Big Brother is watching Boris Becker: How many statistics can tennis fans stomach? Computers now tell us more about a match than we ever need to know, says Susan Watts

IF YOU visit Wimbledon this week, you may notice the occasional pair of spectators hunched over what looks like a sawn-off computer keyboard. One will be tapping away furiously, the other glued to the match.

Ten such couples are roving Wimbledon this year. They are not quite the secret tennis police, but they are part of a Big Brother-style operation that is logging the form of this year's players. The 'data entry' teams are the only visible and human link in a vast web of information technology ticking away beneath Wimbledon's strawberries-and-cream gentility.

The statistics these couples are collecting are fed into a hidden network of more than 70 computer systems. As the match proceeds, they plot how the players win each point. Often the computer knows who did what before the umpires have had time to make their own notes.

The aim is to bring the most accurate, up-to-date match statistics possible to players, officials, spectators and the press at the tournament. But this service is also tailored to television commentators. For those who like to moan about the inanity of the tournament's coverage, it may sound like a good idea to put more information at presenters' fingertips - but it could make matters worse.

The more data available, the worse may be the quality of the commentary. In America, for instance, presenters scream non-stop statistics to viewers, who apparently love it. British coverage has resisted such extremes, but slowly we are moving in the American direction. Every year, viewers are bombarded with more data: how many matches a player has won on grass against their current opponent in the past six years, in how many sets and with how many aces; that sort of thing.

Thanks to the small army of data gatherers, the statistics come in live. At any point during a match, the television and radio commentators using the system can trace point-by-point details, analyse trends in a player's game and tell viewers exactly which shots are swinging the match.

IBM has pulled all the disparate sources of information together into a 'multimedia' system that makes full- motion video, tables of statistics and computer graphics available on a single computer screen. And it is accessible even to computer illiterates: a few prods at the touch-sensitive screen and up pops the information.

The system provides a live feed in the centre of the screen, taken directly from cameras on court. This is surrounded by a menu listing related services. Presenters can delve among past match data (stored in Florida but downloaded to a local 'store' and refreshed a couple of times a day), summon up the day's order of play, or order a player's mini-profile. The graphics that spring up at the bottom of our television screens, recording double faults or successful first serves, come from the same network.

IBM is the official supplier of information technology to the All England Lawn Tennis Club. John Taylor, project manager for the Wimbledon system, says most club members, players and commentators have embraced it, whereas there was controversy over the most visible piece of technology to arrive at Wimbledon in recent years, the Cyclops, or 'magic eye', system that watches the lines on court.

None of IBM's 50 permanent staff working on the project, and 20 casual staff collecting raw match data, is less than a county-level tennis player. They need to be able to distinguish immediately between a volley and a smash, and to discern the exact type of stroke being played.

Is it all worth it? There are really only two sets of match statistics worth knowing. At Wimbledon, the grass surface means the server has a tremendous advantage, so it is useful to know: one, the number of break points a player sets up; and, two, how many they convert.

Last year, Jeremy Bates had a sensational Wimbledon. The IBM system picked up trends in his game that otherwise would have taken hours to spot, and only then by scrabbling through the mass of data collected by umpires. The reason for Bates's sparkling performance, the analysis showed, was that he saved a far higher than average number of break points against him.

The other useful statistic is the percentage of first serves a player gets in. Boris Becker, for example, has a big first serve and powerful forehand, so the percentage of first serves he goes on to win is a strong clue as to how well his game is working.

Almost every match is won by the player who makes the fewest errors, not by the one with the jazziest passing shots. According to Charles Arthur, former associate editor of Tennis magazine, the untrained viewer will find it hard to keep tabs on this. 'They will remember the passing shot at full speed and full stretch where the player did a somersault and came up standing, but they will forget when the same player hit three returns into the stands.'

Part of what made Dan Maskell great was his ability to track the underlying trends of a match and highlight the scores only at key points. A good commentator is tuned in to the ebb and flow of a match; live data should reinforce their observations.

Statistics alone can be a dry alternative to a commentator's understanding of the human aspects of the game. Mr Taylor cites concern over the public's obsession with one of the statistics the system provides: speed of serve. 'People are getting hung up on high-speed serves, when the Lawn Tennis Association wants to de- emphasise the power game,' he says. Speed of serve tells viewers little about its effectiveness; a slow serve that is well placed or surprises the opponent often wins the point.

Another danger is that access to a vast data bank may tempt presenters to chatter when viewers would rather they shut up; good commentators know when to keep quiet. With the stereo sound on modern televisions, it is possible to separate commentary from the ambient noise of the game and feed it into one channel only. Viewers could then cut out the televised commentary altogether while retaining the atmosphere.

Digital television, when it eventually becomes available, will give the audience even greater control. Viewers may even be able to call up their own version of IBM's Wimbledon system; the company is hoping to strike just such a deal with a firm that specialises in interactive television systems. If the system became truly interactive, viewers could even decide from which camera they want to watch key points.

Technology clearly has a role at Wimbledon, but statistics will never be able to tell the commentator how well a player will perform when the mental pressure is high. Nerves may cause players to hit comparatively easy shots into the net, and a good commentator knows almost instinctively who is gaining the mental edge.

In last year's final, Goran Ivanisevic was serving at 4-5 down to Andre Agassi in the fifth set, and had to hold his serve to stay in the match. The commentary had highlighted Ivanisevic's great serve and how few people had broken it, yet he hit two double faults to trail 0-30. He recovered; but on match point, when Agassi hit what should have been an easy return, Ivanisevic put the ball into the net and lost the match.

Wimbledon will always be about how players - and commentators - peform in unique situations. But all the technology in the world will not create another Dan Maskell.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
Written protest: Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, has sent an open letter to the Culture Secretary
books
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss