State of Play

by: Jon Levey | August 28, 2014

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At the 2013 US Open the gear story grabbing everyone’s attention was Babolat Play. A racquet with an internal chip that tracks various playing statistics that can transferred to a computer or smartphone was something completely new and attractive to the tennis audience. Even rival manufacturers, not to mention retailers, were curious and hopeful that the technology would entice consumers. To introduce the concept, Babolat Play was put in the company’s signature Pure Drive frame and released at the end of 2013. How has the manufacturer viewed initial sales and reception of the racquet?

So far, so good.

In fact, going into 2015, more of Babolat’s pros are expected to use it in competition, and the technology is set to expand into another frame in the company’s line. At a recent media event before the start of the US Open, I was able to test out a blacked-out version of the new prototype. The company would not confirm which frame is getting the Play treatment, but it looked and felt very much like the Aero Pro. Plus, Babolat told me that one of the top requests they received after releasing the initial frame was to bring it to the Aero Pro. (Investigative reporting at its finest).

To show what Babolat Play can do—and in my case to get reacquainted—the company had some of its touring pros serve as hitting partners for local media members. I got a little bit of court time with Agnieska Radwanska and Jack Sock—which obviously did no favors to their prospects at the Open—but spent most of the session with Fernando Verdasco. We exchanged ground strokes for several minutes and even played out a few points.

The highlight for me came on the first two points which were return of serve winners—the first on an inside-out backhand off a medium-paced kicker he thought was going wide (as did I) that dropped in; followed by a blind squirrel lucky inside-out forehand mishit winner off a bullet down the T. (No need to mention Verdasco abused me on the next two points).

When we were done playing we took a look at our stats on a courtside smartphone. Even though he never took it out of third gear, Verdasco not surprisingly generated more power on his forehand than I did with mine. He also found the center of the sweet spot 92% of the time on that wing to my 69%. However, most surprisingly I managed to find the sweet spot on the backhand more frequently: 59% to 58%. But as they so often do, this was another instance of statistics lying.

According to Babolat, the impact locator has been the most praised feature by users. It has also allowed Babolat to gather useful information. There are more than 3500 members in the Babolat Play community, and the company has access to their playing stats. In an instance of positive Big Brother oversight, Babolat can use that information to positively affect racquet design. One example is that they recognized players were most often making contact just above, rather than in the center, of the frame's sweet spot. So when the updated Pure Drive is released in the coming months, a new grommet system has been implemented to raise the sweet spot and provide better control.

But as with any first generation technology, there remains some hurdles. It takes a tech-savvy retailer to understand how to use the app and then explain it to consumers without making it seem complicated. For that reason Babolat wants to improve the user experience with the app—no more automated emails that players aren't participating enough and losing whatever progress they've made in previous sessions—and making it easier to share and compare data with others in the community.

There’s also a segment of players who view such products as gimmicks and condemn the racquet without trying it. Babolat believes that once players use and understand what the frame can do, it will dispel any notions of it being a scam. Which could confront a potential buyer with the practical limitation of the racquet’s price: $399. That adds up to quite a large investment for competitive players who require more than one frame. Yet it’s those type of committed players who would probably be most interested in gathering and analyzing their performance.

Whether or not Babolat started it, the interest in data collection has become widespread in the tennis industry. Last week it was announced that Sony’s Smart Tennis Sensor, which had previously only been available on Yonex frames in Japan, will be distributed in the U.S. by Wilson, and will be compatible with select Wilson, Prince, and Yonex racquets. The sensor attaches to the butt end of the racquet and collects a multitude of playing metrics including shot type, shot count, ball impact spot, swing speed, and ball spin. And besides the Sony model, there are other available racquet attachments (Zepp), prototypes (Shot Stat Challenger, Smash), and a court (SmartCourt) that are in the business of recording and sharing playing data.

The Babolat Play, however, remains the only one imbedded in the racquet with no attachment required. The advantage being it is portable and has no impact on the playing characteristics of the frame—the weight and balance are identical to the standard version. And now that it’s expanded to other models in the Babolat line, it should be more accessible to those who balk at playing with a Pure Drive. Whether the technology becomes a mainstay in the industry remains to be seen, but as of now Babolat Play remains very much in play.

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