Tennis Gets Hip to This Whole 'Stats' Thing - Wall Street Journal

Updated Aug. 4, 2015 6:03 p.m. ET

When Christopher Kas, the coach of German tennis pro Sabine Lisicki, watches Lisicki compete in Stanford, Calif., this week, he'll have at his disposal a piece of technology so revolutionary that tennis fans and commentators might go into a frenzy and wonder if it should be banned: an iPad.

The women's tour is experimenting with on-court coaching rules that already allow players to call a coach to the sideline once per set for a 90-second, mic'd-up pep talk that is broadcast to television viewers. At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford this week, coaches can also bring along an iPad loaded up with data.

The tablet has software designed by SAP, the tour's technology partner since 2013, that collects live data from matches.

There are standard tennis stats, like aces and first-serve percentage, fed to the devices from the chair umpire's electronic scoring system. For matches played on courts with Hawk-Eye, the line-calling technology used to challenge calls, there is much more, including graphics that display court positioning for each shot, where serves land and other player tendencies. A coach might zero in on specific points--for example, every time the score was 40-15--to show that a player didn't play from an aggressive position in key moments.

"It's the same idea as in football," Kas said. "If you're going to have a third down, you want to know what happens on third-and-2. It changes the art of coaching."

The iPads, which will be given to coaches during events and then must be returned, have screen settings for shade and sun, and cases that SAP produced with a 3-D printer that are supposed to keep them from overheating. Coaches can use them at six other tournaments this season and at more next year, said Stacey Allaster, chief executive of the WTA, the women's pro tennis tour.

"Ultimately this is to improve our athletes' performance and provide richer data and storytelling for media," Allaster said. "We are in the sporting entertainment business, it's not just about hitting forehands and backhands."

While other sports have given coaches and fans stats galore, tennis has largely remained in the data dark ages. It also has an uneasy relationship with coaching. Coaches aren't allowed to shout advice from the stands, and if they do, umpires can issue warnings, assess point penalties and even hand out fines. Traditionalists see on-court coaching as a violation of the game's sacred one-on-one solitude, even though most other sports, including other individual sports, have coaches calling plays, flashing hand signals, taking timeouts and yelling from the sidelines.

The pros are part of the problem: They are often skeptical of on-court coaching, which started in 2008--even after they request a visit. In Brisbane in 2011, Jarmila Gajdosova called Sam Groth, her husband at the time and a fellow pro, to the court for advice during a tense match. She didn't like what she heard.

"Don't talk to me like a f-- tourist," she said.

Lindsay Davenport, the former top-ranked player in the world, coaches 20-year-old American Madison Keys, who is playing in Stanford this week. Davenport said the data could help ease tension that can escalate during any courtside critique.

"It http://texastennisopen.com will be great to be able to go out there and say, 'You have hit every single serve to this spot; can you please listen up?' " Davenport said. "These are the facts."

The WTA's data push goes beyond on-court coaching. Once off court, players and coaches can log into a database that stores match data, including Hawk-Eye data when available. The tour doesn't have immediate plans to open up all of the data to media and fans, but Allaster said that was the tour's long-term goal.

"Other sports are delivering rich data to media and to fans," she said. "To be competitive, we need to do the same."

The men's tour doesn't allow on-court coaching at men's tournaments and has no plans to do so. It also doesn't compile Hawk-Eye data for its players or coaches, or make it easily accessible to media. Simon Higson, a tour spokesman, said the tour is reviewing how it uses Hawk-Eye data.

Nick Saviano, the longtime coach who now works with 22-year-old American Sloane Stephens, said the tour's growing data trove has changed how he works and helped him prepare game plans, especially against players he hasn't seen play often in person. But he doesn't want data with him while he is talking to a player on court.

"I would glean information from the iPad," he said. "But I would not bring it on a court. That is too much of a distraction."

Frankie Brennan III, the associate head coach for Stanford University's women's tennis team, was one of the first coaches to use the technology on court last weekend, when he visited Taylor Davidson, a junior at Stanford who was playing in the qualifying draw for the pro event. Brennan told Davidson she was missing too many first serves and needed to hit them with more spin to increase her percentage.

"It was neat to bring it out there and have proof of what I was talking about it," he said.

Brennan did have one problem with the iPad, while he was sitting in the stands: Despite its specially designed case, it couldn't handle the California sun.

"I was so excited using it that it overheated on me, the warning message came on," he said. "I had to put it in the shade."

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