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How IBM creates the science of Wimbledon tennis

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IBM’s sponsorship of Wimbledon provides player statistics that please clients and sport fans alike

It’s Championship point. Nadal is three games to Djokovic’s five. Djoko serves, Nadal whacks it back, Djoko volleys, Rafa hits long…

And before anyone on Centre Court knows what’s happened for sure, a bunch of Australians gathered round a laptop in Sydney have the final score.

That’s because it now takes less time for digital match data to be processed and transmitted across the world than it takes for the umpire to update the scoreboard on the court.

This is no mean feat of technology, as there are up to 20 statistics relevant to each point: from the total number of a certain type of shot played over the game, to updated percentages of faults per serve, to direction of shot, to speed of serve, and so on and so forth.

Powering that data analysis and processing and transmission is IBM, official IT supplier of Wimbledon Tennis Tournament.

IBM has sponsored Wimbledon since 1990. It creates all the 3D graphics you see on the BBC. It hosts Wimbledon.com, viewed by 15.6 million people this year. It even powers the display boards within the grounds.

And, of course, IBM crunches the data. “That’s really where it all started,” explains Alan Flack, IBM’s Wimbledon client and programme executive.

“I said to my mate, ‘Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we knew how far they’d run?’ ” So, after watching the longest tennis match in history, Flack commandeered for IBM the SecondSight technology

The thinking behind IBM’s sponsorship is to use Wimbledon as an “enormous solution showcase”.

“We use Wimbledon to bring really complex products to life in a way that everyone can understand,” Flack says. That includes explaining why the private cloud is useful. IBM uses three data centres in the US to compute, manage and store Wimbledon data. Without the cloud, we might all be waiting considerably longer to find out results.

IBM hosts around 1,000 clients and potential clients during Wimbledon. Flack says: “We encourage them to come on our behind-the-scenes tour. It’s very much designed to leave people thinking: ‘Wow, that is really clever – and if they can do that for tennis what can they for my business?’ ”

Flack says that of course the association with such a prestigious sporting event, and the ensuing brand awareness, is a plus. But “we wouldn’t do this just to get the IBM logo on the screen.”

There are plenty of fun ways IBM translates its more complex products through visual means, from whizzing counters to avatars of players to visual representations of complex data.

Showing potential clients how IBM is protecting the Wimbledon.com website from the 40,000 – 80,000 daily hack attacks, spyware, malware and bots targeting it, for example, is a pretty good indicator that IBM might also be able to keep their company website and data safe.

IBM explains how it uses three data centres in the US to store and process the vast amount of Wimbledon data, to help extoll the virtues of the private cloud.

Advances in consumer technology have made the job somewhat easier. “So much of marketing is now about digital. We started to look at different ways to market this,” Flack explains.

Flack oversaw the merging of IBM’s marketing and technology departments for its Wimbledon sponsorship, enabling the company to start embracing smartphone technology for marketing purposes.

The IBM Seer app provides a treasure trove of information for Wimbledon aficionados, including live video feeds of matches and augmented reality visual guides for when you’re there in person.

“You’re not selling, you’re actually demonstrating the product. It’s about bringing the marketing message to life,” Flack enthuses.

 

To some extent, IBM is shaping the way tennis players, spectators and coaches understand the sport. It chooses which player and game statistics matter through the technologies it employs to measure them.

Sometime in the next couple of years, for example, we can expect to start finding out about players’ stamina, speed and distance covered over the course of a match.

The technology driving this, SecondSight, was test-run this summer on Court 18. The idea for measuring distance run during a match came to Flack when he was watching Isner v Mahut at Wimbledon last year – the longest tennis match ever recorded.

“I said to my mate, ‘Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we knew how far they’d run?’ ” So he commandeered for IBM the SecondSight technology, already used in football matches and originally used for military missile-tracking. It took IBM six months to develop into something they could apply to tennis.

“We take niche specialist suppliers and use what they do, and then we integrate the whole thing,” Flack explains. “We’re always looking for what problems we can solve.”

IBM also comes up with new innovations for the sport by looking at what capabilities it already has.

“The predictive analysis we do comes from a company we bought a couple of years ago called SPSS, that mines lots of data and looks for patterns.” As it already owned the technology, IBM simply began applying it to player data.

Five years’ worth of player data, in fact. The resulting bank of analysis has proved an exciting insight for Wimbledon fans and an invaluable tool for coaches and tennis stars.

When it comes to understanding the game and its players, it might just be more revealing to first understand the technology behind almost everything we know about tennis.




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