TENNIS’ SLOW TRANSFORMATION INTO THE DIGITAL WORLD STARTS TO GAIN STEAM

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Brian Lutz / October 11, 2020

Written by Brian Lutz / Tennis Hotline: 561-678-5740

Is IBM Watson the leading edge in technology for tennis?

Let’s hope not.

During the 2020 US Open the long time USTA digital partner featured Watson super computer algorithmic skills to the tennis world.

It’s goal was to gather information from tennis fans on social media to decipher cultural touch points and curate the myriad of data points to spear head intriguing discussions points for ESPN’s on air broadcast.

What did Watson come up with? Here is a sample of some of the mundane points that were chosen from the collected data:

“Is Billy Jean King the most influential tennis players in history?”

“Are the Bryan Brothers the best doubles team of all time?”

“Is Roger Federer the best tennis player ever?”

As John McEnroe pointed out during the ESPN broadcast,”do we need a computer to ask these questions?”

Definitely not, you could have easily found this on a Sub Reddit or Tennis Warehouse message board buried in archives.

When it comes to digital technology tennis seems to be a laggard when it comes to adoption. Whether it comes to utilities such as payment systems, e-commerce, social media influencers or interactive broadcasts tennis is still very much and analog world.

I remember when I worked a a consultant for the USA 1-2-3 promotion in NYC at the turn of the century during the dot com boom. We used to hire temporary workers to answer the phone for tennis lesson registration.

We would hire and train low skill workers to answer the phone and do manual credit card transactions. They would simply write down payment information onto a form and someone in finance would process each days batch through our payment terminal. If one number was incorrectly recorded someone would have to call the customer to confirm payment details.

Naturally, it was labor intensive.

When I suggested we build a website and allow the customers to do this for themselves I was met with a lot of skepticism.

I was told “that it won’t work”. Even though we were budgeting 20k for the four weeks of registration. I finally talked them into using an answering service in Midtown Manhattan for 10k that I was to oversee.

When the grant ran out after 3 years I decided to go it on my own with a full website and as you say the rest is history. I’ve been teaching Novice level tennis programs ever since.

EARLY ADOPTION

Two areas where tennis was an early adopter of technology has been racquet manufacturing and the Hawk Eye line calling systems.

Probably the biggest innovation that doesn’t really effect recreational tennis players but it is a game changer in the professional world of tennis is string technology.

One needs to “swing big” if you will to get the full benefit of technological advances in monofilament stings.

Buyer beware because monofilament strings are typically unforgiving to your body and joints. Monofilament strings are made of single solid extrusion of material.

Imagine squeezing out a tube of toothpaste. This is similar to how monofilament strings are manufactured. Materials consist of polyester or polyether or a combination of high tech materials.

This is the “secret sauce” of the technology that makes monofilament strings popular with professional players. The strings are very sturdy and are very hard to break.

They are also lack feel so a lot of strings recommend you drop down the tension of your sting jobs into the 40-50 lb range and even lower.

If you can afford it you can get hybrid string to help with feel. While natural gut is ideal it is expensive old school technology manufactured from cow gut. So if you are a vegan you might not want to go this route.

Luxilon was the first big thing in string innovation. With Big Banger ALU Power and Big Banger ALU Rough which sold like hot cakes.

The string became so popular Wilson bought the company to sell into their tennis frames in 2006 much to the chagrin of Luxilon early adopters and hard core users who loved supporting innovative and cutting edge company that became a big success.

They could have easily went into partnerships with orthopedics as well because recreational players were swinging bigger but killing their arms.

Since many recreational tennis players want to “play like the pro’s” they loved the increase spin rate and power along with less string breaking but where paying the price with their bodies.

Elbow, shoulder and arm pain increased with each powerful inside out forehand. So manufacturers got innovation and tweaked the “formulas” to create more variety of performance options for players looking for more forgiving playability without giving up too much of the power and control.

GAME CHANGING INNOVIATION

Hawkeye is probably the greatest innovation in tennis in the last 20 years because it not only benefits players with more accurate officiating but it’s interactive nature was a crowd pleaser from the first player challenge at the Sony Open (now Miami Open).

It took awhile for tournaments to bring along the technology because of the steep price tag of setting up and operating on each court.

In turn, show courts got Hawkeye and the rest were stuck with traditional lines persons.

To this day the last tournament to not utilize Hawkeye technology challenge system is the French Open. Although, there is a growing drum beat of support to change amongst touring pro’s who are frustrated with the margin for error that is visibly apparent during clay court matches as compared to the human element.

It’s accuracy, speed and easy to understand outcome is a no brainer to increase the fan entertainment experience.

INNOVATION LAGS

Sadly, R&D budgets for the sport of tennis aren’t that large or non existent. This causes tennis to lag behind other industries and simply piggy back and repurpose technologies from other industries.

Even basic technology configuration that allow ease of use for log in purposes such as a Facebook application protocols for log in registration aren’t utilized in the tennis industry.

To give you an idea of how far behind tennis is. Most tennis clubs in the State of Florida still use pen and paper when it comes to court reservations.

Researching 23 tennis facilities with a mix and match of private clubs, HOA’s and public municipalities found only 38% had a digital court reservation system that is self serve meaning you don’t need another human to make a transaction.

Higher end country clubs are the most tech savvy with apps that would allow members to book tennis courts. But with members gaming the system for prized court hours some clubs had to make up restricted booking rules or use the Chelsea system which built in a lottery system into the algorithm. This was to prevent keep Chuck the “Saturday Morning Hacker” from taking the 9am Slot every weekend by using multiple email accounts to game the system.

