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Style Points: Wearable technology finally takes center stage in tennis
Already an indispensable part of most athletes’ pre- and post-match routines, wearable technologies are increasingly making their way onto the courts—even in competition.
Published Feb 03, 2022
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Eagle-eyed tennis fans spotted something different on Naomi Osaka’s wrist during the Australian Open—her signature TAG Heuer watch was there, but it was the wrong model. She was wearing a timepiece instead of the tech-loaded Aquaracer that she has been promoting on social media.
That’s because the Aquaracer watch was deemed ‘too smart’, and crossed the line into a communication device. It’s the same reason you don’t see players wearing an Apple Watch, or using any other device that can send or receive messages, during matches.
But wearable technology is everywhere in tennis. Already an indispensable part of most athletes’ pre- and post-match routines, these technologies are increasingly making their way onto the tennis courts—and in some cases, even in competition.
“Wearable technology” refers to any device that is attached to the body—that is, worn on the person, including as an accessory like a bracelet or embedded into clothing and gear—and is used to measure performance during physical activity. It’s not just limited to athletes, with devices including the Fitbit, WHOOP Strap, Apple Watch and more allowing almost anyone to measure and track various aspects of their health and performance.
For professional tennis players, these insights can be used to analyze performance data, optimize practice sessions, monitor injury rehab and post-match recovery, track sleep patterns and blood oxygen levels, and much more.
In an individual sport like tennis, having access to hyper-personalized analytics with information pulled from various sources is increasingly vital. Adding physiological data to match and practice data from Hawkeye and FoxTenn can help paint the complete picture of a player’s performance.
“Teams and athletes that embrace this new way of working are uncovering a new competitive advantage,” said Will Lopes, the CEO of Catapult Sports. “They use data to hone athletes for peak performance instead of grinding them through practices and drills that risk costly injuries.
“Software is helping teams work efficiently, and we’re still in the early days of sport’s digital transformation.”
In 2019, the ITF approved Catapult Sports’ OptimEye S5—a small, palm-sized gadget that slides into the back of a small vest—as the first GPS device that can be worn in competition. Later that year, the ATP Tour tested the technology during Next Gen Finals matches in Milan.
By now, the black Catapult vest is a familiar sight in practices: Andy Murray wore one throughout his recovery from hip surgery under the advice of his strength coach, Matt Little. Outside of tennis, the smart vest is widely used by teams in the NFL and EPL.
At the end of 2021, the WTA Tour made another big move into this space after inking a multi-year deal with the fitness tracker WHOOP, making it the first wearable technology approved for in-match use on the women’s tour. Sloane Stephens, who also signed on as the brand’s ambassador, prominently wore the strap at the Australian Open and throughout last season.
“This partnership with WHOOP makes perfect sense for me because it’s a brand that has become absolutely integral to my training routine,” Stephens told Boardroom last year. “As an athlete, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from incredible trainers and doctors over the years, but never have I had access to this amount of physiological insight on my phone.”
Tennis may be slow to embrace new technology, but it is no stranger to sensors and trackers. The Babolat Play was groundbreaking when it came out in 2013, adding sensors to the bottom of the Pure Drive’s racquet handle to collect data like shot power, spin level, ball impact location (that is, the sweet spot), and more. Now, most top racquet manufacturers have some version of this technology available for pros to use.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn from incredible trainers and doctors over the years, but never have I had access to this amount of physiological insight on my phone. Sloane Stephens
But wearable technology has added another layer of context to that data—and with it, an added another layer for coaches, trainers, and players to sift through. How does a player’s heart rate change when they are down break point, and how do those nerves then affect shot production? How much effort is a player expending running during rallies, and what is the more efficient way to construct points? These are the types of granular insights that modern players can now consider.
It’s been a game changer for fans, too. At the Australian Open, physiological stats measuring a player’s effort in kilojoules (kJ), tracking sprint speeds and recording changes of direction in a rally were displayed alongside the typical tennis stats like winners, unforced errors and first-serve percentages. And through their partnership with WHOOP, the WTA is also planning to incorporate real-time data into broadcasts.
With (approved) wearables slowly making their way into elite competition, the digital transformation of sports promises to not only drastically change how a player approaches fitness and match play—hopefully, keeping them healthier longer—it’s also bringing a whole new element to the tennis viewing experience. And the sports tech revolution is just getting started.