By Ossian Shine
LONDON (Reuters) - A handful of the world's best tennis players will show up at tournaments within weeks armed with new technology they hope will give them an advantage at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the man behind the 'smart racquets' has told Reuters.
Without identifying the players who would be first to wield the hi-tech weapons, Eric Babolat confirmed "connected racquets", with sensors feeding back information on the players' forehands, backhands and much more besides, would be swung in anger for the first time, after a decade in development.
"It could be any week. We have a lot of players testing. It is going to happen very soon," Babolat told Reuters in an interview at Britain’s National Tennis Centre in south-west London.
"It is a question of days, not months."
Declared legal by the guardians of the sport, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), who adopted a new rule covering the technology at the start of the year, selected Babolat racquets will feature data-collecting sensors in their handles,
"Quite simply, this is information like we have never been able to get before," smiled Babolat, scion of the French tennis manufacturing empire built out of a 19th century family business making sausage skins, surgical sutures and piano strings from animal gut.
"It is information direct from the racquet, from the string bed, and it tells us exactly what is happening, not just a feeling from the player.
"INCREDIBLE TO IMAGINE"
"For me it was incredible, that you can take the number one tennis player in the world (Rafa Nadal) and see that he doesn't really know anything about what is happening in his racquet, apart from his feel. He has no data about anything, and it is incredible to imagine.
"It is like you are a Formula One driver and you don't know how fast you are driving and you don't know..." Babolat trailed off, shaking his head. "It is a bit unbelievable, but it is like that.
"No longer", the CEO and chairman of the French business said.
In essence, the technology-loaded racquets collect data such as shot power and ball impact location along with the number of strokes, the level of spin imparted, total play time, endurance, technique, consistency, energy and rallies.
The information is transmitted through bluetooth to smartphones or tablets where players and coaches can analyze and share their data with other analysts and online communities.
Ex-pro and former coach of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, Mark Petchey says the new technology has "limitless potential".
"It has the potential to change the way we think about coaching," Petchey told Reuters.
"From analyzing the data, in one match or over several, you can analyze your player's shot selection, you can see if your player is playing with too much variety or not enough variety, or maybe not playing to their strengths, maybe being a little too defensive.
LIFE IMITATING ART
"From a power point of view, you can see the effort level that your player is putting in. And you can't cheat it because it is there in black and white in terms of the stats coming out."
Babolat said the technology had been developed over 10 years by more than 50 technicians, scientists and researchers.
The data’s importance to the elite would appear obvious in a sport where millions of dollars are invested in training and technology to gain an edge.
But in a curious case of life imitating art, Babolat also says a major benefit of the "connected racquet" will be the "gamification" of tennis and the added appeal for new generations.
"I had one guy come up to me who said 'I love tennis, and I love video games -- you have combined my worlds'," he said. "With this, you can compete against your friends in more than just a conventional game of tennis. You can compare your shots - against the professionals as well as against your friends.
"You will be able to see the data which could tell you you should do this and that. For example the racquet can tell people who think they are hitting a lot of topspin that in fact they are flatter than they think. From this information you can start to do things, but without information it is just..." he shrugs.
Babolat said that the vision had been consistent for some time, but that they had been waiting for the technology to mature and develop. Once that happened, the route to approval had been quick.
"We realized what we had developed would not be allowed in tournaments so we went to the ITF," Babolat said. "I was afraid the ITF would say, ‘no this is not in the spirit of tennis’, but I was surprised.
"We were not pushed back at all on this. The only restriction is on the coaching rule. We are not allowed to have live information go to the player on court because we have to respect the no coaching rule.
"Tennis today is in competition with many other things, other sports, video games, so I think people in the tennis industry are conscious of this."
At present, the Babolat company - which numbers Rafa Nadal, Li Na, Sam Stosur and Jo Wilfried Tsonga among the players it sponsors - is the only manufacturer using the technology, but the company's chief says very soon all racquets will be smart racquets.
"For the next generation of players, it will be a natural thing to switch your racquet on before playing. I am really convinced that within a few years there will be no racket that is not 'connected'."
For a sport which remained virtually unchanged for the first century of its existence, the dizzying pace of development in recent years turned what had been a tactical battle between racquet wielding artists into an arms race between the biggest biceps and granite wrists.
That arms race now has a new, technological, frontier.
(Editing by: Mitch Phillips)