EXCLUSIVE: The Big Business Of Data Analytics In Tennis - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: The Big Business Of Data Analytics In Tennis

Ubitennis speaks with the founder of Tennis Data company Sportiii, whose company is currently working with Stan Wawrinka’s coach Magnus Norman.

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Mike james with doubles player Ante Pavic and Tomislav Brkic at a Challenger tournament.

As tennis players head into their off-season, it is normally the same routine. A couple of days of rest followed by numerous training blocks to get them ready for the following season. They are guided by their coaches, physios and for a growing number with the help of a computer by their side.

 

With technology continuing to rapidly develop, the use of data statistics is becoming big business in the world of tennis. A method where players analyse the numbers behind their performance. Ranging from their service percentages to the average length of rallies they are playing. The idea being that their training is then customised to take into account those figures.

However, how much of a big deal is it?

Mike James is the founder of Sportiii Analytics. A company that provides detailed information on player’s strategies and patterns. They have a partnership with the prestigious Good To Great Academy in the pipeline and supply information to Stan Wawrinka’s coaching team. British-based James has more than a decade of experience in coaching and has previously travelled on the tour with the likes of doubles specialists Ante Pavic and Tomislav Brkic. At present Sportiii are working with several ATP and WTA players, but are unable to name them due to a confidentiality agreement.

“We are fortunate enough to be able to use Dartfish. Dartfish created a tagging part of their software package around 10 years ago. It allows us to make customized tagging panels or coding as they say in football or rugby. Essentially, we can tag or code whatever the player, coach or federation wants to look for.” James explained during an interview with Ubitennis.
“We are taking 30 KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) of information which allows us to take the data and move that into a strategy for the players and their teams to know what is working and what isn’t.”

Tennis is far from the only sport to be influenced by the rapid rise of technology. Although, is it really a necessity? During the 1980s with the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, they both managed to achieve highly successful careers without detailed statistical information. Some would argue that they most important aspect is a person’s talent on the court and how they mentally cope with different situations. Not how many rallies they win in under five shots.

Although James points out that without services like his, there is a chance that player’s could be training the wrong areas of their games. Therefore hampering their own development in the sport.

“If we know the 70% of the returns are going back into the court in the men’s game, then we know the first ball after the serve is extremely important. Also, if we know that 70% of the match is between zero and four, the serve and return is vitally important.” He said.
“Players hitting 20, 30, or 40 balls in a row before they have a break. They are not training the game, they might be training the technical aspects of their game but they cannot train tactically playing this many balls without a break.”

A method for the many, not the few

There are still a few stigmas when it comes to companies such as Sportiii. Many would think this service would be something mainly of interest to coaches and nobody else. However, James reveals that this isn’t always the case.

“Of course, some coaches want to know the information, but we have players we deal with without their coaches because they are the ones interested. If it’s going to work best with statistics, numbers and strategy, you’re going to want both the player and coach fully buying in to this way of thinking. That’s going to get the best result for sure.”

Novak Djokovic has previously worked alongside Craig O’Shannessy, who is the founder of Brain Game Tennis and writes numerous statistical articles for atpworldtour.com. Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev once said ‘all the big guys are using data analysis, they just don’t like to talk about it.’ There is clearly a market, but is it only for those who can afford it?

Despite the rise of prize money earnings, the disparity on the tour remains substantial. Rafael Nadal was the highest earner of 2019 on the ATP Tour with $12.8 million in winnings. In contrast, the 300th highest earner, Federico Coria, made just over $81,000. Less than 1% of Nadal’s tally. According to one report from The Telegraph, leading agencies in the tennis data industry are selling their top packages in the region of £80,000 ($103,000) per year.

“We look to do individual tailor made packages depending on a player’s ranking, age, experience, support team, if they are funded by their federation or if they are funded by private sponsors.” James commented on how Sportiii handles the situation.
“But at the end of the day, of course the first part of a player’s budget is for their coach and then maybe the Physio. But I think having an analyst or strategy consultant is becoming higher in the pecking order for players going into 2020.” He added.

