to improve the thoughtfulness of its practitioners. Tennis coaches have long trumpeted the value of videotape analysis and charting matches to show students visual and numerical evidence of their performance. The scoreboard can reveal which player had the better day, but not necessarily what can be gleaned from the match. The problem with these endeavors is recording a match or practice, or detailing all the points within, can be arduous and often impractical. But that may not be the case for very much longer.

Not if you play on PlaySight’s new SmartCourt. An Israeli company, PlaySight’s founders served in the nation’s Air Force and have applied the same technology used in fighter plane simulators to a tennis court. Fitted with high-definition cameras high atop the four corners of the court and one in the middle of one side (see the court diagram), a SmartCourt records everything that happens on a tennis court. And I do mean everything. Every stroke, ball speed and trajectory, game statistic, and player movement is documented. It even calls the lines. And whereas Hawkeye is the domain of the elite levels, SmartCourts are designed to be used at the recreational level. Because at its heart, it’s a great teaching tool.

I got a small taste of what a SmartCourt can do when I received a short lesson on one at The Club of Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y. There, head pro and former ATP player Gilad Bloom gave me a demonstration. I went on the side with the extra camera—so video could be taken of my strokes from behind—and we drilled ground strokes for several minutes. Then we took a quick break to analyze. Each SmartCourt comes with a courtside touch-screen video kiosk that provides instant video and statistical information. Every single stroke is logged and can be replayed on command. Although I didn’t spend much time tinkering with it, the interface seems very user-friendly. Bloom, a self-proclaimed technological caveman, says the learning curve is minute.

Within a few screen taps, Bloom was breaking down my form with the assistance of high-speed video and numerical data. My right knee should be lower to the ground on my open-stance forehand, my head should be steadier through contact, my back hip needs to come around more—all righteous stuff that can be immediately applied for instant improvement. Then he did the same thing for my serve: More weight shift during the toss, keep the hand on the bottom of the grip to make the racquet longer; little things that can get lost, but can make a huge difference.

What’s more, the technology is adaptable. When Bloom (in the photo to the right dissecting my serve) suggested ball height over the as another statistic, the Playsight team quickly added it to the data. (He’d also like to see a microphone added to the kiosk so his instruction can be recorded and played back with the video of the lesson.) It’s conceivable that other metrics could be acquired to raise the value of analytics in the game. Just spitballing here, but a measure of forehand efficiency—how many forehands are hit before a player hits a winner, draws an error, or produces a short ball—could be a useful barometer of forehand aggression. Or stats serving from a deficit—either behind in the game or set scores—could also reveal how effectively players serve when pressured by the scoreboard. The options are seemingly endless.

With a few more screen taps on the kiosk the mode was changed from teaching to match, and Bloom and I played out a few points. All the stats were kept, including distance covered, which is reproduced with a 3D animation. We also used the line-calling system, which at this point is 95 percent accurate. There was one ball I hit that Bloom felt hit the baseline—video playback appeared to confirm it—but got an “out” call. While it still needs some refinement, the end result of an accurate automated line-calling would be a huge benefit to junior and recreational tournaments where cheating is rampant—it’s primarily why I don’t play in them anymore—and even the pro level.

My session with Bloom lasted maybe 15 minutes. However, when I got home I still had all the information and video at my disposal. Before playing, I set up an account on the Playsight website, which automatically uploads the session to a cloud for playback. There’s even highlights from the day including fastest serve and longest points. The latest session for each user is free, and for a small fee additional storage can be attained to save more lessons or matches.

Overall, the experience was pretty wicked. Even if stats and numbers aren’t your thing, it’s still fun seeing a playback of your best playing moments. Unfortunately SmartCourts aren’t readily available quite yet. It costs $10,000 to install one, plus close to $800/month in usage fees. Right now there are about ten facilities in the New York area equipped with the courts. Bloom, also an Israeli, has provided an entry for the company to the region; plus, they wanted to start in indoor facilities, which are plentiful in the area. One such facility, CourtSense in Bogota, NJ, has become the first SmartClub by turning each of its courts into a SmartCourt. The club’s owner, Gordon Uehling, believes it will not only provide an added value to their regular programs, but prove invaluable to the numerous junior tournaments they host.

Other select facilities such as Stefan Edberg’s academy in Sweden and the French Tennis Federation at Roland Garros also have SmartCourts. Besides tennis academies, PlaySight plans to reach out to college and university teams, with the ultimate goal of 4,000 total courts by 2018. If they do manage to hit that number, SmartCourts will undoubtedly add an entirely new and exciting element to the playing experience; with a by-product being analytics becoming a more integral part of the sport’s teaching and conversation.

Get ready eggheads.

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