With the rollout of the new "Patterns of Play" feature in the SAP Tennis Analytics for Coaches, coaches and players can now access, customize, and compare shot-by-shot data to analyze any WTA player's situational rally patterns. The new feature is the continued evolution of the SAP Tennis Analytics for Coaches technology, which was introduced by SAP and the WTA in 2015.
SAP Ambassador and veteran WTA coach Wim Fissette believes the new patterns of play feature is a game-changer.
"Every player has patterns," Fissette told WTA Insider at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen. The Belgian has had a long history of success on the WTA, having coached Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep, Johanna Konta, Angelique Kerber, and currently Victoria Azarenka.
"Having patterns is very good because that's something you train based on your strengths and your weaknesses. You train it a million times and it's what gives you confidence when you serve out a match. It keeps you calm. It's very important to remember these patterns and go back to them.
"It's not that having patterns makes you predictable. It's just if you have a limited number of patterns that you're predictable. It's like a playbook in basketball. The more you have, the less predictable you are. You need patterns."
"With SAP, they combine the data from several matches. This is important because we can't really find patterns from one match. There are too many factors. It's only when you combine matches that you can see patterns."
The patterns of play technology allows a coach to select any player and sort the data with a number of customizable filters, including by ranking of opponent, tournament, matchups, surface, and handed-ness, in order to analyze a player's in-rally tendencies.
Where Fissette finds incredible value in the patterns of play feature is in drilling down what exactly is happening in the first four shots of a rally. The feature allows a coach to see where players are returning when Player X serves wide, body, or up the tee, and depending on what return she gets, where X Player tends to place the third shot, and so forth.
For Fissette, understanding how the first four shots play out in a rally is important because those are the only shots a player can really control in a rally.
"When I think about tactics, the first four balls you know in advance how you're going to play," Fissette said. "You play your strategy based on your strengths and weaknesses. You hit your serve to get the forehand or backhand you want on the next ball. The return is the same, you return to that side to get the next ball that you want. This is just like in other sports: patterns of play to get what you want to play.
"Starting from the 5th ball, it's more like building the point, trying to be smart, push the opponent back, make the angle, put the ball in the open court. And then when it's the 9th ball, it gets physical. Whoever is the stronger player will win the rally.
"But the first balls are about patterns, patterns that the opponent will play and the patterns my player needs to play.
"With this information, the training before the match can be exactly what you need it to be. This is why this new technology is great to have."
"This is interesting to sit with you player and say, here are the situations that are going to happen a lot. What do we do?"
"The goal is to adjust just a little bit on the gameplan. Every player has her own favorite game plan and you don't want to make the change dramatic. But you want them to adapt to what's coming."
In addition to ball-by-ball rally analysis, the patterns of play feature will also include the following data points:
Ball toss analysis: Providing insights into the server’s ball toss, position of the ball at impact, and how that affects the outcome of the point.
Bounce-to-hit point analysis: Coaches will be able to see historical data examining where a ball is being returned after a serve, as well as the success rate. The data allows a coach to gain insight into an opponent’s level of aggressiveness and determine optimal angle creation on the court.
"This is a raw form of analytics that puts all the power in the coach's hands," said Milan Cerny, Director of Strategic Partnerships at SAP Global Sponsorships. "Going forward we can come up with advice, highlighting what the system is seeing."
"You can look to machine learning or advance algorithms to support the coach if he wants to be supported. I do think you want to have that because when it comes to rally analysis or ball-toss analysis, if you combine all these datapoints you might have insights that are not discoverable by the user and can be highlighted by the system."
While the players may not want a deep-dive into the analytics, knowing that their coach is crunching the numbers can accelerate and solidify the coach-player relationship.
"The players I've worked with lately, they're a little bit older and not used to seeing all that detail, but they know everything I say is based on the stats," said Fissette. "It's good because they know it's not because I think something or I smell something. It is what it is."
Cerny agreed. "It helps with trust," he said. "The player has to trust the coach because they don't want to see all the detail. But they need to trust that the data is right and that the coach has a foundation for his opinion."