The future

James pictured with Magnus Norman (left) and Jonas Arnesen (middle)

Next year Sportiii will officially begin their work with Swedish tennis academy Good To Great, which is located to the north of Stockholm. Regarded as one of the top academies in the country, it was founded by Magnus Norman, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillström. Their role will be providing information to those who use the facility.

“We’re really looking to steepen the learning curve and support their academy pro team. But also help develop their junior players they have coming through.” James explained about the collaboration.
“We support their team with educational workshops and I think this is the next phrase for data analytics. That will be going into junior tennis and not just looking at the top of the game.”

The desire to focus more on the younger generation of athletes emulates that of the ATP with their Next Gen Finals in Milan. An end-of-season event that features the eight best players under the age of 21. At the tournament, they use a series of new innovative methods. Including electronic line calling, the use of a handset to speak with coaches during changeovers and wearable technology.

There is no doubt that the new generation of players is more comfortable with the use of technology. But what does that mean for the future of coaching? Would it be possible that one day the profession could be replaced by a computer instead? This could appeal to those looking to save costs, however James isn’t convinced the complete removal of the human element will happen.

“If players are more certain and confident in knowing what they need to do, in my opinion the level goes up.” He states. “Then, if the level goes up, maybe we are not at the pinnacle of the sport seeing Rafa, Roger, Stan and Novak playing video game tennis. I think we are still going to get another level of tennis in 5-10 years, which is very exciting for the sport.”

It is inevitable that technology will have a greater presence in tennis over the coming years in some shape or form. The only question is where do you draw a line?

To find out more information about Sportiii you can visit www.sportiiianalytics.com or check out their social media pages.

ATP

Alexander Bublik Illustrates His Philosophy: “Tennis Is 30 Percent Luck”

The Kazakh, who scored his first Top 10 win against Monfils at Roland Garros last Monday, talks about his view of the world and of the time when he stopped worrying about the future.

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It spells Alexander Bublik, and yet it reads Jeffrey Lebowski. UbiTennis interviewed the 23-year-old Russian born tennis player who represents Kazakhstan last Monday, at the end of his first-round win against Monfils.

Bublik can be considered a press conference diesel engine, he starts slowly but then soars into a can’t miss one-man show. According to him, tennis is a simple game: “If you are missing the lines of the court, it means that you shouldn’t be aiming at them.” Above all, overthinking is a player’s greatest foe because “if you are overthinking, you will lose the match.” There is no strategy or premeditation even when it comes to his famous underarm serve, which, according to him, he doesn’t really use that often (“Basically, I did only one underarm serve per match in the last three matches”). On Monday, his attempt became an ace and maybe Monflis give him a glare, but we cannot be sure about that, because Bublik wasn’t looking at him, and he wouldn’t care anyway: “I don’t study my opponents, I focus on my game, and even when I hit an ace with an underarm serve, I don’t look at the opponent, I don’t care, so I don’t know how he reacted. In the end, the best strategy when you serve is to hit 25 aces in two sets, like I did in the match against Ramos in Hamburg [Editor’s Note: he actually had 17, which is still a lot].” 

 

The underarm serve is a crucial aspect, a synthesis of Bublik’s zeitgeist. According to him, not only is tennis an easy sport in which tactical preparation isn’t needed, but it is also a game in which Lady Luck plays a big role. He said, “Luck amounts to 20-30 percent in tennis, because one day you hit a big serve to the T and you ace, another day the ball is out and you lose the match. Obviously, skills are important when a Top 10 player faces someone who is ranked 150. However, when two players with similar ranking face off, luck matters. 50, maybe 70 percent of my underarm serve comes down to luck. For example, I hit an ace (against Monfils) even though he had his feet on the baseline – I just got lucky with the timing of the shot.”

