Technology Gives Instant Tennis Smarts


By Pallavi Gogoi

Point Tracker >>

Ever wonder at what point Andy Roddick's 140 mile-per-hour serve starts its descent? Or how many of Andre Agassi's shots land in one part of the court vs. another?

Tennis aficionados around the world need wonder no longer. Thanks to a program called Point Tracker, available at www.usopen.org, fans will have access to an on-demand scoreboard of the U.S. Open, being held Aug. 29-Sept. 11, through which they can link to a graphic animation of each point played during a match.

Users can map out the trajectory and flight of every shot and correlate that with information such as the speed of a serve or return. Plus, they can choose among aerial, lateral, or corner-court views. "Today, fans can have a rich experience with instant analysis at the click of a finger," says Ann Wool, director at Ketchum Sports Network, a media communications agency.

COACH'S FRIEND. Technology is playing a key role in altering how tennis is watched -- and played. When the chair umpire punches a verdict into a PDA device, the information is instantly available not only to TV networks but also to hundreds of sports-news Web sites hosted by the likes of ESPN (DIS), Sports Illustrated, and CNN (TWX).

But Point Tracker goes further, offering a depth of information that until recently hasn't been available in real time. The technology has been around since 2003, but it's making its public debut at the Open.

Fans can slice and dice that information in countless ways. "By watching point-by-point how a game changes, an avid fan can get far more than just the score and understand how a game develops," says Rick Singer, director of Worldwide Sponsorship Marketing for IBM (IBM), which has developed the Point Tracker system. IBM is also helping host the U.S. Open Web site for the U.S. Tennis Assn.

While the detailed data is fun for fans, for coaches and players it can help change the course of a match. With data on every aspect of play immediately available, a coach can help a player figure out an opponent's strategy -- and formulate a winning defense.

ADVANTAGE, AGASSI? For instance, at the 2004 Wimbledon semifinal match between American Lindsay Davenport and Russian Maria Sharapova, Davenport won the first set with big aces, many of them served down the middle of the deuce court. Sharapova just didn't seem to have it going for her. Then rain stopped the game. When play resumed, the Russian teenager returned with a vengeance -- and won the match.

"Obviously, someone told Sharapova to move a foot into the court and soon she was returning those would-be aces, and Davenport lost her advantage," says tennis legend and TV commentator Tracy Austin, who won the U.S. Open in 1979 at age 16 and was victorious there again in 1981.

The Point Tracker will probably make watching Agassi's game -- always one of the most interesting visually -- even more compelling. At 35, Agassi is older than many of his rivals, and he doesn't have their big serves. For years, a large part of his strategy has been landing his shots all over the court.

"Agassi has the reputation of taking his opponent's legs from underneath him as he makes him run around the court," says Austin. But the Point Tracker will let you instantly analyze his game and keep track of where his shots are landing.

NET EFFECT. Sure, broadcast commentators often give such details. But now a fan can focus on a particular feature of a player's game -- and delve deeply into the fine points. Roddick, seeded fourth in the Open, is known for the blistering speed of his serves -- he holds the record for the world's fastest serve, at 153 mph. Fans and players alike can see if there's a pattern to how these serves fly -- and how opponents handle them.

Of course, talent still trumps technology. And plenty of fans are content to rely on their own eyes for analysis. But anything that makes the game more exciting and helps it to be played at a higher level is a winner.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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