Moneyball Comes to Tennis

Tennis is on the verge of a belated Moneyball revolution. In the northern spring, the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour, is planning to open up ball-tracking data from every match to all its players and coaches.

The shift will do much to level an uneven playing field. Until now, millionaire players such as the “Big Four” men have had the opportunity to buy better-quality data analysis than their less wealthy rivals.

One might imagine that access to data would be a basic right for all leading professionals. In fact, anyone wanting to use the information gathered by Hawk-Eye, the leading ball-tracking provider since 2014, has had to pay a £150 ($263) processing fee per match. On top of that, tour rules say you can order data only from matches you played in.

In April, this will change. “We want to give players more equal access to this information,” says Ross Hutchins, the Association of Tennis Professionals’ chief tour officer. “We believe it will improve performance levels. We are looking to bring player and ball-tracking online from every ATP tournament. We’re hoping to make this happen by the second quarter of 2023, and then bring in wearable technology, such as heart monitors and GPS location devices, by the second half of the year.”

Despite the relatively large amount of money at stake, tennis must rank as one of the most backward major sports when it comes to sophisticated data analysis, mainly because there are few economies of scale.

Six-figure sums for data

If you are lucky enough to come from a grand-slam nation such as Great Britain or the United States, you can usually dip into your federation’s sizeable dataset. Otherwise, the only way to gain access to more than a tiny percentage of matches is to hire one of the big analytical companies, such as Golden Set Analytics (GSA), which used to charge Roger Federer a six-figure sum annually for exclusive access to its scouting and performance reports.

“In tennis, the teams are smaller than most other sports, and almost everything has to come out of the player’s pocket,” says Philip Mauerhofer, who runs a well-regarded analytics firm called Tennis Stat. “Unless you’re at the top of the game, adding more expenditure to your coaching and your physio and your fitness training is always going to be a stretch. So to have a trove of data available on every player would be a game-changer.”

Agent Patricio Apey welcomed the ATP plan. One of Apey’s clients – America’s Sebastian Korda – has been able to benefit from his close relationship with the United States Tennis Association, which logs all the information from its home tournaments and has a data-pooling deal with Tennis Australia.

But another of Apey’s stable – Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas – has had no such support. Tsitsipas thus needs to spend considerably more to gain the same level of tactical insight. As a top-five player, he can probably afford the difference. Those lower down the ladder are not always so fortunate.

“I’m cautiously hopeful that the governing bodies will see that making this information available to all players and their teams will only make the sport better,” Apey says. “Look at how sophisticated Formula One is when it comes to using data. Maybe in the future we will see cutting-edge analysts in the player boxes doing their work in real time and passing useful feedback to coaches and players during matches.”

Test run for courtside coaching

Tennis has many governing bodies, and at the moment only the Association of Tennis Professionals – as opposed to the grand slams and the Women’s Tennis Association – is committed to opening up its dataset. But the scenario Apey mentions is already here, even if it was used only on an experimental level at last November’s ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan, where coaches were allowed to advise their players during matches, as is becoming the norm on the ATP Tour, and at the two hard-court slams. They were also given an electronic tablet showing live data from the match as it progressed.

“It was challenging to use at first,” says James Trotman, the British coach whose player, Jack Draper, was eliminated in the semi-finals of that event. “There was so much data, whether it be the direction of the serve, the accuracy of the return, or the speed of each player’s forehands and backhands.

“I had to keep it simple, so I just focused on the first of those categories. There was one opponent who was always serving in the same place, so when it came to the tie-break I was able to tell Jack to sit on that return, which helped a great deal.”

Four years ago, Germany’s No. 1 Alexander Zverev said that “all the big guys are using data analysis, they just don’t like to talk about it” – and leading players are still coy about their data support. A rare exception is the world’s best player, Novak Djokovic, who allowed his former analyst, Craig O’Shannessy, to speak publicly about their work together.

The bigger your database, the easier it is to supply reliable scouting reports on every opponent. GSA says it has an automated algorithm that “scrapes” data directly from TV coverage, but for the smaller operators, many thousands of hours have been spent on hand-tagging matches. The going rate for a one-off scouting report from these lesser outfits is $US300.

So what kinds of insight can a big company provide? “A lot of added value is obtained from using data richer than anything the human eye can detect,” says Ben Depoorter, GSA’s vice-president of player analytics. “Hawk-Eye’s ball-tracking system generates millions of data points. And the insights that show up are not always what you might expect.

“Contrary to most expectations, Djokovic is outstanding with his backhand on fast returns hit towards his feet, and weaker on loopy balls that land short but with more of an angle, because he likes to hit on the rise. People come in with set ideas about what works – and the only way to disprove their preconceptions is with data.”

Source: The Telegraph, London