He also talked a bit about his victory against Monfils, and about what it means for him. “The worst part of facing Monfils is… well, facing Monfils! It wasn’t a good start for him, because even if I was a break down, he gave me the opportunity to get back into the match. I’m happy because towards the end of the fourth set, I was fighting against myself and I’m happy I was able to get through it. It’s my first Top 10 win, furthermore coming on clay, which is not my favourite surface. This match makes me think that I can fight and win against anyone on the dirt, except maybe Rafa or Dominic.”

However, the truth is that this win is important, for sure, but up to a point, because even this kind of result must be achieved without any sort of worries. Here’s what he said about the end of the match, when he won despite having lost the third set: “I don’t know how I got back into the match, maybe I’ve just grown up, I don’t know, whatever” (which, fittingly, seems to be his favourite English word).

It was already clear that the Kazakh is a peculiar person, but the facets revealed by this interview make him even more fascinating, because even his simplicity manifesto is the result of lived experiences and of reflection. His mindset has clear foundations and reasons, and the underarm serve is linked to clear choices as well: “I do it only from the left side, because it is the only spot where I can make a drop shot.”

When did Alexander stop worrying? “In 2018, when I fell as low as World N. 220, or similar [N. 253], and I felt like quitting tennis. This helped me during the pandemic as well. I was not stressed out because I cannot do anything about it. In the tennis world, you can see many people who break down mentally, in particular on the Challenger Tour or in the Futures. When you reach the ranking that allows you to play at Grand Slam Tournament, you are not completely under pressure and most importantly, you have achieved your goals.”

Ambition (or lack thereof) is another main theme for Bublik. When he was 16 years old, he told Monfils that he would win against him within the next three years, but today he takes it easy, mindful of the vicissitudes of the past seasons. “I’m not ambitious, you must have goals but without being ambitious, because if you fail, you could become an alcoholic or a neurotic. This is why I don’t spend 15 hours a day training and I don’t sleep with my racquet. Great people like Roger, Rafa, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, they have reached the top, but we are not talking about many people, the vast majority of people don’t get those results.”

Bublik’s long-term goal is to lead an ordinary life, to have a wife and children, but at the moment he talks a lot about the need of an elder guide. This is another sign that acting indifferently is a tool that he uses to learn how to “control what I can control. I know that if my opponent hits a winner on the break point, I cannot do much about that.”

His sensei is a 75-year-old friend whose name he does not mention – his biggest quality is to point him to other venerable mentors, those you can find in the right books. “I don’t read for fun, I read in order to find an answer; for example, the mental coach is important, too, but I think that you could find the answers you need in books. You only need someone older and wiser than you are to suggest what to read. I read a couple of books a month. I’m reading Goethe’s ‘Faust’ these days for the second time”.

Even in this case, the answer is more complex than the one that could be expected of someone who doesn’t care, and according to the Bublik Manifesto, the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus must follow a well-defined path: “I don’t believe in giving advice, you have to show how to do it – smart people to whom I talk, they don’t give me advice but rather an idea, a thought to work with.” There are many different aspects to the replies that Bublik gave us, and perhaps his approach to conversations this way hides a strategy. He doesn’t want to tell us who he really is, even if we know what he is, i.e. a great tennis player and a very interesting person.

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ATP

EXCLUSIVE: Alexander Zverev Will Be Stronger Than Ever After US Open Heartbreak

UbiTennis speaks with the vice president of the German Tennis Federation, Dirk Hordorff, about Zverev’s New York breakthrough and what is next for him.

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Alexander Zverev at the US Open 2020 (photo Twitter @usopen)

Alexander Zverev struggled to hold back the tears moments after missing out on his maiden US Open title but one person thinks the experience has a silver lining.

 

Dirk Hordorff has hailed his compatriot’s run during an interview with UbiTennis. At Flushing Meadows a determined Zverev was at times far from his best after coming back from a set down in three of his matches en route to the final. Standing in his way of the trophy was Austria’s Dominic Thiem who he has known since his teenage years. After racing to a two-set lead, Zverev was unable to maintain his stronghold as Thiem rallied back to win. To add to the frustration Zverev served for the title whilst leading 5-3 in the decider.  

