Official WTA finals app likely to open up a can of worms

Today the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and SAP announced the launch of the official WTA Finals mobile app just in time for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals in Singapore – press release.

WTA Official AppThe app has been in progress for much of 2015 so I was happy to finally see SAP and WTA deliver on their promise of “taking the fan experience to the next level.”

The app has all the usual features of a tennis app; live scores, news and videos, schedules, draws etc. But what makes this app “groundbreaking” is a feature called Virtual Replay where users can watch an animated point-by-point replay of the match unfolding right before their very eyes. It’s kind of cool to watch the ball trajectory animate over the net between the players (for what it’s worth). Unfortunately it’s not clear which player is playing at which end as the animation runs through. You will need to read the commentary of the point from below the animation to figure that out.

WTA Virtual Replay

The default view of the animation is a normal camera view (from one end of the court) but users have the ability to change the view to 3 other camera angles which is a nice touch.


Users can then choose which point they want to watch from the point-by-point breakdown, which is a neatly organized commentary of each point from the match showing the point score, and key actions made by each player.

The app also includes additional visualisations like Serve Direction (below).


Return Strike Points


Shot Placement

WTA Shot Placement

Rally Hit Point


All of the visualizations allow you to switch between players, and you can change the Set you want to view at any time. It all makes for a very impressive mobile application, and is certainly light years ahead of any other tennis app I have seen. It is also no mean feat to package all of this content up in a very usable, and engaging mobile app that fans are sure to love and embrace.

So how useful is all of this? Well, to be honest we’ve kind of seen it all before. Hawk-Eye through their various relationships with TV Broadcasters like ESPN and the BBC have been publishing these types of visualizations for a number of years. Admittedly we have not had access to this level of information post match and in the palm of our hand before, so this is new ground definitely. But we are not really seeing anything new here.

The visualizations in the app unfortunately lack some valuable context in order to make them really useful for players, coaches and the fans. For example they are simply static representations of the data. You can’t query them (by touch), or filter them, or overlay one player’s points on another in order to perform any additional analysis. There is no significance attached to the data, like winners, unforced errors, big point plays etc. There is no way of knowing whether the patterns we see are expected, or a cause for alarm given the sate of the match, or past performances against this player. Perhaps we’ll see this kind of contextual information added in future releases. SAP and the WTA claim they have worked closely with the players to develop the app to their needs. However my feeling is most astute coaches and players will see these visualizations as nothing more than eye candy (for now).

As a tennis fan, and analyst of the game, the application naturally left me wanting more, and I suspect coaches and players will feel the same. What the WTA has effectively done is open up a big can of worms. The visualizations in the app leave so many questions unanswered, which is not untypical of a all-in-one app like this. But it does provide a wonderful insight into the potential of these kinds of visualizations. In order for players to really benefit from the true potential of this rich dataset from Hawk-Eye they are likely to still undertake independent analysis which dives much deeper in geographic patterns and tendencies than what we see here.

Hats off to the WTA for leading the way with this new-age tennis app. It has raised the bar and expectation going forward, and it definitely takes the mobile fan experience to a new level. I look forward to hearing what the players and coaches really think. My understanding is they will be given a more comprehensive app for on-court coaching, which may pack a few more tricks than what we see here. That may or may not be a good thing given visualisations like these tend to take time to digest, assess, and decide what action to take. This will be a new challenge for coaches, particularly in the heat of the battle. My sense is this kind of information will be primarily used post-match when emotions and the tension from a match have passed. It will also be interesting to see how the ATP respond over the coming months/years. Perhaps they too will partner with SAP to deliver a similar app for the mens tour if this takes off.

The WTA application was tested on an iPhone 6.

How to bend it like Federer

Roger Federer claimed his 23rd ATP World Tour 1000 Masters title on the weekend by beating Gilles Simon 7-6(6), 7-6(2) in Shanghai. Whilst this wasn’t Federer’s most memorable match of his career, he was able to get the job done when it mattered most. However, the match that everyone is still talking about is his semi-final win over Novak Djokovic. For it was Federer that turned back the clock by putting on a masterclass of serve and volleying.

Last night I pulled down some Hawk-Eye data from a match Federer played against Paul-Henri Mathieu back in 2012 at the Swiss Indoors. I ran a quick visualisation of a serve and volley point played by Federer to illustrate how Federer sets up his serve and volley points using a beautifully executed slice serve.

Federer Hawk-Eye Serve

Figure 1: Federer v Paul Henri Mathieu, Swiss Indoors, 2012. Federer serving. Red lines are Federer. Blue line is Mathieu’s return of serve. Click to enlarge.

In this example Federer slices his serve out wide to Mathieu’s forehand, drawing Mathieu off court. Mathieu picks up the Federer serve (very well actually) and returns it right at Federer’s feet. Unfortunately for Mathieu, Federer makes a rather tricky half court volley look seemingly easily as he punches the Mathieu return into the open court to finish off the point.

Federer Hawk-Eye visualisationFigure 2: Mathieu’s look off of the Federer racket. The red lines are Federer. Blue line is Mathieu serve return. Click to enlarge.

Let’s take a look at how Federer is using sidespin to shape the ball off his racket. Figure 2 gives you a first hand look at what Mathieu sees coming off of the Federer racket. The moment the ball leaves Federer’s racket the ball begins swinging away from Mathieu’s forehand pulling him off court and creating a negative court position for him. The shadow of the serve trajectory illustrates just how much curvature Mathieu has to deal with. Let’s take a look at this from Federer’s end of the court (see Figure 3).

Federer serve trajectory Hawk-EyeFigure 3: The green line is Federer’s serve trajectory off his racket. This particular serve was recorded at 172 km/h. Click to enlarge.

From Federer’s end the sidespin is even more evident. Take a look at the right to left movement of the ball as seen on the green line above. You will also notice how little margin of error there is as the ball crosses the net, this is a typical property of a sidespin serve. The lack of top spin means the serve doesn’t rip up-and-over the net, instead it’s slicing down towards the court more quickly which results in tighter clearance over the net. In order to generate this amount of sidespin players pull back their serve speed in order to get the racket head around the serve on impact. This first serve of Federer’s was hit at only 172 km/h and landed in an OK position in the service box. Had the location of the serve been closer to the sideline, the serve may have well been an ace, as the ball would have been too far off court by the time it got to Mathieu for him to get a racket on the ball.

Federer has never had the biggest serve on the tour, but his precision and work on the ball has caused many of his opponents a headache or two in their day. The sharp curve and heavy sidespin gives Federer an instant advantage in the point, and puts his opponents in an immediately poor court position. What this does is force the returner to come up with a great return (which in this case Mathieu did, but Federer was too classy in this exchange) otherwise the point is quickly over with a volley, or one-two play. Djokovic experienced the Federer serve in full flight on Saturday, with the Swiss maestro bending it around like Beckham (as they say!). To top it off Federer brought his soft hands to the court and played a number of exquisite volleys, giving Novak no chance of getting into the long grinding baseline rallies that he thrives on. Let’s hope we see more of this attacking serve volley game from Federer as the 2014 ATP season draws to a close!

Visualisations created using 3D ArcGIS.