The Racket That Lets You Coach Yourself

Have Babolat created the next big thing in Sports Analytics?


If you were watching the final of Roland Garros on June 8th you can’t have helped but notice each and every commentator’s desire to make a point through data. Whether it was Nadal’s imperious 90-1 five-set record on clay or the importance of winning the first set in the final, talk of data was commonplace. This certainly isn’t a gripe against commentators – far from it, the use of data made the final more absorbing as debates were shaped through fact instead of conjecture.

As we have touched upon numerous times in Sports Performance and Tech, tennis and data are very much a good match - it’s a highly data orientated game with insights easily transferable to coaches. It’s not just about improving your groundstrokes, the performance metrics are far narrower – be it court positioning or the RPM’s a player generates and the effect that has, depending on the court surface. I recently saw an infographic that showed how Nadal’s 3330 RPM forehand kicks up almost twice as high on clay as it does on grass, making it almost impossible to return without drastic footwork and positioning adjustment. This facet of Nadal’s game makes him a unique challenge on clay, as the average RPM for top players is around 1,900 - a marked difference.

This article is very Nadal-centric not only because he won Roland Garros but also because he is the face of Babolat Play Pure Drive. If you’re an amateur runner or a cyclist there’s an abundance of technology out there to help you improve your game. If you’re an amateur tennis player, however, there isn’t a huge amount out there to assist you. The reason why the Babolat Play Pure Drive is such an interesting development is because it is plugging a gap in a sport where data has been used so extensively at its highest level. This gap still remains at the amateur level but the Babolat Play Pure Drive is going some way to filling it.

The Babolat Play Pure Drive uses sensors integrated into its handle to allow players to access information that wasn’t previously available. This allows them to access a number of metrics that allow for the measurement of performance.

There are a number of metrics to get your teeth stuck into – you can dissect all of your strokes in detail, whether it’s the spin you put on the ball or the velocity you hit it at. Additionally, If you’re like me, then after an hour hit, it feels like you’ve been on court for about 15 minutes, the play pure drive will measure the time the ball was in play so that the time you spend picking up balls isn’t actually factored into the amount of time you think you have spent practicing.

If you’ve enjoyed the wars of attrition that Nadal and Djokovic seemingly put themselves through every time they hit the court together, it’ll be of interest that the racquet estimates the energy expended on court. I would personally be really interested to see how much effort Nadal and Djokovic put in against each other when compared to an opponent in the first round of a Grand Slam – I think it would be a real eye opener and demonstrate the vast difference in ability between a player ranked at 50 and in the Top 5.

You could argue that data analysis through the Babolat Play Pure Drive, especially at amateur level, is not a tool that shows you how to beat a specific player, but it does offer insights that were non-existent before. By analysing data on a match, or over a longer period of time, coaches can start to paint a picture as to whether their player is playing to his strengths, playing with enough variety or being too defensive. Clearly, it’s not quite IBM’s slam tracker, but for the average club-player these insights can elevate their standard exponentially.

For tennis players any data is good data, so there is no reason to suspect that ‘smart racquets’ won’t be common place on the professional tour relatively soon. That’s certainly the view of Babolat’s CEO, Eric Babolat, who expects the racquets to be commonplace on the ATP tour in the coming years. However, the likelihood of seeing the Babolat Play Pure Drive at Wimbledon and the US Open this year remains slim.

One major gripe levelled at ‘smart racquets’ is that they can affect weight and string tension. According to Babolat, the weight of the racquet is exactly the same as previous models, which is a good thing as the slightest change in racquet weight can have a drastic effect on player performance at the highest level. Nadal doesn’t change the tension of his strings when the weather changes for fear of altering the spin he gets on
the ball.

If racquets like the Babolat Play Pure Drive become widespread then why wouldn’t the top players use them? Any competitive advantage could be the difference between them winning a match or not. If we turn our attention back to Roland Garros, if any of the chasing pack want to stop Rafael Nadal from bringing in his 10th title next year, then data, through products like the Babolat Play Pure Drive, could be the only recourse they have left.


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