It’s impressive how good Sascha handled his first final. The result, as Dominic said, was that both of them deserved to be Champions and for me they showed a fantastic fight with the closest possible result,” Hordorff told UbiTennis.
“I believe both will profit from this success and Sascha will be a stronger player after the US Open than before the US Open.”

Hordorff is a veteran in the world of tennis who has worked alongside the likes of Rainer Schuettler, Vasek Pospisil and Janko Tipsarevic. Besides his work in his home country of Germany, he was also a Davis Cup and Olympic coach for Taiwan. At present his role within the German Tennis Federation (DTB) focuses on High Performance Sport. In his view,  Zverev couldn’t have done any more in the US Open final.

I don’t think it would be fair to think about mistakes and what he did wrong when he started with a two-set lead, stayed competitive over the next two and had a lot of chances in the final set,” he argues.
“Sascha played against one of the best players in the world who played three finals before. Dominic was the favourite, the higher ranked player. Sascha gave all he had on the court and for me deserves a lot of respect for his performance.”

https://twitter.com/AlexZverev/status/1305598050958815232

The 23-year-old has long been tipped as one of the players likely to take over from the reign of the Big Three in the future. A trio consisting of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who are all at least 10 years older than the German. He has been ranked as high as third in the world and is only one out of five active players to win three or more Masters 1000 titles. The others are the Big Three contingent, as well as Andy Murray.

Along with the success comes a greater burden of expectation. Something the world No.7 has grown accustomed to during his time as a player. He is mentored on the Tour by his father Alexander. A former player himself who represented the Soviet Union and won two gold medals at the 1985 Summer Universiade. Furthermore, Zverev has also enlisted the help of Spain’s David Ferrer.  

He  has achieved a lot very early in his career and fulfilled the expectations which is not easy,” Hordorff reflects. “Winning the ATP Finals in London two years ago was a great performance. This year to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, now the Final in New York at the US Open shows his talent and his possibilities for the future.
“For sure this success will raise the expectations and the pressure for him.”

The US Open provided tennis fans with a reminder of what a major final is like without a member of the Big Three present. Something that hadn’t happened on the Tour since 2014 at the same tournament. Although it is hard to judge how much of a breakthrough this was given Djokovic got disqualified, Federer was injured and Nadal opted not to play due to health-related concerns.

“The Top Three have dominated the last two decades and they are being challenged by the upcoming generation,” said the DTB vice-president. “Thiem, Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all making big progress. But when will the next generation take over nobody can say. Nevertheless, it’s interesting having more players fighting for the top spot. Tennis will profit from this rivalry.”

A boom in Germany?

It was a year before Zverev was born when a German man last lifted a Grand Slam trophy with Boris Becker triumphing at the 1996 Australian Open. Despite the country’s well established tennis system Becker and Michael Stich are the only men to have won a major title in the Open Era. The hope for the DTB is that Zverev will be the country’s third and trigger a surge in popularity.

Although credit must also be given to the women too, especially Angelique Kerber’s achievements in recent years where she has won a trio of major titles and spent 34 weeks as world No.1. The 14th longest period held by a female player in history. The first belongs to another German in the form of Steffi Graf (377 weeks).  

Germany is very happy to have Angelique Kerber as a Grand Slam Champion and former No.1 in the world, as well as  Zverev who is a top male player in the world,” said Hordorff. “For sure it will help the DTB to raise the promotion of Tennis. And we are very positive on the great Impact Sascha will have in the upcoming years for tennis in Germany.”

According to one report published on Tennisnet, an average of 800,000 viewers watched Zverev’s US Open clash in Germany which continued into the early hours of Monday morning. In comparison Thiem’s broadcast on ServusTV attracted 400,000 viewers in what was a 30% market share among viewers aged 12 and over. Germany’s population is roughly eight times bigger than that of Austria.

