It did not seem especially noteworthy when Angelique Kerber summoned her coach, Torben Beltz, after the first set of her opening match at the Bank of the West Classic. Under WTA rules since 2008, players can call for 90-second on-court coaching visits once per set.
But there was a twist. Beltz was able to fortify his burst of advice with nearly real-time data delivered from a WTA-issued iPad he had been monitoring in his seat. Beltz told Kerber that her opponent, Daria Gavrilova, was serving to her backhand nearly every time. Kerber, ranked 11th, went on to win the tournament, beating Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, Sunday for her fourth title of 2015.
It is impossible to know if Beltz’s added layer of data was a key to Kerber’s victory in the first round or in the days that followed. But the bigger and perhaps more intriguing question is whether this new trove of in-match and historical data will alter the player-coach dynamic.
“I think the coach becomes that much more important because they have to figure out what message to relay that will have the most impact,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, US Fed Cup captain and a commentator for ESPN.
The Bank of the West Classic was the first event in which players and coaches were able to use the data-laden tablets. They will be tested at six other WTA tournaments this year, including the Rogers Cup in Toronto this week.
The iPads’ cloud-based software was developed by SAP, the WTA’s technology partner since 2013. The custom-designed tablets have advanced information beyond the normal statistics relayed from a chair umpire, like aces, double faults and serving percentages.
Using data and graphics gleaned from the electronic line-calling system Hawk-Eye, coaches can target a range of situational and positional information, including where an opponent is standing to return serve or a tactical tendency when facing break point.
“I can only think it’s going to help the level of tennis out there,” said Lindsay Davenport, a former No. 1 player who now coaches rising US player Madison Keys.
It could also open a Pandora’s box of coaching quandaries: What is the right information, and the right amount, to relay in 90 seconds? When is the best time to use tactical information versus other coaching help, like technical or emotional advice?
“It doesn’t make my job easier,” said Christopher Kas, coach of Sabine Lisicki. Kas compared it to timeouts in basketball. “Sometimes you take a timeout just to calm the guys down,” he said. “Sometimes you take a timeout because you see something tactical that you have to change immediately.” Compared with most professional leagues, tennis is a data dinosaur, more saber-toothed than sabermetric.
Baseball, football, basketball and hockey have generated entire lexicons of analytic measures, such as WAR (wins above replacement) and PER (player efficiency rating), that help fans and insiders understand the field of play. Tennis has been slow to incorporate change of any kind, largely because of its convoluted governing structure.
Armed with new information, tennis coaches now have a more efficient way to gather, arrange and disseminate critical metrics for on-court visits. They can also log into a database with thousands of matches on every player, which can facilitate practice sessions and scouting reports.
Craig O’Shannessy, who runs a tennis strategy analysis company called the Brain Game and provides match analysis for the WTA, the ATP and The New York Times, said the SAP data would raise the coaching bar by cutting out “opinion and guesswork.”
It could even narrow a talent gap. “The average player with a good coach can do a lot more damage now,” O’Shannessy said. But some cautioned about data overload, especially in the heat of competition. “On the court, too much information is not a good idea,” No. 14 Agnieszka Radwanska said. “All those small details are better for after the match or before the match.”
Greater access to data will not help with technical adjustments or mental aspects of the game, two other pillars of coaching.
It cannot indicate if a player’s serve toss is too high or if a player needs a pep talk or advice about how to attack at 30-40.
“To get the right things out of it, I think you need a coach,” Beltz said. Players can also access the data, which could put coaching in a new light - good or bad. Some already travel without coaches; even Roger Federer went without one for a time.