On-court data to serve its purpose

Women's coaches can now use real-time stats to determine players' mid-match strategising

When Mirjana Lucic-Baroni faced Varvara Lepchenko in the opening round of the Bank of the West Classic, the Croatian went wide on the first point in all her service games.

Said British tennis coach Miles Maclagan: "I wonder how much (Lepchenko's) coach would have paid me to tell her before the match that every single first point (went to her backhand)... it's invaluable information."

Yet, the data is now free. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) yesterday announced that players and coaches can access real-time performance data during live match play, starting at this tournament at Stanford University.

The coaches can now choose to be armed with an iPad full of statistics when they visit their players for the allocated 90 seconds during each set.

Among the data that the coaches look out for most are patterns in opponents' service placements, particularly on break point and the first point of the game, added Maclagan, who previously worked with men's world No. 3 Andy Murray.

COURTING TECHNOLOGY

This is where we, as a sport, have to get over ourselves. We have to look outside and not inside and not be afraid of change.

STACEY ALLASTER Chief executive officer of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), about introducing real-time match statistics for on-court coaching purposes

The technology, powered by German software giant SAP, shows anything from rally hit points to break point conversion rates. But the coaches can also filter the flow of information to suit their needs.

WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster described the access to the analytics tool as a "game changer that will not only enhance our athletes' preparation and performance but also the fans' experiences when watching women's tennis".

It was the idea of giving fans watching at home a front-row view of how the players and coaches strategise and interact on court that provided the motivating factor behind the WTA allowing on-court coaching in 2008.

That change in a sport steeped in tradition immediately polarised opinions abouton-court coaching. It is understood that only about 60 per cent of the players use on-court coaching, which remains optional.

Among the biggest criticisms from commentators is that it downplays the abilities of players.

American player-turned-broadcaster Mary Carillo once opined that the women players often end up looking weak, submissive and confused, and they are no longer able to portray themselves as solitary problem-solvers.

However, former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport and Allaster launched a staunch defence of on-court coaching at a press conference yesterday.

"In every other sport, you get the ability to talk to your coach and get a chance to get help," said three-time Major champion Davenport, who now coaches American rising star Madison Keys.

"It doesn't mean golfers who talk to their caddies are weak, or National Basketball Association players when they call time-outs.

"That's what coaches are paid to do - it's to help the player."

Allaster observed that "this is where we, as a sport, have to get over ourselves".

"We have to look outside and not inside and not be afraid of change."

For players like world No. 14 Angelique Kerber, the change is a positive one. The two-time grand slam semi-finalist believes that the technology can be the difference between winning and losing.

"You can turn a match around and you can make your game better by changing your strategy," said the German.

Coaches will be able to use the SAP tool at six other events this year, including the Rogers Cup that starts tomorrow, next month's Wuhan Open and the Oct 25-Nov 1 WTA Finals in Singapore.

WTA BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC
Q-final 1: StarHub Ch203, tomorrow, 3am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'ON-COURT DATA TO SERVE ITS PURPOSE'. Print Edition | Subscribe