Tuesday May 27th, 2014

For some coaches at the French Open this year, Babolat Play will revolutionize the way they gather data and analyze their players. Manually charting stroke types during a tennis match is fun and all, but having actual data-gathering capabilities built into a racket offers a much richer information-filled experience. That technology is being used for the first time during a grand slam competition at the ongoing French Open in Paris.

Babolat, the world’s oldest tennis manufacturer, having made tennis gear at the company’s French headquarters since 1875, recently debuted the Babolat Play Pure Drive, the tennis world’s first connected racket. The new-age racket will be used during the French Open by such pros as Karolina Pliskova, Julia Goerges and Ana Konjuh. The company’s data-rich version of the sport’s top-selling racket can track everything from stroke type, shot power, spin, rally length, play time and even—possibly most impressive—location on the string bed where the ball struck the synthetic gut.

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Weighing an identical 10.6 ounces as the non-connected Pure Drive, Babolat and Wii remote maker Movea worked to insert an accelerometer, gyroscope, six-hour battery, USB port, Bluetooth connection and 150 hours worth of memory capability all into the racket’s hollow grip.

Eric Babolat, CEO, says the 10-year project really required the technology to catch up to the company’s dreams. “Ten years ago we needed to carry a backpack and plugs,” he says. “We needed to wait for sensors and technology light enough for the racket without changing the specs of the racket.”

With technology in hand, a bevy of algorithms help define data and then disseminate it to an easy-to-use app via Bluetooth for mobile devices or directly to a computer using a USB connection.

During the research and development phase, Babolat used high-speed cameras and compared the resulting video with the vibration data coming from the sensors to help refine the process. Adding minuscule data points such as how much time there was between movement—to tell, for example, if a shot was a second serve or an overhead smash—slices out 99 percent of all non-playing movements, Babolat says.

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In the end, the Play can differentiate between a forehand, backhand, smash and first or second serve, measure spin type and power, track rally length and total play time and map out the places on the string bed you struck the ball. The resulting shot chart visual of where the ball hit the string bed—broken out for you by stroke type and attained with vibration data—offers up a stellar piece of information, but it can also present a dose of disheartening reality for a player who thought he or she had a better grasp on the “sweet spot” of the racket.

The app, as we’ve come to expect with data-tracking devices, saves sessions, charts the data in graphs and allows you to share it socially. After the International Tennis Federation passed a new rule allowing data recording during matches, the Play became available for use, evolving past a fun tool to become a font of coaching intelligence. And that’s exactly what Babolat wants — tennis driven by connected data.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb. 

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