By Randy Walker
In a bruising baseline rally, what percentage of points does Maria Sharapova win when she hits 10 or more forehands in a single point?
If a player approaches the net against Victoria Azarenka, what percentage of backhand passing shots does she hit down-the-line versus crosscourt? What about on her forehand side?
When Serena Williams is engaged in a tight-match, what are her tendencies and patterns of play when the score is 5-5 in a set and beyond?
A player’s coach or a very astute and observant tennis commentator or student of the game may be able pick up the propensities of top tennis players with extended scouting over many months, perhaps years. But with the Women’s Tennis Association’s new relationship with SAP, statistics and analytics such as this will be available at the touch of a few buttons.
The WTA and SAP announced on August 12 in Cincinnati an agreement where SAP would collaborate with the WTA to develop innovative solutions to provide players with the tools to better analyze performance and optimize strategy while also better servicing the media and further engaging with fans with state-of-the-art new statistics.
“Through the use of SAP’s analytics, we will be able to provide greater statistical and data insight, and through SAP’s technology, our athletes will gain a competitive edge,” said Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA at the press conference announcing SAP’s new sponsorship of the WTA. “Media and fans will have greater access to richer and faster data across multiple platforms.”
With data powered by SAP, players, coaches, media and fans will be able to virtually analyze WTA matches and derive player patterns, trends and on-court tendencies in certain match situations.
“I believe SAP analytics is really going to add tremendous value and it’s going to transform the sport of tennis in all areas,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, now the U.S. Fed Cup captain and commentator for ESPN. “As a former player, I wish I had this when I played. This would have helped me out a lot to be able to perform better with all the strategy and patterns and tendencies that you can follow.”
Fernandez, however, can benefit from the new data not only in her position as a television commentator but also with her coaching responsibilities. In her TV role, she, as well as other commentators, media and tennis bloggers, will be able to sift through and analyze the provided data and better explain to fans the on-court chess match and on what exactly is happening on court.
“We’re going to be able to tell the story that you’re watching on TV better and better connect with the fans,” Fernandez said.”The fans are going to be able to get closer to the action on a daily basis and the players are really going to benefit. The coaches are going to be able to look all these stats up, all these patterns, not just from the match, but from the season. It’s a win‑win really for everybody involved.”
Players and coaches will be able to call up, for example, 15-30 or break point during their year and crunch that data to find patterns. Do they come to the net 75 percent of the time when down break point? What percentage of points were won when a left-handed player was able hit cross-court into a particular player’s backhand?
In her role also as the U.S. Fed Cup captain, Fernandez, as the on-court coach for American players during Fed Cup play, can more easily scout players’ strengths and weaknesses with an analysis of the data at hand. For example, when Fernandez and the U.S. team, led by Serena and Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens, played Sweden earlier this year, Fernandez would be able to better develop a strategy against the Swedish players Sofia Arvidsson and Johanna Larsson, two players who Fernandez and her team did not know too much about in advance of the matches.
Patrick Mouratoglou and Sam Sumyk, the respective coaches of world No. 1 Serena Williams and world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, were some of the early tennis insiders to get a preview of the statistical and analytical data that SAP would be offering at the year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul, Turkey last October.
“My coach was actually in Turkey and he came up to me and was telling me all these statistics and all these facts,” said Williams at the press conference. “And I’m like, ‘Where did you get all this information from?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, the WTA is working on something to get more stats and to get more this.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds really cool.’ So I think in the day and age where technology is just at literally everyone’s fingertips, it’s going to be so exciting not only for the players, not only for the competitors, not only for the coaches, but most of all for the fans, for the viewers, to have an opportunity to just be that much closer and that much more involved into tennis.”
Said Azarenka, “When you’re on the court you don’t visually see everything, the game, the way you see it on TV. And with the stats, that kind of makes you more aware of what you do on the court and can help you to develop your game better. I think for fans it is very exciting to see about all the players, but for me personally, as a player, I feel like it can take me and make me a better player to know how I play actually, because you never have a chance to play against yourself, so that’s kind of a learning process.”
If Williams, Azarenka or any WTA player becomes aware that they are falling into certain patterns that can predicted, they have the opportunity, armed with the new data, to make adjustments to make their games less predictable and play with more variety.
“This is actually a way that technology can improve one’s game,” said Williams. “You would think five years ago, How can technology improve a game? Well, here’s your answer.”
Said Azarenka, “It’s something that I think everybody was looking forward to, to expand our sport, to really take it to the next level, to educate not only fans but also young players who can get more excited about it.“
This new analytical data will also be available for fans, eventually on mobile devices, because as Steve Peck, SAP’s Senior Vice President for Global Strategic Initiatives, said simply. “Fans out there are just thirsty for data.”
“Everybody, while they’re going back and forth watching the live tennis, wants to see data right in the palm of their hand,” said Peck. “This is the world we have today. It’s about the second screen. It’s about getting the data and engaging fans, and we have to compete with all the other sports and all the other outlets out there. The more you engage the fans, the happier they’re going to be. And then once you engage them, the more you can get to know them. And there’s fans all over the world.”
Said Allaster, “We haven’t had a rich database of analytics historically. I think we’ll have that opportunity, but more importantly, going forward also there will be so much more depth with SAP software to be able to analyze it, record it, and make it historical for generations to come.”