Could We Use Some Statheads in Tennis?

Baseball finally gave in to an army of persistent amateur number crunchers and changed the way teams evaluate players. Teams also changed the way they play the game – at least the smart ones did. Basketball is now starting to hire statheads. Should tennis join the game?

ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament - Day Six

Before I get on to what I’m sure is one of your favorite subjects in the world – numbers, let me first tell you how to record those matches from Rotterdam and Paris you might be missing because, oh, let me think, you have to go to work or maybe get some sleep.

I managed to record the Rafael NadalGael Monfils match today and I did it with a program that records directly off the screen called Hypercam. Because it records the screen, you have to make sure the screen never turns off. That means you need to change the power settings on your computer so that it never turns off the display, never puts the computer to sleep, and works at maximum performance at all times. You should also turn off the screen saver.

You can read the instructions that come with Hypercam, it’s not that hard – basically choose what part of the screen to record, choose a filename, and press record. Hopefully you’re smarter than I am. I forgot to plug the damn computer into the AC so the battery ran down and turned the computer off. Oh, and good luck with the Vista operating system, half of my match is covered with a popup message asking for a password of some sort.

It ain’t your satellite DVR or even an old-timey VCR, but it’s better than missing work.

I think I should start a tech blog because I spent last night geeking it too. I set up my new iPod Touch and downloaded the New York Times app and I’m love with it. After paying over $400 a year for someone to throw the newspaper under my car every morning, I now get it for free by downloading it to my Touch.

Speaking of touch, I always put off going digital because I like the sensory experience of handling newsprint and I’d rather be concerned about newsprint getting wet when I fall asleep in the bathtub doing the crossword puzzle than dropping my iPod into the drink. But all it took was a scroll through the digital Times and I’m in love.

That’s because I came across a Times Magazine piece by my favorite journalist, Michael Lewis, titled The No-Stats All-Star. It’s the profile of a pro basketball player with less than mediocre stats and less than NBA-ready athleticism whose teams always win; a sterling example of the often used phrase, “a player who makes their team better.” Among other fascinating books, Lewis wrote Moneyball, a book that describes how the Oakland A’s baseball team used statistical information to draft rather un-athletic looking baseball players and win a lot of games despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.

It got me wondering, does tennis throw away young athletes who might make good tennis players because they’re smart rather than ultra-athletic? Even more so, does tennis take advantage of statistical analysis as much as it could?

Make no bones about it, and this is the point of Lewis’ article, it takes a very smart and very humble basketball player to sacrifice stats for the good of the team, especially when everyone else and their mother – and this includes the management of the NBA which evaluates the worth of players’ contracts – is in love with high scorers and big rebounders.

I can only imagine what Fabrice Santoro would be doing today if he’d grown up in Southern California and local USTA honchos evaluated his game when he was 8 or 9 years old. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him hit a ball hard. Monica Seles could hit the fluff off the ball but she never moved well. Luckily, most tennis players benefit from strong family support and those families pay for tennis lesson and travel expenses which allow a young player to establish themselves on the junior circuit. Santoro, for instance, won the 12s, 14s, and 16s title in his home country of France.

So players avoid being unfairly evaluated in tennis and that’s partly because it’s an individual sport – if you win enough matches, you’re a promising tennis player and tennis associations will give you support. Now, what about using statistical information to evaluate tennis strategies?

You’ll find the best tennis stats on betting websites for obvious reasons. Gamblers only care about finding the player most likely to win and most of their energy goes into finding combination of stats that best predict a win. A coach who’s scouting their players’ next opponent wants to know things like this:

On big points, where is the opponent most likely to place their serve or hit their groundstrokes?
Do they tip off their serve?
What are their weaknesses?
What part of the court do most of their winners come from?

But there’s no long term analysis, as far as I know, that models tennis matches and uses those models to evaluate tennis strategies. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Has someone broken the tennis court down into small sections, numbered them, and looked at players’ results in those parts of the court? What micro-area of the court results in the most winning points if you’re a left-hander, a right-hander, a topspin hitter or a flat hitter, a tall player or an average to short player? What is the effect of different surfaces? Weather conditions? Five set matches? Night matches? Day matches? So on and so forth.

Baseball statheads did it. Instead of being satisfied with recording a hit as a single to center field, they broke the field up into very small areas, numbered the areas, and recorded which micro-area the ball landed in. Using similar modeling techniques and tons of other stats, one particular stathead on the Oakland A’s team was able to calculate how many games the team was likely to lose by trading a particularly talented player and replacing him with a few lesser talented players. In other words, he figured out exactly how valuable that player was.

Lots of dearly held beliefs in baseball were called into question after the statheads got their hands on those fast laptops. Managers used to call for a hit and run frequently in certain situations (for non-baseball citizens, that means the runner on base runs as soon as the pitch is thrown). And players were lauded for being able to steal bases. But statheads decided that baserunners are too valuable to risk losing on the base paths.

I don’t know what dearly held information might go down in the tennis world with a bit of stat-mongering, guesses anyone? but the data is out there to test it out. IBM developed a “Stroke Tracker” as far back as 2005. And now we have Hawk-Eye which records the flight of every ball in the matches it covers. We’re just waiting for someone to come along and do something with it. Volunteers anyone?