The question is will Zverev’s breakthrough have a bigger impact on his home country than that of Kerber? It is tough to measure and one Hordorff himself is refusing to go into.

“I don’t think we should try to compare,” he states. “Kerber’s success was great, and she still has a very positive Impact for Tennis in Germany. Zverev reaching the final at the US Open also will help German Tennis and I hope he will reach in the future similar success Angie reached in the past years.’
“It’s great to have such successful players and I am sure that both will help a lot for tennis in Germany.”

Zverev will return to action next week at the French Open where he will be bidding to go beyond the quarter-final stage for the first time in his career.

Zverev’s career in numbers

3 – his highest ranking which was first achieved back in 2017
11 – number of ATP titles he has won
14 – number of times he has won a match in five sets
24 – wins over top 10 players
235 – number of ATP Tour wins
$22,561,920 – prize money he has won so far in his career which is the 16th highest in the ATP Tour history

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Boris Becker and Justine Henin: “Off-court pressure might have made Djokovic lose his cool”

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Eurosport invited UbiTennis’s CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta to join a Q&A with the former Slam champions and world numbers ones, who dicussed the 2020 US Open (but refused to pick a winner for either draw).

 

Justine Henin and Boris Becker need no introduction: seven Slam titles and three years finished as the world N.1 for the 38-year-old Belgian, six and one for the German, now 52 (he was never actually ranked at the top at the end of a season, but won the ATP Player of the Year award in 1989, when he won two Majors). They are definitely cognizant of what it takes and means to get to the end of a US Open fortnight (Henin won it twice, Becker once), although the 2020 milieu is a bona fide unknown for pretty much everybody in tennis. 

This is why they have accepted to join a Q&A session of about half an hour, organised by Eurosport (the channel that they both work for, and that we thank once again for the invite), during which they tackled many subjects, mostly revolving around Novak Djokovic, his default loss at the hands of Pablo Carreno Busta, and the future of the PTPA, his new players’ union – Becker coached the Serbian for three seasons (winning six Slams).

Here’s the full transcript:

D: We are almost at the end of the tournament, and we have seen many controversial decisions. What will be the most important lesson to be taken for the rest of the season?
HENIN: I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. We are all wondering how we feel about this tournament. I’m glad that it took place despite the absence of the fans, who can still watch on TV, while the players can still do their jobs and are fully aware of the situation. What we can learn is that this is a unique situation fo everyone. We need to remember that nobody is perfect and that these are exceptional circumstances, but we all need to adapt – players, officials, tournaments, everybody. Our job is about adapting, so I think it’s normal to have witnessed all these ups-and-downs. Anyway, we also need to keep in mind that we are only talking about tennis, which gives us great emotions but is not the most important thing right now. The tournament hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a good start, everyone is okay, and we all need to learn our own lessons.  

Q: I was at the O2 when Djokovic was booed for double faulting, and we are talking about someone who has won 17 Slams. Does he get the respect he deserves?
BECKER: I don’t think so, it’s a very good point. In men’s tennis, fans are divided between Federer and Nadal. And then here comes Djokovic who crashes the party – this is why he gets so much criticism. Right now, he is in a s**tstorm because of what he did against Carreno, but he took responsibility for his actions and apologised, firstly to the woman, then to the USTA and to the players. Nobody is perfect. Roger double faults, Rafa double faults, they don’t get booed. 

Q: How does he take it?
BECKER: He doesn’t like it, nobody would. He’s a people person, he does a lot of charity work in Serbia through his foundation. And yet people only talk about him when he breaks the rules. He is a champion, he always wants to win, but sometimes he makes mistakes too.

Q: Justine, do you think that there is a lack of respect for Djokovic and for what he has achieved?
HENIN: It’s very strange. Personally, I respect the champion he is. You can like or not his on-court personality. We are witnessing a golden age in men’s tennis because of the Big Three, but also because of all the players who are coming up behind them. Novak is different from Rafa and Roger, and he also broke onto the scene a little later, ma we have to have the utmost respect for what he’s doing in tennis.

