Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Why is tennis so afraid of a quantitative approach? (Part 1)

One reason I’m really into tennis is because tennis is at heart a very democratic sport. What I mean by “democratic” is that anyone who wants to compete in the sport, even at the highest levels, has the opportunity to enter competitive events and prove themselves against their peers.

No other sport is truly “Open” in the way that tennis is… That is not to say anyone can walk off the street and enter an ATP Tour event, but anyone could enter and compete in an entry level professional tournament (a “Futures” tournament) and potential earn pro ranking points if they can win enough matches.

In other sports, the powers-that-be that operate and regulate the sport at the pro level do not have anything resembling tennis’ “open door policy”. In fact, in other sports, the powers-that-be choose whom they want to participate as professionals and exclude all others. That’s the whole basis of a player “draft” as is conducted by all the great pro sports of the world. The sport decides who’s qualified to play and they invest millions of dollars in trying to identify and sign future pro-level participants. You have to be “chosen” to train and eventually play.

In their extensive evaluation of future prospects, the powers-that-be in pro baseball, football, hockey, etc. go to great lengths to objectively evaluate the long-term potential of the athletes they choose as participants. Take the NFL and its Draft Combine for example… After a long process of initial screening, they assemble every new pro football hopeful in one place and every fundamental attribute that may potentially contribute to the athlete’s ability to perform against other chosen professionals is measured and evaluated, from their 40 yard dash time to their psychological profile and family background.

Think about it… Does anything resembling this level of evaluation exist in tennis?

Well, it does to a certain level. It just happens between the ages of 10 (if you’re a girl) and 14 (if you’re a boy) if the powers-that-be in tennis—the management companies that own and operate the sport, if you were wondering—identify the future stars of our sport, And, if they feel you have that potential, they offer to pick up the tab (which today runs typically into the 100s of thousands of dollars) for all of the world-class training you’ll need to develop into a successful tennis touring professional.

So, there are a few, chosen “golden children” in tennis, so what? Well, ever wonder why there isn’t more of a concerted effort to develop more pro tennis prospects?

One answer to this question that I’ve been thinking about recently goes like this: in reality, there’s no real pressure to produce a steady stream of pro tennis prospects by anyone except by the management companies who have the greatest stake in the sport.

Think about it, the way that pro tennis is set up by the management companies; only 10 to 30 players in the tennis world generate any interest in the pro game. Add to this the fact that tennis is an individual sport where the competition is set up in a “knockout” format with only one winner every event, all you need is 1 or 2 really good players, and the rest of that week’s field (all 30 or 62 or 126 of them) function as stand-ins for the two drawing cards.

Cynical as this sounds, you see, unlike an NFL game or Premiership match where all 22 performers must be of star quality to produce a high-enough quality event to attract and maintain the interest of the fans, tennis only requires 3 to 4 stars to keep fans and sponsors interested. Expand this picture to higher, wider perspective, the NFL has what, 30 teams today each with a 50 player roster… So to operate that sport at a high-enough level to create and maintain fan interest requires finding 1500 players of a true “pro” level, and 22 players per team or 660 players who are capable of becoming true stars to even make the team worth supporting to the fans.

Folks, tennis relies on natural selection to weed out the participants who make it to the highest level of the sport, and even then, the powers-that-be focus the vast majority of their resources on promoting only the 10 to 20 best pros in any timeframe. So, there’s no real interest in measuring, evaluating, or quantifying the performance capacity or performance potential of any of the participants, unless an insider “knows” that a given player might become one of those core 10 to 20 top pro players.

And, all these insiders really care about is a potential prospect’s innate talent level and a demonstrated ability to win matches. They really don’t care about the “numbers” that are associated with performance potential (even though they should) because they can always find someone else, and they can hide behind the excuse that competitive success in tennis is a very “complicated process”.

Basically, the way that tennis at the highest levels is organized and operated today—the cultivation of a chosen few prospects (because that’s all that’s required to keep interest in tennis at a profitable level)—trickles down and affects the way that future tennis competitors are trained.

The players that the powers-that-be want to emerge to carry the sport in the future are all taken care of with the best possible resources and competitive opportunities (except if you’re American or British). The rest are on their own and left to their own devices. On top of that, due to the overall culture of “secrecy” that prevails in tennis (you don’t tell your competitors about things that give you your “edge”), there is very little useful information that’s publicly available that you could use to propel yourself to the ranks of those successful touring pros.

In other sports, you have to demonstrate the ability to run, swing, throw, and compete at known, measurable levels before they even let you near the playing field. In tennis, it’s just win baby… literally.

The first person to develop Sabermetrics for pro tennis players could change the whole landscape of tennis as we know it. If you (and your coaches) knew what the performance standards are that you would have to achieve to have a real chance of being a successful pro athlete, you might improve your chances of making it…

I’ve been using my own informal version of Sabermetrics tailored for tennis to evaluate the players I was interested in coaching, and I must admit that my “Tennismetrics” system has been quite successful so far. I will expand on what I’m interested in measuring from prospective touring pros next time.


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