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Rod Heckelman's career started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California. Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona.

In 1976 he took over as head professional/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. 

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In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference. Rod has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013, and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.”

He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.

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HOW WILL A.I. IMPACT TENNIS?

Embrace this new world as an asset and not a threat

By Rod Heckelman

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Most important, almost every prediction of the impact and influence of A. I. (Artificial Intelligence) is still mostly speculation.  This will definitely be true for the tennis industry.  Which is why, most of those invested in the world of tennis, are taking a “wait and see,” position. But there is one thing for sure, it is highly likely that in the future, the coaching and teaching sector of tennis will be strongly impacted.  Although the initial impact of A.I. will likely begin at the top level of the game, don’t be surprised if all levels of play are eventually addressed.  The fact that the greatest volume of lessons are had by those still learning most of their fundamentals, makes it inevitable that A.I. will become an important tool for everyone in the sport.  This inevitability is also a result of the unique characteristics of our sport.  Compared to many other sports, especially team sports, tennis competition is available, and often fiercely competitive at all levels of play and all ages.  

So, again, only armed with speculation, let’s review some possibilities.

 

We are already heavily invested in the collection of data, as seen by the many new camera monitoring and tracking systems that have been engineered into the game.  A substantial amount of money has been spent to use cameras and recordings to capture statistics and data. The ability and insight to analyze this data is still a work in progress with a long way to go.  This is where A.I. steps in.  

With the help of A.I., we will be better able to spot patterns within match play that a human would never be able to see. Because tennis, one of the few sports with four moving factors…player, opponent, racket, and tennis ball, produces so much data, it may only be possible for A.I. to thoroughly collect that data and accelerate the relevance of that data.  Again, this is for all levels of play, but it is fair to say, that the better a player is, the more likely their performance is predictable and less random.  Which means, players of lesser ability who perform more randomly may not see the same benefits from the data A.I. collects but will still be intrigued and curious. 

 

Much like what happened with the camera monitoring systems and the smart chip rackets that were added to the equipment, the information gathered for most learning players was a one-time entertaining venture.  The results were that the revenue flow from those who experimented and tried using video analysis and high-tech rackets quickly dwindled.  It’s fair to say that most recreational players, even those who played some competition, found video replay and analyses a novelty at best. The other issue with video analysis was the inability of many coaches to see and determine cause and effect.  A.I. can jump that boundary very quickly, aiding the coaches in their assessment of how to properly fix and correct any players' shortcomings. 

 

Of course, all of this will require having a quality coach with enough financial support and access to this new high-tech resource, which will mean more cost and more expense for the student.  This could result, just like video data gathering, in only the very passionate and wealthy being able to take advantage of the benefits of A.I. in the beginning application of this technology.

Where A.I. becomes very intriguing may come from a new approach to coaching.  Recently, researchers at Stanford University were working on an exciting A.I. model that simulated the playing style of the world’s best tennis players. Using machine learning, researchers were able to use game footage of players such as Roger Federer and Serena Williams to simulate a real match in a virtual world.  If that can be done for those players, it’s a small jump to have this available to all players.  Imagine the impact if a player was able to create an avatar of them playing tennis.  Now take that a step further, imagine that through A.I., you were able to have that avatar compete with another person’s avatar…anywhere in the world.  But here is the real catch, the avatar would be designed to be a near-perfect replica of the real player based on their current performance.  

Now imagine an 11-year-old boy going online to play another 11-year-old from anywhere in the world.  He gets beaten and finds out that it is because he is missing too many serves, or his forehand is weak against a harder hitter.  For his avatar to improve, he will need to return to the practice court, and with the aid of an instructor, change and improve his game.  With the new info, they both will have a more defined understanding of how to correct these weaknesses.   The instructor, using this data from that match and working with A.I. to help in the reconstruction of those strokes, can now take on that task with greater insight and direction. Because the student is emotionally involved in a game of virtual tennis, the student is far more receptive to these needed changes and probably will have a greater motivation to achieve those changes.  After that instruction is successful, he recreates his avatar and challenges that same player again and wins.  This cycle would continue creating an international platform for all levels and ages, making virtual tennis matches essentially a strong new motivational tool to improve the real player.  Remember that old saying, “If only I have a magical pill to create motivation.” This may be it.

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If this all sounds way too wild to happen, or even imagine, remember, A.I. is all about taking what we could only imagine and making it not just possible, but real.  Can it replace experienced coaching via historical analytics and experience?  Again, much at this point is speculation.  But it does seem that it will become the strongest new teaching tool available to a sport that is already knee-deep in data collection and statistics.

          Just look back a few years and remember when Babolat introduced a racquet that provided instant feedback on the quality of the contact, spin on the ball, and many other statistics that a player could harvest immediately through their own cell phone.  And if you are concerned, or maybe even afraid of the impact of A.I. in our industry, it is coming no matter what, so best embrace this new world as an asset and not a threat.

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