Rapid evolution

Tennis racquets form part of a display that focuses onthe development of tennis technology, at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, in Newport.-AP

While the public, on one hand, focuses on the Roger Federers, Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovics, the role of technology at the backend is unmistakably huge, writes N. Sudarshan.

No other professional sport has integrated technology into its world as well as tennis. Playing surfaces are ever newer. The International Tennis Federation recognises 160 of them. Ball-tracking technology, medical technology, social media interfaces, advancements in broadcasting have all revolutionised the way the game is played and consumed. It is evolving so rapidly that the 2014 Rules of Tennis have been amended to permit International Tennis Federation (ITF)-approved devices to be used during play. While the public, on one hand, focuses on the Roger Federers, Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovics, the role of technology at the backend is unmistakably huge. Not for nothing did English novelist Martin Amis say, “a beautiful game, but one so remorselessly travestied by the passage of time.”

Yet, it is a fact that tennis is a sport full of conservatives. Players have always been slow to change. Old habits die hard. And the tension between the old and new, a feature of many a value system around the world, is glaring. Ask the old hand, he will decry the role of chance and luck. What used to be four radically different surfaces (the four Grand Slams) are now almost homogenous due to technology, he will say. Why should the same players with the same set of skills be rewarded again and again, he will ask. Why is that fate and human failings decide less and less and instead computers and sensors have a say more and more, he will wonder.

But everything has to move with the times. There will be pros and cons but evolution is inevitable. Here is a look at some of the technological advancements in tennis:

Racquets

It was wooden first. Then it became steel. Steel then turned into carbon and now graphene seems to be the new trick. American Jimmy Connors, when he won the Wimbledon in 1974, was the first to put the metal racquet in public minds. Billie Jean King did win the 1967 U.S. Open with metal but later returned to wooden racquets.

When Connors did what he did, it divided opinion. The wooden racquets were 65 square inches in size. The carbon ones can now go up to 137. There was once something called the ‘sweet spot’ and it required a bit of talent to make contact with the ball at that precise point. Now, the whole of the racquet is a sweet spot. Are players the primary determinants of a match result anymore is the underlying question.

But what technology did do was to customise the racquet for an individual player and increase the potential for improvement. It is no longer the look and feel of the equipment but the level of detail to the last grain that decides which racquet gets used. The latest among these is the ‘Babolat Play’ where sensors equipped inside the handle measures movement and vibrations from where a ball hits the string bed and captures data about every type of stroke. The data can then be transmitted to a smartphone or computer and analysed.

Hawk-Eye

The hawk-eye system at the Chennai open tennis Championship in India. In allowing just two unsuccessful challenges in each set, the interruption is minimum and the players need to know when and what to challenge.-M. VEDHAN

One area where the traditionalists and the modernists seem to converge rather easily is on the use of Hawk-Eye which allows a player to challenge an official line call. It traces the arc of a bouncing ball, maps the path the ball takes and establishes whether it bounced in or out. It even takes into account how the ball skids and changes shape during contact with the ground. At an error threshold of 3.6 mm, it is almost perfect. The skeptics initially said it would interrupt the flow of the game and take out the human element. On the contrary, what it does is to place that human element in the players’ realm. In allowing just two unsuccessful challenges in each set, the interruption is minimum and the players need to know when and what to challenge, and this decision making is now considered an art in itself.

Biomechanics and video analysis

A tennis stroke is a thing of sophistication. Early research involved only the serve. Ground strokes were secondary. But with players getting all the more fitter, rallies extending, the need was for a well-rounded game. This is where biomechanics and video analysis come into the picture. How does one develop power and control? What is the stretch-shortening cycle of muscles? How much should one vary the pace, spin and direction of the ball? A plethora of video analysis systems are in place for the same. Why, players scout each other on YouTube these days and especially in Davis Cups when one draws obscure opponents, this is a God-send.

Low-compression tennis balls

Something that changed the fundamental way tennis was played was the introduction of low-compression tennis balls. These are lightweight balls that are easy to hit. The flight of the ball is slower and the bounce true, giving more time for one to play the ball and lengthen the rallies. This has come under severe criticism from some quarters for making certain aspects of the game like the volley and the drop shot rare and thereby making the game a one-dimensional baseline slugfest. But what is also true is that it really helps a youngster shape his strokes better and gives them more time to control and play the shots.

Did you know?

The net cord sensor’s first-ever version introduced in 1974 was a pick-up from the electric guitar — a mechanical effort (of ball hitting the net) being converted into electric charge (picked up by sensors).

Around 35 km of cables are wired through Melbourne Olympic Park during the Australian Open.

At Wimbledon, spare balls are kept at 20 degrees centigrade at the side of the court to keep them in perfect condition.