Wimbledon’s technology grand slam: IBM, Watson and the high-tech bunker
Image credit: IBM/WImbledon
As Wimbledon 2017 gets underway, we look at how technology is bringing both the game of tennis and one of the world’s oldest and most traditional sporting events into the 21st century.
For two weeks every July, the eyes of the nation turn to a small patch of prime real estate in south-west London, focusing on the sport of tennis, which for the rest of the year most people only notice when Andy Murray wins a Grand Slam or when spats between players and former players, like John McEnroe and Serena Williams, hit the headlines.
Wimbledon is one of Britain’s oldest sporting treasures. As one of four global tennis Grand Slams, alongside the French, US and Australian Opens, it’s popular all over the world, with the tennis buffs, general sports fans and culture vultures. Lots of people visit the actual championships - around 494,000 last year, watching 674 matches, eating 86,000 ice creams and 28,000kg of strawberries and drinking 320,000 glasses of Pimms - but many more watch Wimbledon remotely.
Traditional live television broadcasts are still popular, but according to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC), Wimbledon’s hosts and organisers, increasing numbers of people are engaging with the Wimbledon Championships on their own terms in new ways.
Back in 1868, when the AELTC was founded as a private members club for croquet players, there was a bit of primitive photography around, but no such thing as moving pictures. Back then, tennis was still a developing sport and wasn’t played at the club until 1875. The following year, Ferdinand Hunter and Vero Charles Driffield began their pioneering work on the light sensitivity of photographic emulsions which would lead to the development of film.
These days, coverage of tennis at Wimbledon is much more sophisticated. Recent years have seen the introduction of live streaming from all courts, roving cameras and reporters travelling around the grounds and a social media splurge coordinated from a high-tech communications bunker, driven by Watson, the machine learning platform devised by IBM, the Championships’ technology partner.
According to IBM, Watson can analyse data from around the courts and from social media much faster than human analysts: four hundred tweets a second last year, according to Sam Seddon, IBM’s client executive for Wimbledon.
This year, as the AELTC prepares for its 150th anniversary in 2018, when it will take over from the BBC as host broadcaster, new technologies are being tried out. The AELTC says it wants to broaden and deepen the way people inside the venue and outside can engage with the tournament.
A major tennis tournament is unique amongst sporting events in that many matches take place simultaneously, throughout the day. Wimbledon has eighteen playing courts and twenty two practice courts. Over a thousand players - singles, doubles, juniors and disabled, took part in the 2016 Championships.
Traditionally, visitors would buy a ticket for a particular court and stay there, watching whoever was booked to play, stepping out for some refreshments if the game was a bit dull or one-sided.
According to Alexandra Willis, the AELTC’s head of communications content and digital, many Wimbledon visitors are either newcomers and don’t know what to do or they are regulars with a regular routine.
To help people find the resale ticket queue, the prawn sandwich bar or to generally just plan their day, IBM has devised an app that provides visitors with information about what is going on, where and when. ‘Ask Fred’ is named after the iconic former three-time Wimbledon men’s singles champion, Fred Perry. Until Andy Murray won the men’s singles in 2013, Perry - who won in the 1930s - was Britain’s only men’s singles champion since the First World War.
The app is enabled by IBM Watson’s natural-language capabilities and is supported by three new Wi-Fi hotspots around the venue. It can respond to a user’s questions and, Willis says, gather together information about the sort of questions fans are asking, so organisers can meet fans’ needs next year and beyond. Either that or target them with marketing messages, depending on which way you look at it.
Also new for this year, spectators can visit the practice courts and use the Wimbledon app to project an augmented reality overlay with stats about who is practicing with who. The AELTC and IBM are looking into ways of introducing this function for remote viewers over the coming years. In fact, most of the new technology being introduced at Wimbledon this year is aimed at the fans off-site.
Last year, around one billion people in 200 countries tuned in to the Championships, but not all of them watched the tennis, live on television. The Wimbledon web site had 10.2 million unique visitors and the AELTC had 1.9 million requests for its live Wimbledon stream.
Next year, however, when the AELTC becomes host broadcaster, there’ll be the small matter of a football World Cup to contend with. India, a lucrative market that the AELTC wants to break in to, will be playing England at cricket.
“In many parts of the world, more people watch content through tablets than on TV,” says Mick Desmond, the AELTC’s commercial and media director. “Increasingly, people want to watch on their own terms, not make an appointment to view. If we want to stay in tune with the pace of change we have to look at new ways of reaching audiences, particularly younger audiences.”
Willis adds that this year the AELTC will be launching Korean language content to go with the Chinese and Japanese they already provide. The new Indian content is in English and there’s also Spanish content, for the whole Spanish speaking world, aiming to capitalise on the popularity of the tennis event from last year’s Rio Olympics.
The Wimbledon Channel, the official digital news channel of the tennis championships, will be live-streamed on social media, during the tournament and will also include news and behind-the-scenes footage from around the venue. “That could be in the queue, the hill, the kid zone, with kids visiting interview players. We won’t always be stuck in some studio,” Willis says.