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The tennis industry slowly but surely embraces technology for the sport of tennis.

Home Owner Association are still utilize phone calls. Many Directors of Tennis find a way to please everyone and can finesse their way around the “complainers” to keep everyone happy.

Many Directors of Tennis I spoke with don’t want digital technology because it creates too much accountability and doesn’t allow them to customize solutions on the fly based on personality type, playing history and deepness of pockets.

The two major public tennis facilities in the City of Miami still use pen and paper. Morningside Park has a very loose system. Sometimes it’s free an other times there is a fee but rely on in person registration only in both circumstances.

Kirk Munroe Tennis Center in Coconut Grove uses pen and paper pre registration at the front desk where there is a wait list during prime evening hours.

Both facilities take mostly cash but within the last 24 months have recently updated to taking credit and debit cards. But the system is as slow a dial up modem.

At the Surf Side Tennis Center in Miami Beach, players can call into the Swim Club 8 blocks from the tennis courts to reserve the court on the phone.

Then they can report to the courts in person ahead of their scheduled court time to make a credit card transactions and print out a receipt.

These barriers to entry work surprisingly well at some clubs but discourage some players who elect to go elsewhere or worse don’t play at all.

Most of the existing solutions are just a bad use of resources that keep cost high high and sales conversions stymied.

Kourts app is modern Software as a Service that has tried to use cutting edge technology to solve the court reservation problem and is making some inroads. This modern platform works using Cloud technology to simplify the end user experience and software maintenance.

Old habits are hard to break.

But many of their customers preferred logging onto and online portal so the front desk could manually take court reservations thus blending old school with new school tech. So Kourts adapted building a go between for clubs that wanted to have a more hands on experience even at the increase cost and inefficiency.

HOW TO PLAY TENNIS USING TECH

USTA Tennis link has been using their website for decades to register over 700k tennis players for tournaments and leagues throughout the United States.

But the programming code is outdated and the filtering process for locating tournaments by geography and location is confusing to those even in the know.

Tennis Link has a myriad of acronyms for every possible category of play on top of the playing format. Now with the ROGY (Red, Orange, Green, Yellow) ball system on top of it all players are even more confused.

Looking up a tournament on their software is the equivalent of doing a Sunday morning crossword puzzle.

Rather than rebuild the system the USTA just covers up the problems with another layer of low grade tech.

It’s like having a cracked and leaky floor in your kitchen and simply adding another layer of linoleum to cover up the problem.

Universal Tennis has gamely tried to bring tennis into the 21st century with MyUTR but old problems remains as with USTA Tennis Rating. Players try to game the system by tanking matches.

UTR was meant to bring equality of opportunity for all tennis players with it’s unique algorithm but many junior players started to refuse players who were rated lower than them for fear of lower tennis rating.

UTR had to update it’s algorithm with an absurd adjustment that didn’t count certain tennis matches in certain situations if a lower rated player upset and higher rated player so as to encourage participation.

This was especially an issue in consolation or back draws after players were eliminated from the the main draw of junior tournaments.

UTR is struggling to find its legs using a subscription model with not enough features for consumers to rationalize the up sell into a subscription.

ELO SYSTEM

Chess and e-gaming still has the best model for rating players called the Elo system that uses zero sum games based outcome to rate a players chance of victory.

Winning players take away points from losing players and over time after 20 to 30 matches an accurate playing level can be determined while incentivizing players to play each other.

The other social component to UTR is genders don’t mix well. An Open UTR tournament with prize money will encompass all men as women have little incentive to play a a match or two and lose and not have access to the prize money rounds until the final four in the semi-finals and finals rounds.

Tennis apps from iTunes or Google Play have a lot to choose with some mostly nerdy benefits.

There are several apps that are wearables that will track your stats including volume and stroke production which have some important insight to your personal development.

There is also and app that helps you keep score but each of these apps has its limitation and appeal. Another that measures serve speed but doesn’t work reliably.

A lot of apps are great in concept but not in delivery of outcome.

Probably the most intriguing app still in beta development is the line calling technology built for every day players called In and Out.

The idea is exactly what it sounds like a great way to avoid line calling disputes. But as of now it’s not quite practical or user friendly in the real world and requires hardware installation and maintenance.

BALL SYSTEMS

To increase participation and help with player development ROGY technology has transformed how coaches teach tennis.

Red Balls are a great way to teach technique and allow players to play with confidence right off the bat to get players hitting with success immediately.

The Red Balls are twice as large as a traditional yellow ball and 1/4 of the weight and move more slowly through the air for easy tracking

Orange balls are about 1/2 the weight of a traditional optic yellow tennis balls are great for swing sculpting that allow players to learn spin and technical nuance by taking a fuller and more natural swing at the ball to experience success.

Orange balls are so popular there are tournaments for players using this type of ball for juniors. For adults the brand is called Touch Tennis. Orange balls use shorter courts with smaller boundaries which encourage longer rallies and more learning and are a lot of fun.

Green balls are about 3/4 capacity of yellow ball and rarely bounce above a players shoulder but allow players to refine their swing from the baseline to develop consistency.

Naturally, this all progresses toward the traditional yellow ball you are familiar with. The goal of all of this technology is to get you to play more and get better faster.

Time will tell if tennis can use technology to scale the game beyond the 18 million tennis players who now play at least 3 times per year.