Can You “Moneyball” Tennis?

Creating new ways to use analytics in the ATP Tour

John Isner finishes a serve motion.

John sets himself apart with his massive serve and big groundstrokes.

Analytics and tennis aren’t the most intertwined duo in the sporting world. Although statistics are commonplace in most tennis broadcasts, they’re used mostly to provide talking points for commentators rather than to deliver complex insight. If used correctly, these statistics can help athletes be less injury-prone. Moreover, they can push tennis into a new era, one where mental toughness is considered equal to physical ability. Analytics can even help predict which matchups are the most likely to produce fireworks. In other words, we can know when to expect five-set thrillers worth traveling around the world to witness.

MIT researchers recently discovered an interesting metric, clutch. The metric has improved how coaches and players look at key points in matches. More crucial points get greater weight: set points over deuces over love-alls. Teams can use clutch to develop mental profiles of their pro players. Students at MIT analyzed three million competition points. This analysis divides the men’s field into eight categories. One of those categories is a single player: Topnotch Management‘s own Miami Open champion and Wimbledon semifinalist John Isner.

Isner in a category of his own

John sets himself apart with his massive serve and big groundstrokes. Moreover, he manages to keep his booming serve consistent, even when under pressure. This suggests “greater overall mental toughness than any other player evaluated.” However, Isner scores low on that same metric when it comes to defense on important points.

Insights provided by looking into the clutch metric give Isner and his team additional information on how to treat certain points in matches. He can further improve his mental toughness, or change his defensive strategies on important defensive points. Canadian player Milos Raonic is one of the most enthusiastic players when it comes to using metrics, mostly to confirm when and where he could improve his serve. According to the data, this approach pays off. His serve, along with Isner’s, is one of the most consistent on the tour.

Injury prevention

Information from sensors similar to the ones used in the NFL is used to create personalized injury prevention plans. Sensors measure distance covered, top speed, acceleration, changes in direction, hitting frequency, and other physical tolls on the player’s body over three weeks. Together, the data collected provides a sense of how resilient a player’s body is at any moment in time. This can help a player decide whether to play through a sore shoulder or take a break. Today’s players constantly grapple with the issue of injuries.

Ultimately, using analytics is a choice for players and their teams to make. If using analytics wins you one more round in a grand slam, more and more players are sure to sign on to the trend with enthusiasm.