To the uniformed observer, a tennis match can easily appear to be nothing more than a flurry of arms, legs, rackets, balls and - according to critics of last year’s BBC coverage - a few too many close-up shots of women players’ underwear.
Commentators, pundits and TV analysts do their best to highlight the game’s nuances, but viewed live, tennis is a fast-moving sport and there’s not always enough time to focus on the deeper aspects, when there’s a high-speed rally or a 140km/h serve to drool over.
This, according to the AELTC and IBM, is where technology can play a significant part.
This year, tournament organisers are introducing a new metric that they call competitive margin. This compares the players’ ratios of forced to unforced errors. From this, predictions can be made about how well-matched particular opponents are. There’s also a stats-based analysis of how well certain players tend to do in different situations, e.g. at break point down, during tie breaks or when they’ve just broken serve. The technology also points out what strategies each player might use in a given match and who is most likely to win.
“Why does Nadal always deliver to Federer’s backhand on the first point of a pressure game?” Willis asks. “Why is a player winning and why is the other one losing and how might the losing player get that balance to shift or momentum to change?
Willis explains that using millions of data points in the right way turns that data from mere statistics into insights that enable fans to get under the skin of a game.
“It brings more meaning to content,” Desmond adds. “It’s not just passive watching and reading, but content which provides insights and can be shared with other fans.”
There are other such technologies on show at this year’s Wimbledon for the first time. At the beginning of a match, fans can launch IBM Slam Tracker to check out what IBM calls “a players’ keys to the match”.
Slam Tracker has been at SW17 for a while. It’s a cross-platform application that provides real-time scores, stats and insights for all matches in progress. This year, the technology will provide additional insights into areas such as how fast the game is moving, where players are serving and whether a player prefers to play from the baseline or the net.
Real-time data will be integrated from multiple sources including courtside statisticians, chair umpires, radar guns, ball position, player location and even Twitter.
Slam Tracker insights appear on Wimbledon.com. “Previously they were only live during a match,” Alexandra Willis says. “Now, there’s a preview state, so people can also look at specific pressure points that might occur during a match.”
Sam Seddon adds that the idea behind this is to make people aware of where and when a particular match has a pressure point: “Then they can watch that game rather than another, which is love-all at the beginning of a set.”
IBM techies will also be using Watson to generate video highlights of individual games. Willis says that, previously, one video editor - not necessarily someone with tennis knowledge - decided what the highlights package should contain, which was time-consuming.
Watson’s artificial intelligence system picks the key moments of a match based on analysis of the crowd noise, players’ facial expressions and a knowledge of when the decisive moments such as set and break points took place. This, Sam Seddon says, reduces the time it takes to produce highlights and enables editorial teams to focus on writing news stories and articles.
Seddon adds that the facial-recognition software also highlights players and celebrities around the venue when they first appear. This enables the Wimbledon photo-editing team to distribute the photos to different media channels even quicker.
Sports fans, whatever the sport, like nothing more than to play pundit, sharing their expert views to friends and family and a wider audience, via social media. As if the armchair McEnroes and barstool Beckers needed encouraging, IBM has now started a discussion, based on masses of collected data and analytical insights inferred from the data, about who might be the greatest Wimbledon champion.
IBM staff have programmed Watson with over 53 million data points captured from newspapers, blogs and books since 1990 to identify key tennis performance measures against a set of attributes required to make a great champion. Based on this, and discussions with expert analysts and former players, fans are invited to make their own deductions about who the greatest-ever champion might be.
Key attributes might be passion, how a player performs under pressure, their stamina and the tactics they use, as well as their ability to produce a great serve and a great return. Seddon adds that this sort of analysis can produce ideas that human pundits alone, however astute and knowledgeable, might not necessarily see.
For instance, Seddon explains, people have always thought that Rafa Nadal plays better at Wimbledon when the weather is hot, as in his native Spain, and that it’s Roger Federer, the ice-cool Swiss champion, who prefers the chillier weather. “When we ran this analysis through Watson, we found out, actually, the reverse is true,” Seddon says.
He adds that when analysing the concept of passion, it was discovered that seven of the ten former champions who most often challenged authority were women. “Is the ability to successfully challenge authority a key component of what it takes to make a great women’s champion?” Seddon wonders. IBM will be putting out lots of these sorts of discussion points in order to get people off their armchairs and barstools and on to social media, engaging with Wimbledon’s digital content.
Ahead of the 150th anniversary next year, the AELTC’s mission is to change people’s perception about the content they deliver and bring it into the 21st century. The fact that an organisation, criticised so often in the past for being archaic and elitist, is thinking and talking in terms of content instead of tennis in order to appeal to the masses is itself an indicator of how far things have come from the days when well-to-do gentlemen and ladies played croquet and a bit of tennis, on the lawns of their luxurious new private members’ club.