INSIDE STORY: Connected racquets break new ground

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Next Gen: Connected racket.

For a sport that often seems deeply rooted in tradition, tennis has certainly embraced technology in a way beyond expectation.

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From the major advancements made in strings and racquet materials to the introduction of Hawk-Eye to assist officiating, tennis has cautiously adopted various innovations to keep up with the modern times.

Yet, the sport is constantly searching for ways to engage the younger generation, who are relying more on their smartphones, iPads and video games, and spending less time outdoors.

In an attempt to grab the attention of youngsters as well as provide a new dimension of information for professional players and coaches, the connected racquet has surfaced in the market, courtesy of French brand Babolat, which prompted the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to adopt a rule allowing the use of the technology during official match play since the start of the 2014 season.

Connected racquets use sensors that are placed inside the handle to track details during a hitting session or match for shot power and ball impact location along with a number of strokes, spin, effective play time, endurance, technique, consistency, energy and rallies.

When the player finishes a session, information is transmitted through a Bluetooth connection with a smartphone or from a USB to a computer, and is viewable on any type of device.

The information can then be shared with the Babolat Play community through a dedicated platform at Babolatplay.com and on a Babolat Play App.

The first racquet using that technology was the Babolat Play Pure Drive, which was introduced in December 2013. Last January, Babolat launched the connected AeroPro Drive, which is used by 14-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal and at this year’s French Open, the public got to see the Spaniard’s data on court Philippe Chatrier’s big screen after his second-round defeat of Nicolas Almagro.

People could analyse how many backhands and forehands Nadal hit during the match while the impact locator revealed how often he hit the ball in the racquet’s sweet spot.

“It’s very interesting to know where you’re hitting the ball and how many forehands and backhands you’re hitting. With my game it’s decisive to play most of the time with my forehand and that shows exactly what I have done,” Nadal said on court after his win over Almagro.

The technology has been almost a decade in the making and Babolat believe in future all racquets on the market will be connected.

They also introduced a lighter racquet for kids, the Pure Drive Lite, last March to make sure they’re catering to the younger generation.

“The main thing the tennis industry is struggling with is how do we make sure that tennis stays at the level where it is today, that we manage to attract younger generations,” Jean-Marc Zimmmerman, chief information officer at Babolat, said on the sidelines of the French Open.

“Tennis is a challenging sport. Most of the fun in tennis comes from the progression. If you improve your game and manage to beat your opponents it gets fun, but it takes a lot of effort to get there. When you’re a leader of your industry, it’s your duty to make sure that your sport is healthy.

“And we thought that in order to get those younger generations interested in the sport it was key to provide that same experience to them.”

Initially an R&D project at Babolat, the first prototype was produced five years ago when the arrival of smartphones helped drop the prices of sensors like gyroscopes and accelerometres.

Once they made sure the product could be sold affordably – connected racquets are 70 per cent more expensive than non-connected Babolat ones – they managed to officially launch it.

The biggest challenge was to make sure the racquet felt and weighed exactly the same with or without the technology so that professionals could make a seamless transition.

Babolat replaced dead weight that was typically present in the handle of each racquet to give it a specific balance and put the sensors there instead. Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach, says he has found the technology very useful.

“It’s making a difference for sure because you have more information. When the information arrived in football, we all thought ‘the coach can see what’s happening on the pitch so why do we need that?’ but later all the teams adopted lots of technology to get a better look at things. It’s the same thing with tennis,” said Nadal Sr.

“I’m watching the ball but it’s very difficult to see exactly what’s happening because the ball is going so fast. So I don’t know where Rafael is hitting the ball with his racquet exactly. But with the connected racquet I know.”

The first official all-connected match took place at the French Open this year when Caroline Wozniacki faced Julia Goerges – the former using a the AeroPro Drive and the latter using the Pure Drive. But the manufacturers insist the technology is equally beneficial and available to the amateur day-to-day players.

The community on the Babolat Play App has reached several thousand according to Zimmerman although he refuses to share an exact figure of how many connected racquets they have sold.

“Every time you introduce a new innovation, if you’re focused on the numbers it’s very difficult to project what you want to expect when you start an innovation. For us it’s not a point of discussion. We’re happy with our sales but moreover we’re happy that from an innovation perspective we’re changing the game,” he says.

One of the inaccuracies reported involve volleys, which are often difficult to detect using the current set-up, while some unorthodox forehands, like Nadal’s on clay can often be detected as a smash.

Smashing forehand: Nadal.

Of the many statistics available on the App, there is a score called Pulse, which is an overall representation of your game that combines technique, power and endurance and helps to compare yourself with others in the Babolat Play community, including Nadal.

“This product helps players focus much more. Players have told us ‘I’m much more focused when I train because I know somebody’s watching – it’s my racquet’,” explains Zimmerman.

Babolat have just started selling the connected racquet in the UAE, partnering with Sun & Sand Sports and will continue to launch it in more Middle Eastern countries.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, agrees that the future of tennis will be connected, but not just through racquets.

“The connected racquet is one of the things, that’s not the only thing. I think what’s very interesting also is the PlaySight system (3D tactical review through instant video), because thanks to the video, they capture all kind of stats and they can track anything,” he said.

“The more information you have, the more chance you have to make the right choices for the players. So the connected tennis in general, whether it’s what is happening in the racquet or what’s happening on the court, those two things are definitely the future.”

Zimmerman says regular software updates are available to improve performance, meaning buyers won’t need to purchase a new product unless the actual sensors are updated by the manufacturer for the release of the next generation of racquets.

Players should avoid breaking their racquets in frustration though. At $349, smashing your racquet will certainly cost you a hefty sum. 

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