Data Meets Federer: How IBM and the US Open Mesh Tennis & Tech

Xconomy New York — 

Last night, while tennis star Roger Federer took Marinko Matosevic to school in Queens, IBM processed the data captured from the first serve to match point.

It was one of many matches at the US Open tennis tournament being analyzed and visualized, for fans and the pros alike, through mobile apps and cloud-based technology.

IBM worked with the United States Tennis Association, the tournament’s organizer, to put a data spin on the game. Sensors around the courts tracked such statistics as the speed of the serves at the beginning of play and when a player scored.

As one might imagine, this kind of sophisticated data processing is useful in more places than the tennis court. “We happen to analyze tennis data for patterns,” IBM sponsorship marketing manager John Kent said. “That could also analyze insurance claims for fraud.”

IBM also has analytics systems in place with the New York City Police Department for video and data to determine hot spots for crime and where to put their resources, he said.

For the US Open, IBM is analyzing more information while trying to keep the interface easy for regular people to understand. That way, fans can look up how many unforced errors a player had in a match and then take a deeper dive into the statistics via new mobile apps, released today, the company developed for the tournament.

Video of the matches is also compiled for the players, along with indexed stats to see their unforced errors and break points. IBM designed the website, which includes analytics and 41 million data points gathered over eight years from the Grand Slam championships. IBM provides similar services for the Wimbledon Championships and other major tourneys.

With access to an ever-increasing flow of information, Kent sees data reaching a tipping point for deriving more insights. The trick, he said, is to present that information in a straightforward way—like putting a first-down marker on-screen during football games. “Our goal with these [data] visualizations is to make them so simple they need no explanation,” he said.

High-profile sports events typically mean an influx of traffic to the related website and mobile portals. Fans in some 200 countries watch the US Open through television and mobile devices, said Nicole Jeter West, a digital strategy director for USTA.

The tournament is trying to attract more mobile users this year by nudging them toward smartphone apps while they are at the arena, with media push alerts and a test deployment of wireless beacons that can communicate with people’s mobile devices when they are nearby.

Handling the flood of digital traffic during the tournament could be nerve-wracking, but Kent said IBM’s Watson big-data and analytics technology manages the flow.

Kent said helping the USTA deal with data traffic spikes during the US Open is comparable to meeting the cloud-computing needs of big business. “Retailers have their ‘US Open’ on Black Friday,” he said. “This is a proof point for our technologies.”

Providing technology services for the US Open, Kent said, shows how cloud-computing has evolved for IBM. For instance, the company uses three service delivery centers that act virtually as one. That allows for increased capacity, he said, and continuous service while performing maintenance.

“To the user, it looks like But you don’t know where you are being served from,” Kent said.

John Kent talks about IBM's data analytics and cloud-computing  role at the US Open. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

John Kent talks about IBM’s data analytics and cloud-computing role at the US Open. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)