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Tennis And Digital Transformation: Connecting The Dots

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Daniel Hong
Vice President, Research Director
June 11, 2018

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been inundated with the various highlight reels from the French Open, showcasing killer baseline winners, huge first serves, and wicked topspin shots — a constant reminder of how the game of tennis has evolved over the past 50 years.

Today’s faster, more physical game is slugged out on the baseline, while the finesse approach, including soft touches and controlled volleys (of the Pete Sampras era) is ineffective. The game is now about huge power and spin. Forehand winners, many times, exceed 100 mph. There’s more topspin today than ever before. And yet, even with more power and spin, players still retain a shocking amount of precision, making success at the net difficult.

When you peel back the layers of tennis today, like all professional sports, the way the game is played has changed with new technology, athletic conditioning, and (you guessed it) data. Baseball was one of the first to show off the power of big data, with the application of sabermetrics to optimize lineups. Now, the use of data has permeated every modern sport. Just look at the sheer number of three-pointers being shot by leading NBA teams as a result of data leverage that shifted gameplay.

To break down how tennis has changed over the years:

Newer Racket Technology Provides For More Power And Spin

Over the past few decades, wood rackets were replaced by steel, then aluminum and, finally, graphite. Graphite rackets, often composed of composite fibers, are lighter, yet stiffer, allowing players to generate more racket speed and thus more ball velocity. Racket heads also became larger, which increased the “sweet spot.” Roger Federer has 97 square inches of string space to hit the ball — over 30 inches more than a typical 1960s racket.

String technology also evolved. Polyester strings became all the rage 20 years ago, and the once-popular natural gut strings took a back seat. Now, blending both types of strings (hybrid strings) is the norm. Most players enjoy the “feel” of the ball when the main strings and cross-strings differ. It allows them to customize until they reach the perfect levels of comfort, control, and spin. According to Sports Illustrated, modern stringing allows for the best of both worlds: It combines the control of the poly and the comfort of the gut. With such high levels of comfort and control on the court, players can maximize power.

Players Are Taller And More Fit, As Diets And Lifestyles Are Better

As the power game grew, so did the players. Today’s athletes are taller. Height is most advantageous in the serve, as it allows ball contact at a sharper angle. It’s no coincidence that 6’9” American pro John Isner holds the record for the most aces in a tennis match (according to Guinness World Records, 113, to be exact). These 160-mph serves, paired with powerful groundstrokes and long baseline points, have forced elite players to alter their fitness, diet, and lifestyle to keep up. Their on-court success is a direct result of their off-court behavior — training, nutrition, and coaching are paramount.

The Variables Of Time And Endurance Introduce New Game Strategy

Higher ball velocity and spin have created a new weapon: time or, more importantly, lack of it. Modern players understand that the key to success is taking time away from opponents; poor timing leads to inaccuracy and inconsistency. To counter the powerful attacking game, we’ve seen new playing styles arise, such as the open-stance forehand. Players hitting with an open stance cut down on recovery by reducing some steps, saving energy and precious time.

The high-speed physical game turned tennis into a battle of endurance. Players must be ultra-conscious of how much energy they expend on every point in order to outlast their opponents. Pros understand that certain points, and even games, can be sacrificed without serious consequences. Strategically, it makes more sense to put less effort into a returning game that you are losing versus a serving game at 30-all.

Digital Transformation Needs The Meshing Of New Technology, Conditioning, And Actionable Data

Like that of tennis, the playing field has changed for enterprises. It’s not just about new technology like AI, machine learning, blockchain, IoT, or robots; it’s also about understanding how to weave together the right processes and governance as well as actionable data to drive impact. Most companies call the unification of all of this “digital transformation,” but they often struggle when it comes to winning the big points — the points that win the match.

Join us in London this week on June 14 and 15 as Forrester hosts our annual Digital Transformation Europe conference. Our deep bench of industry specialists and digital transformers will be speaking on various topics to help enterprises learn how to embrace the strategic business transformations that new digital technologies make possible.

(Madeline King contributed to this blog.)

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