Sergey Nivens - Fotolia
After the first serves are struck Oct. 27 at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, once the world's top women players attempt their first returns and passing shots, a wealth of previously untapped data will be at their fingertips, made possible by a new tool in the SAP Tennis Analytics platform.
Patterns of Play was unveiled by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and multinational software giant SAP on Oct. 16, and will make its official debut at the WTA Finals, the last big tournament of the year on the women's professional tennis tour.
It's the latest update to the SAP Tennis Analytics platform, which was first developed when SAP and the WTA joined forces in 2012 to create an analytics tool for players and coaches on the WTA Tour.
With Patterns of Play, for the first time players and coaches will be able to look not simply at how players approach points in different circumstances, but also how they play points as they develop -- the sequence of shots as points get extended. And the data will be updated in real time, every 15 seconds, as matches progress, with coaches able to see it on tablets as they watch the action unfold.
"Over the last couple of years coaches have been asking if we can look into patterns within rallies -- the sequences of rallies and where players hit the balls," said Milan Cerny, SAP's director of strategic partnerships. "That's the next step to take with data and that led us to this product. Players can work on being less predictable while being able to predict their opponents better."
Before Patterns of Play, the SAP Tennis Analytics platform was able to do situational predictive modeling.
One player, for example, when facing a break point on her serve might go for an ace up the middle of the court a much higher percentage of the time than serving the ball wide. Another player, when needing one more point to win a game, might almost exclusively hit forehands down the line rather than hit them cross-court. And so on.
But while the software could track a players' tendency to do one thing or another given the circumstance, it could not monitor how players chose to play points as they progressed.
The sequence of shots wasn't known, what a player did more often than not on the next shot after attempting that big serve up the middle, or the third, fourth, fifth time they hit the ball during a lengthy rally.
That is, it wasn't known by everyone.
Some top players were able to collect and analyze more data than those further down in the rankings, thanks to the financial wherewithal provided by their tour winnings and income from sponsorships. They were able to add data science personnel to their teams, and were already looking at the progression of points.
So one of the key motivations for developing Patterns of Play, according to WTA president Micky Lawler, was to open up the deeper levels of data analysis to every member of the WTA.
"The top players have a little more ability to hire teams and dive into data and get more out of what was being provided by SAP," she said. "We decided to work on Patterns of Play to make that data available to everyone. Having that data when someone else doesn't can be a big differentiator, and it can push a top player further to the top."
With Patterns of Play, SAP Tennis Analytics provides three new features that display information in a dashboard format.
Rally Analysis allows coaches and players to view a customized breakdown of the court split into segments to examine a player's hit location and likely responses during a rally. Ball Toss Analysis looks at the positioning of the ball on the racket at impact during the serve and how that affects the outcome of both the serve itself and any potential subsequent rally. Bounce-to-Hit Point Analysis, finally, through a series of data points enables coaches and players to see where a ball is being struck to help gauge a player's aggressiveness, as well as look at where an opponent is returning a ball after a serve and the success rate of those shots.
Only Rally Analysis will be available at the WTA Finals, according to Lawler, while Ball Toss Analysis and Bounce-to-Hit Point Analysis will be out in January when the 2020 women's tennis season begins in Australia leading up to the Australian Open.
Micky LawlerPresident, Women's Tennis Association
"The players and coaches love it," Lawler said. "It really makes coaches' jobs a lot easier -- it makes them 100% accurate. They have their hunches, but now they can verify them. They can also look closer at the data and discover something else they didn't think about before."
She added that Patterns of Play will save coaches the vast amount of time they now spend tracking every shot to try to discern patterns. It will free them up from looking at a notepad throughout a match and potentially missing some of the action. And it will also give them empirical evidence when challenged by a player.
"It can really change the relationship," Lawler said. "A player doesn't have to take anything personally."
Similarly, Cerny said that the feedback he's gotten to the latest addition to the SAP Tennis Analytics platform has been positive.
"On this latest update we haven't gotten any negative feedback, and we've spoken to a lot of coaches," he said. "When we showed them a prototype, they wanted to use it right away, which is a good sign."
As SAP and the WTA look to the future and the next additions to the SAP Tennis Analytics platform, augmented intelligence and machine learning -- as with most modern analytics platforms -- will play a significant role.
Rather than having to ask questions of the data, for example, the data will proactively offer suggestions.
"The next level is using AI to flag things without having to look for patterns," Lawler said. "For example, it will tell you that Victoria Azarenka likes to serve to the backhand in a certain circumstance, but that when she plays Sloane Stephens she serves to the forehand. It will flag something different than the usual pattern."
But that's next. Patterns of Play is the now of the SAP Tennis Analytics platform, and will be deployed by the best in women's tennis starting at the WTA Finals.