The Backboard: A Name Change, Is Tennis in the Analytical Dark Ages?, and More

Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Monday here at The Changeover. You can find past editions of The Backboard here. Let’s get started!

Why the name change?

Simple answer: because my brain tricked me. As you may know, this column was called “Stray Shots” for the first four weeks it appeared on The Changeover. I remember having the idea for a weekly column in January, and knowing pretty soon afterwards that the name should be “Stray Shots.” I didn’t know where that name came from, but I knew it was the right one.

Turns out, that name did have an origin. As some of you who follow me on Twitter know, I love the NBA. My favorite NBA writer is Zach Lowe, who used to be in charge of SI.com’s Point Forward NBA blog, and now is Grantland’s main NBA guy. Turns out, Lowe already has a column called “Stray Shots” that he’s used only three times since he started at Grantland last year. His first Stray Shots column appeared on October 19, 2012. But that’s not even the one I read. It was his Stray Shots piece on bad contract extensions from November 2 that I do remember reading.

What is hilarious is that The Changeover went online only days before that column was posted, on October 28. Somehow the “Stray Shots” name stuck in my mind from that moment on. Apparently, my brain decided to do an inception on itself, making itself forget that the name actually came from someone else’s work. What probably helped my brain’s case was that Lowe didn’t use the Stray Shots column from November 2 until last week.

At any rate, Lowe and Grantland had the name first, so this space is now The Backboard. Speaking of those very useful walls: when I lived in North Carolina, there were two parks nearby where I could find good tennis courts as well as a backboard. Here in Houston, I’ve driven around every tennis court in a wide radius from where I live, and there isn’t single court equipped with a backboard.

I find this amazing.

Is tennis in the analytical dark ages?

Before we leave Zach Lowe alone, he did publish two pieces last week that were absolutely fascinating. These are:

1. Lights, Cameras, Revolution

2. The SportVU Follow-up: Answering the Most Common Questions and More Ghost Raptors

I strongly encourage you to read both. You don’t need to care about basketball to grasp how fascinating this is. Turns out, Lowe was allowed to see what the Toronto Raptors are doing with a fancy camera system they’ve installed on their arena that tracks all sorts of things during basketball games: all players are tracked, their speed is tracked, the ball’s trajectory is tracked, etc. The Raptors have gone a step beyond and molded the data they receive from the cameras into handy videos where you can see the movement of individual players.

Now, a lot of what is being analyzed is defense, which is notoriously difficult to measure with traditional statistics. With this in mind, the Raptors Analytics team has created a sort of “ideal” defense model by including a “ghost” for each player who is playing defense. This ghost moves around based on the tendencies set by the Raptors Analytics team which take into account all sorts of variables like personnel and individual offensive tendencies. In simple terms, the ghost plays defense in the most efficient and appropriate way.

Isn’t all of this fascinating? I mean, it doesn’t matter if you hate the NBA or the game of basketball — it’s just breathtaking to see the kind of thought that goes into figuring out patterns of play to get a minimal advantage that would prove crucial in the future.

Now, what’s going on in the realm of tennis?

A few weeks ago, Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times Straight Sets tennis blog posted a piece titled “Unforced Error Is Unloved Statistic Among Tennis Players.” What is interesting is that while Rothenberg tried to keep the scope of the piece on unforced errors, he got the following quotes from rather high profile people, which seem to reflect a general attitude towards tennis statistics:

“The most important one is if there’s a W next to your name. The rest you can pretty much throw out.”

That’s Andy Murray, the World No. 3. I have to say, I find this surprising, given that Murray seems like the cerebral type who would be all into looking at weird numbers and trends. Then again, that would be cutting into his video game time.

“I’m not interested on the statistics, because I’m not sure it’s accurate, so I rather go see by myself, and see with my own eyes, and make my opinion or judgment.”

That’s Sam Sumyk, Victoria Azarenka’s coach. Azarenka, is the World No. 3 and recent Australian Open champion. As some of you might have noticed, I decided to audit the unforced error count in the Sorana Cirstea-Angelique Kerber match yesterday, and the results don’t support Sumyk’s point.

