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AI, tech and tennis. A new way of taking the field

Entertainment & Hospitality Artificial Intelligence
a man is hitting a tennis balls with a tennis racket surrounded by bubbles, against a blue sky with clouds

Red clay courts, fast yellow balls, increasingly well-prepared athletes and... Artificial Intelligence. If you're wondering what AI is doing in the world of tennis, sit back and get ready to find out how technology is making its way into one of the most ancient sports of all time. In fact, even though the tennis season is not yet over, we can already look at 2023 as the year of the massive introduction of AI in tennis. For a long time we have been hearing about technology to enhance athlete performance. No longer in the news are apps connected to the sensors on racquets that can track the ball impact and trajectories to suggest the optimal athletic gesture, analyses on swings to identify bounce rates in certain areas of the court and to suggest new playing strategies. Neither are tools capable of analysing large amounts of data to support athletes in recovering from injuries. Demonstrating the pervasiveness of technology even in tennis is the fact that recent applications are increasingly for the use of the general public and the activities supporting major events.

Wimbledon is THE TOURNAMENT also for Machine Learning, Image processing and NLP

Just to show the dimension of the phenomenon, during the last edition of Wimbledon, the emblematic tennis tournament, tests were carried out, in collaboration with IBM Watsonx (software mainly used to support business optimisation), to automatically generate live commentaries thanks to image processing and the analysis of many hours of matches given as input to the software. This technology offers the possibility of generating real time indicators and analyzing the match in every detail, providing extra information to those watching the event from various devices. Currently, as announced by IBM and the tournament, the objective is not to replace an expert reporter, capable not only of capturing every detail of the action, but also of conveying the emotions, reconstructing the context, and making the spectator feel an integral part of the spectacle itself. The actual main advantage offered by IBM is to be able to automatically comment on an action in a large number of different languages, thus widening the accessibility of the event itself.

From hawk-eye to replacement line judges

Also this year, the ATP announced the introduction of Electronic Line Calling Live (ELC Live) technology on all courts of the main circuit from 2025. This is a milestone for tennis that will thus automate the calling of outs, relieving the line judges of responsibility and the risk of errors. The first official experiment dates back to the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan in 2017, but this technology has definitively gained a foothold since the return to post-coveted competitions, in part to obviate the problems associated with physical contact. This choice aims to ensure a consistency of refereeing across tournaments, courts and surfaces. Initial analyses showed an increase in the accuracy of calls and a significant reduction in the conditioning of referee choices on matches. Out of this need came the introduction of the Hawk Eye at the 2006 US Open. The high-speed tracking technology, developed in 2001 by a team of engineers from Roke Manor Research Limited, is now used in all major international tennis tournaments to resolve disputes over line calls. Initially conceived for purely television purposes, the technological system of image triangulation allows for a video reproduction of the projection of the ball's trajectory. Over time, the possibility of using this technology was also extended to the players on the court, with a set number of calls per match. According to a study published a few years ago, the system's margin of error can vary between 2 and 4 millimeters in establishing the exact position of the tennis ball.

AI for training at home too

Advances in artificial intelligence have also been introduced into virtual training tools for players of all levels that are now depopulating the market. One of the most effective and widely used is Sense Arena, which uses virtual reality to allow players to simulate real tennis situations. In particular, the product supports the player's mental growth through training sessions that stimulate the different skills, including mental toughness and choice-making required to win a tennis match. Sense Arena makes it possible to practice directly from home and has also proven to be instrumental in the recovery of injured players. In this field, another available technology, useful for both professionals and amateurs, is SwingVision. This tool, using AI-based technology and the phone's camera, processes videos in real time and creates specific clips, selecting excerpts on precise indications (e.g. 'identify only points with more than 5 exchanges or only backhand winners') to facilitate analysis and study of each athlete's performance.

The protection of sports professionals also comes through AI

Quite another area that has seen the introduction of technology in this 2023 is the protection of athletes. The French Tennis Federation, in partnership with Roland Garros, introduced Bodyguard.ai, a tool in the Paris slam that enabled tennis players to defend themselves against online harassment and insults by monitoring, analyzing and moderating content on social media. Bodyguard.ai's models, based on the language-processing technology so well known in recent months thanks to ChatGPT, have intervened to address a now glaring issue. A 2022 study by the British communications regulator Ofcom and the Alan Turing Institute, which analyzed more than two million tweets over a five-month period, found that seven out of 10 Premier League soccer players received at least one offensive tweet during that period. Seven percent of players were abused on a daily basis. By scanning millions of messages in real time, the software instantly flags and removes toxic comments so that players do not have to be exposed to offensive words and can mentally focus on doing their best on the field.
This first official application on the main tennis circuit has received public praise from many professional players, such as women's number one ranked Swiatek who commented publicly on how the introduction of this system has helped her focus on playing during the tournament.
These are just a few emblematic examples of the presence of Artificial Intelligence in the tennis world. Making a prediction about which of these technologies will still be prominent in 2024 and how many will make their appearance revolutionizing the way we play and enjoy this spectacle is complex, what emerges, however, is how AI is now an integral part of the sports world and is widely accepted at various levels by all figures.

A ride through sensors, algorithms and virtual reality that are redefining tennis rules.

Maria Caterina Baroni

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