The conversation was wide-ranging and interesting, so for the sake of brevity I will simply relate some of the significant discussion points. On the rare occasion I have a comment to add, these are in italic.
- In the latest ESPN magazine (devoted entirely to sports analytics), tennis rated second last, behind boxing, in the use of analytics by coaches and the media.
On what can we learn from player tendencies and patterns?
“All players have tendencies, but we are the best players in the world. We can change what we do” - Pete Sampras to Paul Annacone on statistics.
- My thought: looking for aggregated tendencies alone is likely to be futile. What a player does can be influenced by what their opponent allows them (or forces them) to do. So the context of behaviour is where it is at. But, all players have systematic strengths and weaknesses, and player vulnerabilities can be useful if you can understand why they occur. This is how data can become actionable knowledge in the competitive domain.
On how data should be delivered.
- Todd Martin: any insight into player tendencies can be useful, but it is important to be mindful of how it is delivered.
“Raw data is a waste of time. It has to be delivered in a context.” - TM
- Paul Annacone: in team sports, players need to adapt to the delivery style or philosophy of the coach. In tennis, the opposite should be true, and information should be delivered by the analyst in a way that the player can absorb it.
On playing strategy, exploiting strength and hiding weakness.
- O’Shannessy: you don’t have to be good at everything, but you do have to be good at something.
“Return of the 2nd serve is the beating heart of winning matches” - CM
- Martin: not all points are equal. Players don’t try to win every point, so analytics needs to be aware of which points are important and contested.
- All: unsuccessful points can have a longer term strategy that is hard to pick up in statistics. For instance, Sampras would rush the net and in many instance lose the point, but, he would force more double faults than other players since they knew he would be aggressive on a short 2nd serve.
- My thought: this is a pivotal point for many sports. Many outcomes in sports have a long timeline.
- O’Shannessy: the “Serve +1” statistic is very powerful in maximising strength.
- NB: Serve + 1 refers to the serve as the most effective weapon in all of tennis, combined with the players next-most dangerous weapon in the next stroke. For example, Nadal averages 83% of serves where he successfully combines his two most devastating weapons - his serve and forehand .
- O’Shannessy: not all statistics have equal meaning. For instance, a clay courter making 80% of first serves is not as dangerous as Djokavic serving 70% of first serves.
- My though: again, context always matters.
A final cogent point from Todd Martin:
“Tennis is like boxing. You don’t get an invitation to hit someone on the jaw, you have to keep jabbing away to keep your opponent from hurting you. You wait for an opportunity to force your opponent into a position of weakness where you can strike them.”