“The forced error, unforced error count is always extremely tricky, I know, and my coaches know, what happened during the match, so I don’t necessarily need stats to point out things.”

And this would be 17-time major winner Roger Federer.

Are any of these statements surprising? Not at all. Tennis statistics are in a much more precarious state than what other professional sports offer: during the ATP 500 event in Dubai a few weeks ago there wasn’t even a count for winners and unforced errors. Sure, the ATP Match Facts give us some stats, but those are all very, very basic. We can’t tell how many forehands and backhands are hit by a given player, and what their efficiency is with each shot. We don’t know where they serve on break point. We don’t know where they tend to serve on any point. We don’t know how many returns are deep. We don’t know if there are specific spots that a player targets with their returns. I could go on and on, but you get my point.

Some people, like yours truly, is still in joyous disbelief that TennisTV now gives you live stats during a match, which include winners and unforced errors, segregated by whether they’re a forehand or backhand shot. It’s amazing … and yet, it’s still pretty basic information that wasn’t even out there until just a few weeks ago.

*****

If you know about the Moneyball revolution that took over baseball and is now influencing the NBA and other sports, you’ll notice that this wasn’t a movement started by the players or the coaches. It’s always the front office, primarily the general managers and their staff, who invest heavily in analytics. The objective? Use as much information as possible to help them make better and more cost-effective personnel decisions in drafting, trades and free agent signing.

In terms of power structure, the General Manager (or whoever is the lead decision-maker in terms of  basketball operations) of a team is under the direct supervision of said team’s owner. A GM can fire a coach, trade players, and more, but he/she always has to receive the owner’s approval for any big moves. How could this structure work in tennis, where the player is also the owner, since they are the ones hiring their own coaches? This could be the reason why we don’t see much analytical focus in this sport: the players are in complete control, the coaches depend on the players, and there is no general manager who would be interested in figuring things out via analytics.

The other reason, of course, is the cost. From the Lowe piece we see that just getting the cameras costs NBA teams $100,000 a year. That doesn’t include the expenses related to the personnel of an analytics team that actually interprets the data produced by the cameras themselves. No team has ever wanted to release just how much they spend on analytics, but we’re talking about seven figures, at least. This kind of an investment would only be available to the ultra elite of tennis, those few lucky men and women who make between five and 10 million dollars a year. Maybe this is a place where national tennis federations can get involved. They have the resources to invest in analytics, and their player development programs would surely benefit.

Yet, I wonder if you’re thinking something that came to my head while I read the Lowe pieces: the NBA is setting up cameras to track what is happening on the basketball court. Tennis has a system that involves cameras that track things that happen on a tennis court, too. Hawk-Eye! Of course, the famous system is only used during a match as a way to track the ball and see if a call was correct or not. There is no other official use for it.

However, if you’ve been paying attention to tennis broadcasts over the past few years, you’ll notice that we’ve gotten some fascinating graphs, and they all come from Hawk-Eye. For example, this one, from the Indian Wells semifinal between Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal, where Hawk-Eye measured the distance traveled by both players on a tough point:

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Or this one, from the same match, that shows us just how many forehands and backhands Rafael Nadal hit until that point — and from where on the tennis court he hit them:

2013-03-16_1523

In a stroke of great timing, our own Amy Fetherolf, who is covering Miami for Tennis Panorama, got a chance to interview Steph Trudel, who who does graphics and statistics for television broadcasts of ATP Masters 1000 events. The interview is fascinating, and here you see that the broadcast aspect of tennis is indeed using the information that Hawk-Eye gives them to provide the viewers with some fascinating insights into what’s going on during a match.

Now, the obvious question is this: are the players seeing all these things? Are the coaches? Is anybody interested in gaining an edge via the analytical study of tennis matches? Patterns could be revealed, tendencies in specific situations would come to light. You could statistically tell what are the most efficient shots for a given player, and from where on the court they are hit. You could know what their tendencies are when serving on break point, for example. There might be a way to determine problems with court positioning. There are so many things one could learn. Is somebody interested?

Judging by the quotes above, it doesn’t seem like it.

Still, all it takes is for one successful individual gaining an edge by using a specific tool for the use of that tool to become a trend. Not all NBA teams have purchased those fancy cameras, but now half of them do use them. And they didn’t all jump in at the same time.