D: Will this premature elimination in New York help him at the French Open?
BECKER: I like your positive attitude, very forward-looking! Novak is still digesting what happened, but he has to view this episode as an opportunity to make some noise on the court and to win more. The question is whether he will play in Rome before Paris – he is very popular in Italy. I think he is a contender at the French Open, he and Thiem can challenge Nadal.

Q: Will the players be more careful because of what happened to him?
HENIN: We are all human beings. It reminds us that we need some humility and that players can make mistakes. In the end, even if Novak is a champion, he can still make mistakes. It’s not easy to control the pressure and one’s emotions during a match. It’s a lesson for all of us, not just for the players. The rule is good because we have to protect the officials and the fans. Maybe some people think that it should be changed, but I don’t agree, because it pushes the players to control their emotions and frustrations. However, it was bad luck in Novak’s case.

D (UbiTennis): I’d like to ask Justine what she thinks about the PTPA, and whether it will be successful.
HENIN: I think Boris has more details about it, I’m not too informed on the subject. We want the players to be united and to be represented in the right way in tournaments. It’s hard for me to judge which is the best way to achieve this. There are many different opinions on the matter. Boris, what do you think?
BECKER: The ATP was founded in 1972 by the players. Over time, it became the ATP Tour, which has two sides: the players and the tournaments. Apparently, many players don’t feel that they are being well-represented by the ATP, and this is the reason why the new association was created. I would like to see them involve female players. I would like for the ATP and the WTA to do something together. This is the only mistake I see. But in principle I think it’s right that the players should have a voice within the ATP, whose structure is different than it was in 1972.

Justine Henin – Wimbledon 2010 (Credit: @Gianni Ciaccia)

Q (UbiTennis): Why do you think Nadal and Federer didn’t concur with Novak’s message? I don’t think he wants to fight with the Players Council, and I think he wants to involve some women as well, from what I understand.
BECKER: I think that Federer and Nadal have different agendas. They are making history, and they also don’t have a personal history of political involvement, which is a smart thing to do, according to some. But they are also the most famous faces in men’s tennis. There should have been a unanimous decision over the new association, but there are many different opinions. Therefore, Nadal and Federer’s interests are not the same as Djokovic’s. I’d like to see the ATP and the WTA unite, but I don’t think we have that right now.  

Q: Could the ball abuse violation be softened in some cases, in order to avoid episodes like the one involving Djokovic, who hit the lineswoman in a clearly unintentional way?  
HENIN: I think that the rule is fair, but this is just my opinion. Where would we draw the line, were we to soften it? Many people think that the decision with Djokovic was too harsh because Bedene wasn’t disqualified the previous week, but I think that the two episodes are completely different. I have never seen anyone on a tennis court who tried to hurt somebody intentionally, but you can hurt people even unintentionally, and we need to control these cases by creating limits that shouldn’t be broken. It also serves as a message to everybody else. We are not perfect, but we need to be examples and to inspire people. I also think that this is an experience that can be used to grow. I have never been involved in something like this, but I’m sure it will be tough for Novak’s ego. It also means that he isn’t a machine, and I like that. Back to the point, I wouldn’t change the rule.

BECKER: I mostly agree with Justine. It was tough for Novak, and you know I’m a fan of his, but in a certain way he has been lucky, because that woman could have been hurt a lot worse. The rule is clear. Novak had already hit a ball against the wall, and he was clearly frustrated, he was dominated by his own emotions. We shouldn’t think that he is a bad person, we both know that emotions come out during a match, and that it is part of human nature to misbehave when things are not going our way. I wouldn’t change the rule, because players are role models. This was an unfortunate instance, but the decision was right

On page 2, the interview will shift to the mental toll that tennis players have to shoulder, as well as to Becker’s vacation with Bjorn Borg and to Kim Clijsters’ comeback

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