[ROLAND-GARROS] Tennis at the dawn of a technological revolution?

by bold-lichterman

Prestigious by virtue of its status as a Grand Slam tournament, Roland-Garros today serves as a dinosaur on the world tennis scene. And for good reason, besides the fact that it is the only tournament of this standing which is not yet equipped with a roof (it will be done in 2020), Roland-Garros is now the only Grand Slam tournament. with a “classic” decisive set (2 games apart), his three other teammates (Wimbledon, Australian Open and US Open) having revised the format of the decisive set. But behind this apparent subtlety, a much deeper revolution is whispered in tennis.

The era of the Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) is coming to an end, television audiences are declining, Grand Slam matches are considered too long … Faced with an increasingly impatient public, the like what we observe with consumers in e-commerce or retail, having extended matches, slowed down by side changes, medical breaks and the time taken by players before each service, n ‘ is no longer allowed. In search of a second wind, tennis could turn to technology to revive the attractiveness of this sport where prestige and history have often imposed themselves to the detriment of spectacle and modernity.

The Hawk-Eye, ATP’s first technological step in the 21st century

However, despite its resistance to change, tennis has all the same made some technological changes in recent years. The best known of these is none other than the introduction of the Hawk-Eye, a video tracking system that allows the ball to be traced to the nearest millimeter. Inaugurated at the Miami Masters in 2006, at Key Biscayne, this technology was strongly criticized when it arrived on the circuit, in the same way that VAR (video assistance to refereeing) is currently on the football fields.

However, over time, the device, which relies on a dozen cameras connected to computers all around the court, has brought almost everyone to agreement by considerably calming relations between players and referees. No more controversy after a contentious bullet, it is technology that decides. Such an advance would have made it possible in particular to avoid the legendary bloodstrokes of a certain John McEnroe which traumatized more than one referee.

The Masters Next Gen ”, ATP’s innovation laboratory

Since 2006 and the arrival of the Hawk-Eye, mentalities have changed and new technologies have naturally imposed themselves in everyone’s daily life, especially among the youngest players. An observation that led ATP to imagine a new format and new rules, which give pride of place to technologies.

Indeed, trying to anticipate the retirement of its headliners, namely Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, ATP decided to innovate in 2017 by putting the Masters “Next Gen” into orbit, a competition bringing together eight world tennis hopefuls under the age of 21. In addition to promoting the young talents of the circuit, likely to ensure the succession of their glorious elders, this new tournament also serves as a support for shaping tennis tomorrow, which promises to be resolutely connected. Here are the main innovations tested as part of this competition in Milan.

The Masters “Next Gen”, in Milan. Credit: ATP.

Technology to replace line judges

To make tennis “more exciting and limit low times», In the words of Ross Hutchins, the tournament director, the ATP has not only revised the format of the matches (fewer games per set, no-let, no-ad…), but also replaced the judges of line by technology. Indeed, an electronic system, developed by the same company which already supplies the Hawk-Eye (company of the same name owned by Sony) on the circuit the rest of the year, is now responsible for shouting “out” as soon as a ball is foul.

The lyrical flights of some line judges are forgotten, giving way to the cold and robotic voice of the machine. On this point, it gives a feeling of slight dehumanization on the court, but it is also a way to guarantee better sporting fairness and to spare the linesmen who sometimes attract the wrath of certain champions (Serena Williams had violently threatened a linesman at the US Open in 2009).

The “shot clock” already adopted on the circuit

At the “Next Gen” Masters, technology also helps bring players and coaches together. Until now, it was indeed forbidden for players on the men’s circuit to communicate with their coach during a match, under penalty of being sanctioned by the referee, while the WTA circuit has allowed players since 2008 to appeal. to their coach to come and advise them on the court in the middle of a match.

In Milan, where the tournament has been held since 2017 and until 2022, players now have the opportunity to consult the statistics at the end of the set on a tablet to analyze their performance and to chat with their coach via a headset to see together what is the process to win. An innovation generally appreciated by the players who tested it. Still need to know now when ATP will dare to take the plunge to introduce these new rules on the circuit?

Among the innovations tested at the “Next Gen” Masters, one has already appeared on the circuit. This is called the “shot clock”, this digital countdown activated by the referee to count the time taken by the player on service between two points and thus prevent the latter from exceeding the regulatory 25 seconds. You will understand, the goal is to remove as much time as possible to offer more rhythmic matches to the public. Of course, tennis will not achieve an express change in less than five years, at the risk of degrading the prestige and heritage of this sport, but ATP has laid the foundations for the tennis of tomorrow.

Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros in 2015. Credit: Shutterstock.

Will the player rise soon on the courts?

With the new technologies that abound on the market, a legitimate question arises: is the augmented player coming soon? Yes in theory, no in practice. On paper, everything suggests that this will be the case, all the technological ingredients being brought together to bring players into a new dimension. The boom in the wearable market, these activity trackers that you wear on your body or that are present in clothes, even seemed to confirm this trend by offering players a simple way to collect data on their movements, their gestures. on the court or the evolution of their heart rate. But today, few players wear a smart bracelet on a tennis court. If the technology isn’t on the wrist, maybe it’s in the player’s racquet?

This is in any case the conviction of Babolat who launched its first model of connected racket in 2014. Packed with sensors, it brings a mountain of data to the player (punching power, impact zone, ball speed, shots played , technique, ball effects…). A useful device for the player to refine his tactics, but which currently comes up against two constraints. The first corresponds to the perception of the connected objects market. Indeed, when Babolat was in the process of offering its first connected racket, so five years ago, Gartner estimated that there would be 80 billion connected objects in the world in 2020. Since then, the American cabinet has significantly revised its forecast to decline by forecasting just over 20 billion IoT devices by next year.

Connected rackets not very popular with players

Besides this far too ambitious perception of the market in 2014, Babolat has convinced very few professional players with its connected equipment. The French brand can certainly boast of having Rafael Nadal as a luxury ambassador. The Spaniard also became the first player to win a Grand Slam tournament with a connected racquet during his tenth coronation at Roland Garros in 2017. But apart from the Mallorcan, few players have opted for a racquet connected. In addition, Babolat appears to be well isolated in this market, its competitors Wilson, Prince and Yonex remaining focused on the design of classic rackets. Only Head has taken a step in Babolat’s direction by offering a sensor, to be integrated into the handle of the racket, to measure its performance on the court.

This low adoption is explained in particular by the character of the data delivered by the racket. Are they complementary to the statistics already available to the player (unforced errors, points at the net, break points, position on the court, impact zones, etc.)? Not really insofar as the racquet does provide data on types of strokes, spin and precision, but without putting them into perspective with the player’s results. How does he behave on a break point? Does he favor the outside slice service on the second ball? So many questions that remain unanswered with the racket connected. This one can have a future, but on condition of crossing data of the racket and data of the match.

Part of the success of technology in tennis will notably come from the arrival of the new generation that has been bottle-fed to the Internet and screens. Today, professional tennis generates a dizzying amount of data. But still must the players appropriate it? And this is not yet the case … Why? The Federer, Nadal, Gasquet and others were trained in the old fashioned way, with the point of view of their coach, not that of technology. Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle, has also always kept his distance from the growing role of big data in the tennis sphere, believing that the statistics only show part of the truth, but are not enough to justify a victory or a failure. The arrival of the new guard in world tennis should be a game-changer, as more educated in new technological uses and the importance of data. We’re still a long way from virtual reality training to challenge Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in real match conditions, but it’s anything but science fiction. Just a matter of time.

5G and virtual reality to the rescue of broadcasters?

If the professional players still play it “old-school” on the field, they have nevertheless developed the habit of relying on statistics and video to correct their mistakes as well as to study the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. . Video is precisely what interests broadcasters. They have been thinking for several years now to improve the experience of viewers. There was color television, high definition television… Now that the image is of good quality, the challenge is quite different: to make a tennis match more immersive.

Credit: Maxence Fabrion – Decode Media.

This is notably the objective pursued by France Télévisions. In this sense, the French audiovisual group uses Roland-Garros every year as an innovation laboratory to test innovations during the Paris fortnight. And to offer more and more content to viewers, we already need an infrastructure capable of streamlining data transmission. After 4G as a vector for the development of the digital economy, 5G should make it possible to take a further step by being able to absorb larger traffic flows.

For the broadcasters of tennis tournaments, the arrival of 5G will initially make it possible to offer better quality images, and therefore to broadcast programs in 8K. This increased image quality will then be used as the basis for new formats, such as 360-degree video which allows viewers to see the match through the eyes of the referee or linesman. Not yet to the point of feeling the slips on ocher or the laser backhand of Stan Wawrinka, but virtual reality could eventually make it possible to achieve such a degree of immersion. Ultimately, viewers will thus have the impression of experiencing the match as if they were really in the stadium, or even with more intensity than the person seated in the stands of Philippe Chatrier court. Slowly but surely, tennis is making its technological revolution to win back its audience.