*****

The other day,  Darren Cahill said a few interesting things (not a surprise) during the broadcast of the match between Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. About the improvements in Djokovic’s serve, here is what he said:

“A number of years ago, really struggling with that serve, serving a lot of double faults and going into the computer analysis to really try to resurrect that serve and get back to what it was at the start of his career.”

This is fascinating. We all know about the issues Djokovic had with his serve in 2009 and 2010, yet I had no idea that Djokovic used computer analysis to solve that serious problem. But there’s more:

“Actually, Novak’s become, really into watching tape, going to the video, which has been a big part of his game in the last couple of years.”

I didn’t know that Djokovic was such a fan of learning through watching tape. That’s the modus operandi of a lot of professional athletes in the US (and elsewhere, I’m sure), but it’s far from common in tennis. Here is something else that Darren mentioned:

“Now there are companies out there where you can go, all right, I want to see every time Jo comes to net, where he serves on every big point.”

I didn’t know about this, either. Darren then said, when asked by Brad Gilbert about how this process worked:

“Well, you send it off to a company, and they’ll send it back, and on your computer the next morning they’ll have nine minutes of tape, relative to what you are looking for. Everything has changed, and Novak is certainly one of those that is using that technology.”

This signals that even the best tennis player in the world is interested in knowing more about the situations he faces on the court. Sure, he’s not asking for statistics, but he does want to know more than what he or a coach can gather from a given match.

And let’s not forget, Darren did say Djokovic was “one of those” who uses this kind of thing. How many pros are out there using any sort of video or statistical tools? I would guess that it is a very small minority.

Like I said, it only takes one successful case in order to start a trend among super competitive pros. For all we know, tennis players could already be using some sort of analytics already. Coaches might be dabbling in statistics as we speak.

Tennis might appear to be in the analytical dark ages at the moment, but I’m not sure that will be the case in the near future.

Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think

As you can probably guess, the above section was completely influenced by the following pieces:

Lights, Cameras, Revolution – Zach Lowe (Grantland)

- The SportVU Follow-up: Answering the Most Common Questions and More Ghost Raptors – Zach Lowe (Grantland)

Unforced Error Is Unloved Statistic Among Tennis Players – Ben Rothenberg (New York Times Straight Sets Blog)

- Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Steph Trudel – Amy Fetherolf (Tennis Panorama)

Naturally, I recommend checking all of those pieces out.

Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons

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If there is a tweet (or a graphic) that sums up perfectly the struggles of a tennis player, this would be it. In losing to Alejandro Falla a couple of days ago, Fernando Verdasco once again bowed out of his first match at a tournament, the fourth time out of five tries that this has happened in 2013. Verdasco has also lost eight straight sets of tennis: the last two of his Australian Open third round match vs Kevin Anderson, two to Tim Smyczek in Memphis, a bagel and a breadstick to Jarkko Nieminen at Indian Wells, and now two more to Alejandro Falla in Miami. Verdasco also had a huge lead in the second set tiebreaker against the Colombian.

It should be said that Fernando Verdasco is dealing with some sort of injury — he did take time away from the tour after his loss to Smyczek in Memphis and withdrew from Acapulco. Maybe I should have included him in the Walking Wounded column. Regardless, the Spaniard’s problems seem to be greater than just an injury. His focus and decision-making are in complete disarray. Verdasco is, as Tom Petty would say, free fallin’.

I hate that song, by the way.

Music Used to Write this Column

Back in 1998 I received a copy of legendary Argentinean band Soda Stereo’s Comfort y Música para Volar album as a gift. I had never been a huge fan of Soda, but this album, which was a weird mix of their 1996 MTV Unplugged set and a few studio originals, has always remained close to my heart. Yesterday I went down the YouTube rabbit hole when the Miami DJ played a song from another great Argentinean band, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (here is the song). I inevitably ended up watching videos of Soda Stereo’s MTV Unplugged, and found out that Comfort y Música para Volar had been reissued in 2007 without the studio tracks and now includes the entire Unplugged set. Even better, Spotify has the 2007 release available. This made my day, because there was a killer cover of Vox Dei’s “Genesis” in the original concert that wasn’t included in the 1996 release of the album.

