Advances in technology have had a big impact on tennis, according to research from the Tennis Industry Association. People wanting to play the sport for the first time have access to new technology that our predecessors could only dream about. This has taken the experience to a whole new level.
While familiar on-court technology includes the likes of “Hawk-Eye” (the electronic system that logs with precision whether a ball is in or out), today’s advanced tech even enables players to obtain feedback that can be used to improve their fitness levels and performance.
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It’s no surprise that 2.07 million people are taking up the sport for the first time each year and this figure is rising by 3.8% annually. In addition, 2.2 million people are returning to tennis after a break, while 14.75 million non-players have expressed an interest in learning how to play.
The popularity of the new technology is being cited as a direct reason why interest in tennis is increasing. Smart court technology and wearable tech offer players and coaches an opportunity to hone their skills like never before, enabling them to enjoy exciting new opportunities.
Racquets and courts
Tennis has been altered dramatically as a result of technical innovations. In the 1870s (Wimbledon was first launched in 1877), the only “technology” available to players was a wooden racquet. Over the years, racquets have developed through metal frames in the 1960s, to today’s composite frames made of graphite, titanium and carbon fibre, giving players more precision and power.
Tennis court surfaces have been changing too: while grass and clay remain popular, bespoke hard surfaces have been developed over the years. Decoturf was launched in 1978, comprising layers of acrylic, silica, rubber and other materials, on an asphalt or concrete base. This surface has been used at the US Open since the late 1970s.
In 2008, another new playing surface, Plexicushion, was developed. It is a blend of latex, rubber and plastic particles, topped by a 100% Plexicushion surface. It has been used at the Australian Open since 2008. Depending on the materials being used, the courts can be tailored to play at a specific speed or bounce.
Cyclops and Hawk-Eye
The first major electronic innovation was the “Cyclops” machine, launched in 1980. A system of infrared beams could help determine whether serves were in or out. It was ousted by “Hawk-Eye” in 2006, which detects the ball’s movement and provides a digital image of where it landed.
It also determines the spin and speed of every shot and the movement of players throughout a rally, further making it possible for players to challenge a decision if the ball is called out. Within seconds, a precise digital image is produced that will show the outright conclusion.
The radar gun, launched in 1994 to track the ball, is able to detect the serve speed. The fastest serve ever has been achieved by Australian player Samuel Groth, who holds the official world record of 163.7mph.
American tech giant IBM, which has powered Wimbledon for around two decades, is responsible for advances in tech that are way beyond our imagination. Its PointStream technology has transformed the sport, such as the SlamTracker, launched in 2008. The online dashboard serves up information and statistics for every match being played in real-time, point by point.
In 2012, IBM analysed 41 million pieces of data, covering Grand Slams over the past eight years, to provide an analytic assessment of players and what they need to do to improve their game. The same year, IBM’s Momentum was launched, enabling scores and statistics from matches to come to life.
The data is aggregated into a momentum meter, revealing which players currently have a statistical edge. Not only do the players benefit from the statistics, but commentators also have the information at their fingertips, enabling them to make a more knowledgeable assessment of a match. Spectators can benefit from having more inside information than ever before.
Wimbledon’s “tech bunker”
At Wimbledon, there is a “tech bunker” that enables the data giant to deliver live tennis all over the world, across different mediums. The bunker is underground, next to court number – Wimbledon’s second-biggest court. A multitude of screens hang from the walls, while rows of desks are lined with IBM tech, used by tennis experts to provide the most relevant content to fans all over the world.
A giant screen inside the bunker details all the data, delivered in real-time, from each of the 18 courts. The data isn’t broadcast live: it is presented to broadcasters during the tournament, who decipher the data and present it to fans in an interesting way that everyone can understand.
Summarised data also provides information for players who wish to analyse their performance after the match via a video file. Data sets are embedded in the video files that the players can receive and access as quickly as 20 minutes after play. This enables them to compare their form with previous matches.
Amazingly, data has been compiled about top players, dating way back to 1877! Their statistics have been added to the system, so today’s players can compare their own play with some of the world’s greatest players in history, who used the same courts in the 19th century.
Today’s players can have the information sent to their mobile device, so they can watch it on the journey home and assess how they played. The system was trialled at Wimbledon in 2018 and proved popular.
IBM introduced a host of new ideas to the Wimbledon bunker in 2018. They have improved data capture in quality terms, with senior data operators monitoring not only the show court matches, but also the action from any match around the whole of Wimbledon. The new IPTV system allows IBM to look at the day’s footage, quickly updating and reviewing statistics on any of the courts.
The enhanced AI this year was even able to recognise players’ emotions on the six main Wimbledon show courts! This enhanced the AI-powered automated video highlights for viewers. Other new audio technology brought Wimbledon’s most exciting moments to life, enabling highlights to be generated for viewers within just 15 minutes.
In the 21st century, 3D technology is playing its role, with 3D motion tracking hardware and new software able to do amazing things, such as studying the motion of a player’s spine and determining whether they are likely to experience any back injury, even before they have felt any pain!
At the recent Tennis Tech Fair in Miami, future technology was on display, with a mind-boggling array of innovations that are currently being developed. They included the QLIPP racquet sensor, which fits on to any racquet and reads the shot type, spin, speed and ball contact accuracy. It can measure how often the player hits the racquet’s “sweet spot”.
Wearable Smart tech
New wearable Smart technology includes the PIVOT, developed by Turing Sense, which comprises a selection of sensors attached to the player’s shoulders, wrist, elbow, hips and knees to provide instant real-time feedback. This can be analysed by a professional to help improve the player’s swing and protect against injuries.
Compatible with Android or Apple phones, the Babolat POP is worn on the racquet hand. It contains a sensor to track power, spin and rally length.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the top tennis fitness trends include wearable technology and smartphone apps, not just for the professionals, but for players of all abilities. With technology continuing to develop at a rapid rate, we can only imagine how far it will push the boundaries of tennis in future.
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