A handful of the world’s best tennis players will show up at tournaments within weeks armed with new technology they hope will give them an advantage at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the man behind the ‘smart racquets’ has said.
Without identifying the players who would be first to wield the hi-tech weapons, Eric Babolat confirmed “connected racquets”, with sensors feeding back information on the players’ forehands, backhands and much more besides, would be swung in anger for the first time, after a decade in development.
“It could be any week. We have a lot of players testing. It is going to happen very soon,” Babolat said.
“It is a question of days, not months.”
Declared legal by the guardians of the sport, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), who adopted a new rule covering the technology at the start of the year, selected Babolat racquets will feature data-collecting sensors in their handles,
“Quite simply, this is information like we have never been able to get before,” smiled Babolat, scion of the French tennis manufacturing empire built out of a 19th century family business making sausage skins, surgical sutures and piano strings from animal gut.
“It is information direct from the racquet, from the string bed, and it tells us exactly what is happening, not just a feeling from the player. For me it was incredible, that you can take the number one tennis player in the world (Rafa Nadal) and see that he doesn’t really know anything about what is happening in his racquet, apart from his feel. He has no data about anything, and it is incredible to imagine.
“It is like you are a Formula One driver and you don’t know how fast you are driving and you don’t know…” Babolat trailed off, shaking his head. “It is a bit unbelievable, but it is like that.
“No longer”, the CEO and chairman of the French business said.
In essence, the technology-loaded racquets collect data such as shot power and ball impact location along with the number of strokes, the level of spin imparted, total play time, endurance, technique, consistency, energy and rallies.
The information is transmitted through bluetooth to smartphones or tablets where players and coaches can analyse and share their data with other analysts and online communities.
Ex-pro and former coach of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, Mark Petchey says the new technology has “limitless potential”. “It has the potential to change the way we think about coaching,” Petchey said. From analysing the data, in one match or over several, you can analyse your player’s shot selection, you can see if your player is playing with too much variety or not enough variety, or maybe not playing to their strengths, maybe being a little too defensive.
LIFE IMITATING ART
“From a power point of view, you can see the effort level that your player is putting in. And you can’t cheat it because it is there in black and white in terms of the stats coming out.”
Babolat said the technology had been developed over 10 years by more than 50 technicians, scientists and researchers. The data’s importance to the elite would appear obvious in a sport where millions of dollars are invested in training and technology to gain an edge. But in a curious case of life imitating art, Babolat also says a major benefit of the “connected racquet” will be the “gamification” of tennis and the added appeal for new generations.