Still, I’ll leave you with my favorite track of Comfort y Música para Volar, the amazing self-cover of the Soda Stereo classic “La Ciudad de la Furia” (The City of Fury). The band completely re-worked the song from it’s frantic ’80s origins into an ultra groovy epic featuring Andrea Echeverri from the Colombian band Aterciopelados, as well as incredible guitar work by bandleader Gustavo Cerati:

If you have any questions or suggestions for topics to be covered in this column, feel free to tweet or email them to me. See you next week!


Juan José loves a well struck backhand down the line, statistics that tell a story, a nice lob winner, and competent returns of serve.

9 Responses

  1. Aysha
    Aysha March 25, 2013 at 7:18 pm |

    Interesting that Djokovic uses video. Nadal has talked many times that he watches video of himself and other players. If he’s not hitting a particular shot well in practice, he’ll watch videos of him hitting it well to try and get it back. Similarly apparently Toni often makes him watch shots of other players where he wants him to learn something (they watched Murray’s service motion a lot I believe) – see 3:44:

    And of course Nadal talked about watching his US Open victory over Djokovic many times to know what he did well in that match. He also is very much up on his stats – has talked about looking at the weekly ATP stats on “return leaders; break point saved leaders” etc. with Toni as a way of gauging where his game is relative to in the past.

    I do think players benefit from looking at stats. After all, it would only help your tactics right? It’s also a good way of assessing your own game by comparing where you are relative to the field in key serve and return metrics at certain points in the season.

  2. mat4
    mat4 March 25, 2013 at 7:27 pm |

    Great article, JJ. I really enjoy it.

  3. toot
    toot March 25, 2013 at 10:14 pm |

    There is no doubt that analytics and video and statistics could/can help a player but Uncle Toni made an interesting point in one of his recent interviews when asked about his long held belief that coaches should be allowed to participate during matches. He said something along the lines of the coach being the highest paid, and theoretically most valuable, member of a player’s team and yet they’re not allowed to contribute at the most critical moments.

    You reference basketball making use of analytics and I will guarantee that basketball coaches are getting that info from their assistants during the game and then using that information to coach their players. Football of course does the same thing with their personnel up in the press boxes constantly communicating with the coaches down on the field. And yet tennis, in all their wisdom, penalizes a player if their coach should happen to be so brash as to yell to their charge to go to the backhand.

    Until tennis comes into the twenty-first century and rids itself of the quaint notion that it should still be reflecting the style of game and management of pristine lawns and wooden rackets and long skirts for women, up-to-date statistics and data won’t be as relevant to the game of today as it should be.

  4. sarah
    sarah March 25, 2013 at 10:54 pm |

    I think video breakdown of shots and analysis of player trends will certainly be valuable to players. But not as valuable as it has been in baseball, football, even basketball. Keep in mind that a huge part of the value of these advanced stats comes from how to value players, and then determine whether to acquire or dump them. The other valuable part is better game planning. Advanced stats in tennis can help the second but not the first.

  5. Bernie Palmatier
    Bernie Palmatier April 3, 2013 at 9:26 am |

    When I read in your article the following:
    “Speaking of those very useful walls: when I lived in North Carolina, there were two parks nearby where I could find good tennis courts as well as a backboard. Here in Houston, I’ve driven around every tennis court in a wide radius from where I live, and there isn’t single court equipped with a backboard.”
    So here is THE SOLUTION to your need for a backboard — THE BEST BACKBOARD THERE IS: http://www.tennis-buddy.net
    It’s moveable. It’s flat on one side for warm-up and concave on the other for anticipation-reaction-footwork improvement. It’s right on the actual tennis court so groundstrokes are practiced from the proper distance. It works for practicing serves, volleys, down-the-line shots, overheads. You get as much practice in 15 minutes as in an entire three-set match!! Check it out and then tell the city parks manager or whomever else is in charge of the courts there in Houston about the Tennis Buddy.
    Bernie Palmatier, Tennis Nut & Pres.
    Tennis Future Industries (TFI)
    Ohio

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