Tennis vs Analytics: Love-all, Play!
An Open Letter from a veteran called 'Tennis' to an upstart called 'Analytics'.
Hope you are doing well…financially!
You must be, after all you have a fancy name that commands fancier bucks. You introduce yourself as ‘Big Data’ and industries of almost all sectors are ready to fall to your feet, including sport.
You were Germany’s 12th man at the most recent FIFA World Cup. And you are also all over baseball. Have you seen the author of Moneyball now? He looks like a drowned rat, poor fella!
Both football and baseball have welcomed you with open arms. You have set your eyes on me now and I have my apprehensions about it.
While your dad ‘Technology’ is a very dynamic man, your mom ‘Statistics’ is an intelligent quiet lady who analyses the players from the sidelines. While your dad broadcasted me to the world, your mom harmlessly collected data for posterity. That data would be used by my good friends, ‘Media’, who write about me day in and day out.
But ever since your parents had you, you have been getting on my nerves!
There was a time, not too long ago, when a player like Andy Roddick would receive just two stats after his match. His percentage of first serves, which I’m sure would have been high – he was an ace machine, after all! – and the second stat was his break point conversion. Now that you have arrived, however, there is data diarrhoea.
You capture the decibel levels of Maria Sharapova’s grunts, the number of times Rafael Nadal tugs at his shorts, the force applied by Serena Williams while obliterating her racquet and the amount of gel Milos Raonic applies to keep his hair in place throughout the match even with the wind blowing at 100 miles per hour. And if that wasn’t enough, you even keep track of the number of times Fabio Fognini winks at Flavia Pennetta during his match!
I guess you are on a high now. I seem to have taken note of all your abilities...almost!
While I must appreciate that you have created a lot of jobs for people around the world, thereby improving World Economy, let me also take a moment to reflect on the possible implications of you poking your big nose into my business.
You provide data and insights to make a living out of it. And I’m sure you have differential pricing in place. For USD 10, you may give just two stats and for USD 1 million…umm…more than the player and his team can sift through and digest. Just imagine though, won’t that create an uneven playing field? Those with more money will have an undue advantage over those who have less money.
The Williams sisters braved all odds to become what they are today. How will players from underprivileged backgrounds ever come up? Will they be able to afford you? I am already quite an expensive sport. Players shell out money on equipment, training and coaching.
I sometimes fear that you will make the players less intelligent. It is scary when I imagine two players fed with a data-driven strategy get on to the court. Will the two players keep targeting each other’s backhand just because you sold them data that indicated both are weak off that wing? Am I that predictable? With all that data-driven strategy in their head, will they have the mind space to formulate a new strategy on the go and adapt?
What about the aesthetics and court craft? Will that suffer as a result? Thanks to players like Roger Federer and Agnieszka Radwanska that art is still alive and kicking; they use their wile and guile to elicit some Oohs! and Aahs! from the spectators. But in the future, will their pattern of play be dictated solely by you? I don’t want the spectators to yawn while watching me!
Also, remember that unlike football and baseball, I’m an individual sport. While in team sport you have fellow players to alert you if you’re not sticking to the plan, in an individual sport like me a player is by himself or herself. The player not only needs to be talented to play me, he/she also needs to have a winner’s mindset. And a winner’s mindset is complex!
Now don’t tell me you can sift through a lot of complex data and bring out simple palatable insights about a mindset like that. Those insights represent just the intelligence part of it. But what about the emotional part?
Aha! Gotcha! How will you have a say in the meltdown a player experiences? Remember Jana Novotna in that Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf? She was 4-1 up in the third set and lost it from there. Poor Dutchess of Kent; her shoulder was wet with Novotna’s tears!
Moreover, no player will ever mention you in his speech after winning a Grand Slam. Yours is a thankless job! A player who has paid you and received your help will always be tight-lipped about it. You will remain a player’s dirty secret!
A lot of players, over the decade have come and gone. However, I remain! I don’t mind you around as long as you uphold my sanctity.
Oh well, do you even understand an iota of what I have written so far? Come on; now don’t tell me you only understand when spoken to in numbers! If you haven’t understood, take the help of your data scientists to help you decipher my letter…