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Sports WTA ventures into real-time analytics with new app at Rogers Cup

Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster is photographed Aug 8, 2013 at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Ms. Allaster says a new tennis analytics app will hopefully increase engagement with millennials.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

On-court coaching with a number-crunching iPad in the staid world of women's tennis? Yes – and there's an app for that.

Tennis purists won't like it, but prepare to see coaches using the tablets on court during women's matches at the Rogers Cup in Toronto.

It is part of a new venture into analytics for the Women's Tennis Association, which has long remained very traditional. The WTA was already allowing players to call a coach on court once per set for a 90-second, miked-up conversation that is broadcast on television. But at certain tournaments this year, coaches have the option during breaks of bringing a tour-approved iPad onto the playing surface, loaded with real-time match statistics.

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The WTA Tour and its technology partner SAP have developed a new analytics app that pulls in data from the umpire's electronic scoring system as well as from Hawk-Eye, the camera-generated technology in place to challenge line calls. Its coaches and players can dive deep into many statistical categories during a match or study archived match stats gathered since 2013; and SAP says about 70 per cent of its coaches have used it in some phase of their preparation.

It opens the door to more advanced scouting and strategizing during in-match coaching sessions. The WTA also envisions more uses for the data in the future, such as identifying the kinds of movements that can cause overuse injuries.

It also envisions releasing two other versions of the app for media and fans.

"The traditionalists may not embrace it, but we're in the entertainment industry, and we don't have the luxury of not adapting the sports experience," WTA chairman and chief executive officer Stacey Allaster said. "We're not changing how the sport is played, but we're an innovative organization, and we can play around the fringes with how we present it, because tennis is rich in data content and we've only scratched the surface. I think this gives us a chance to tell deeper stories and engage better with millennials."

The app offers loads of data, but for the sake of simplicity during a match, the coach sets a customized view. Dots display where shots landed or where a player was on court when she hit them. It displays percentages of things such as forehands and backhands and can drill down precisely in categories, such as where a player most often serves on break point or what her tendencies are when the score is 40-15. It's data far deeper than the basics fans see following a match online or on TV, or those found on the postmatch printouts given to players.

"We've seen coaches and players identify patterns by studying this data," said Jenni Lewis, an Australian who is the SAP Solutions Architect on this project and travels the tour interviewing players and coaches to make constant refinements to suit their needs. "We've been able to point out if, say, a player is serving her second serve down the T all the time so she can adjust, because she sees it now and knows her opponents can see that data, too. Often a player thinks they're doing something in a certain situation, and the stats either confirm or disprove it. It has really helped with awareness."

Developers from SAP designed a lightweight case that has slits to keep it from overheating in hot, sunny conditions. When it was first allowed at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif., last week, six coaches opted to use it in the stands while watching their players, and three of them took it on court to converse during the match.

"The good thing for me is the iPad is lying next to me so I can concentrate on the match and I don't need to write down things any more, like service patterns, or what I'm seeing during break points, because the iPad is gathering it for me," said Christopher Kas, coach for world No. 24 Sabine Lisicki of Germany, who is currently using it in the stands but not yet on the court. "It's nice to look at the stats and confirm what I'm seeing with numbers, so I'm more definitive and clear when I talk to Sabine."

The men's tennis tour doesn't do on-court coaching during tournaments or compile in-depth Hawk-Eye data for coaches or players. When several of the top 10 female players were asked about the new technology during Monday's all-access hour with media in Toronto, most said they have yet to take full advantage of the new offerings.

"I'm a very visual person, so it could be very helpful to me," said world No. 6 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia. "My coach and I don't use it yet, but we might start."

While SAP has been very gradual in phasing in the offerings, some players still feel that it's too much to digest.

"Statistics can help, but if you get too into the numbers, you get crazy about it," Czech world No. 7 Lucie Safarova said. "As a player, it's good to know a little bit, but in the end, the game is not about numbers. I wouldn't want an iPad on the court with me."

Coaches and players have had access to the archived match stats database since 2013, but the offerings keep evolving. Soon they will be able to see tails on the dots to indicate where the balls came from, and see all of the shots hit out of bounds. Coaches will be allowed to use the analytics app on-court at five other events after the Rogers Cup, as well as some others planned for 2016.

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"Could this technology be as game-changing to women's tennis as the concept of Moneyball in baseball?" Ms. Allaster pondered. "Yes I believe it could be, but it will be a journey for us, and we'll take our time with it."

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