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Innovation in tennis brings opportunities and challenges - Francesco Ricci Bitti

Hawk-Eye ball tracking technology in use. ©Shutterstock/lev radin
Hawk-Eye ball tracking technology in use. ©Shutterstock/lev radin

Innovations such as the Hawk-Eye line calling system, high-tech rackets, strings and smart monitoring can improve the game for tennis players, referees and spectators. However, too much innovation could change the nature of tennis, says Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Horizon Magazine spoke to him about tennis innovation at the EU’s Innovation Convention 2014.

If you had to select the most exciting innovation you’ve seen in tennis, what would it be?

‘Surely the most exciting technological innovation is the Hawk-Eye (electronic line calling system). It has been a great aid to the referee and the umpire. We took away some of their responsibilities, but it’s a great aid because players prefer the objective system to the discretional system. Secondly, we discovered something that we never imagined Hawk-Eye would give us: better crowd control. Previously in the team competitions, we had problems when the call was debatable. A very famous example was in 2002 in Chile when we had to stop the Davis Cup tie between Chile and Argentina (when spectators threw objects onto the court). Now, with Hawk-Eye, crowd control is very easy because as soon as people see what the call is, they calm down. It fulfills a function that very often people don’t realize but it is very important.’

What are the other key technological innovations on the tennis court?

Francesco Ricci Bitti. Image: International Tennis Federation According to Francesco Ricci Bitti, the string has been the major factor of change in tennis over the last 10 years. Image: International Tennis Federation ‘Recently we have what we call PAT, or Player Analysis Technology, which is electronic equipment that is used to measure player performance. It means that in matches where coaching is allowed, when you stop at the end of the set you can see how many forehands you have played, how many backhands, how many serves; you can have all the statistics that you want.

‘In fact, we’ve had to regulate it since in tennis we don’t admit the coach on court; we said that the player could play with PAT equipment but that they can only look at it at the end of the set, or at the end of the match. We don’t know yet what is going to happen with the PAT because it’s just the beginning. We will have to wait and see in a few years how often the players use it.

‘Another area of innovation is Court Pace Rating technology, which is being developed in cooperation with universities. In tennis it’s very important to measure how fast the bounce of the ball is on court and we also need to measure the sliding coefficient between the shoes (and the court). With this technology we can measure very easily all these kinds of things which helps in manufacturing equipment.

‘People don’t believe it, but the string has been the major factor of change in tennis over the last 10 years. Rafael Nadal is not only the number one player in the world, but he is also the player that has taken most advantage of the new materials – something which has helped him to play with more spin, power and control.’

What we must avoid is technology that affects the outcome of matches, or which changes the essential character of the game.’

Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation

Why is the string so important, and what could the impact be if more people take advantage of that technology?

‘Strings have a significant influence on the style of play – it’s the strings that hit the ball, not the racket frame. Some of the modern polyester strings generate much more spin than their predecessors, which allows players to hit the ball harder and it will still land in court. Spin tends to favour the baseline rally style of game, which many top players have developed.’

How do you think all of these innovations will affect the future of the game?

‘I think what we are fighting for is to keep tennis as it is. All the innovation has to be regulated not to change the nature of the game. The game has changed but mostly because the players are more athletic, they are more physical than during my time. Equipment like rackets and strings should improve their performance, but not more than that. We have to make sure that the sport doesn’t change too much. We don’t want to change what works very well and tennis is one of the top sports now. We are lucky to have great champions and great ambassadors at this time with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal – they are not everyday types of players. They are not only great champions, but along with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, they are also very interesting characters and that is very important in individual sports. So we are lucky but we should not be complacent.’ 

How could new technology change tennis, and what kind of changes would you want to avoid?

‘Technology is playing an ever-more important role in all sports, and tennis is no exception. Every sport must evolve and progress, and technology offers the opportunity for new players to develop their skills, experienced players to analyse their games in more detail, and fans to interact more closely with tennis. What we must avoid is technology that affects the outcome of matches, or which changes the essential character of the game.’ 

Hawk-Eye

While goal-line technology is being used in the football World Cup for the first time this year, visual ball-tracking systems already have a history in tennis. Research into Hawk-Eye, a computer system that visually tracks the trajectory of a ball in sports, began in 1999, and the system was first used for TV sports coverage in 2001. Since 2005, an increasing number of tennis tournaments have adopted the system to enable players to challenge the decision of an umpire. Players can make up to three challenges per set, plus an additional one in the event of a tiebreak.

Hawk-Eye uses six to ten video cameras that film the ball from different angles. The exact 3D position of the ball is calculated for each frame of the video, which allows the system to model the trajectory of the ball. Finally, the exact position where the ball contacts the court is calculated and can be displayed as a graphic image.

Since its first use in 2001, Hawk-Eye has not only made sports decisions more objective, it has also had a major impact on TV coverage of sports events.

For more information: http://www.hawkeyeinnovations.co.uk/

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