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Saturday, 16 June, 2001, 01:10 GMT 02:10 UK
Game, net and match
Wimbledon Centre Court
Centre Court: one of the sure signs of summer
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

At first glance tennis, as it is played at Wimbledon, appears to be a straight-forward, uncomplicated affair.

Two players face each other across a grass tennis court 23.8 by 8.2 metres (78 feet by 27) in size, that is divided equally by a net that is 91.4cm (3 feet) high at its centre.

Across this they serve or strike a ball (no bigger than 6.4 cm in diameter) with a wooden or metal racket (no wider than 31.75 cm) in an attempt to force their opponent to play a shot that ends with the ball landing outside the bounds of the court.

Except that it is not that simple anymore, and it never will be again.

The technology of tennis

Technology is adding almost undreamt, and unseen, levels of complexity to the game to ensure the tension and drama created by the simple elements of player, racket and ball can be conveyed to a waiting world.

Consider a single serve, made by a top seeded player, during the second set of a match being played in the second week of the Wimbledon tournament on one of the show courts.

Anna Kournikova at full stretch
It takes a lot of technology to go from serve to surf
At Wimbledon IBM is in charge of the technology watching the action and trying to ensure that it misses nothing, even when the players do.

As soon as the ball is struck radar guns watch its flight, work out its speed, flash the information up on court-side screens and pass the nugget of information to IBM's central tournament database.

In the audience on the seven show courts are two-man teams who use a laptop and specially adapted keypad to tap in whether it was a first or second serve, where the ball landed, if it was an ace, if there was a fault or it landed on the line.

They work in pairs because so much data has to be recorded. One person calls out what happened and the other enters the information.

"The data entry teams have to be county level tennis players or better" said John Taylor, IBM project director at Wimbledon, "they need to understand everything about the game."

He said they need to know such details as which players are right and left-handed so they can work out what is a forehand or a backhand. Details of every shot are fed into the main database, which in turn passes the statistics on the scoreboards dotted around the site.

Broadcast buddy

This feeds the facts and statistics system that TV and radio commentators use.

But even while the data is passed on to the commentary box, another set of IBM tennis experts have combed through it highlighting significant statistics.

They might flag up the fact that at this juncture in many other matches the player has lost the point, or always struggles when they have to make a second serve.

TV commentators can request graphics, generated in real time by shelves full of IBM laptops, that pop up on your screen to illustrate whatever statistic caught their eye that puts the tense situation on court in context.

Tim Henman
Henman hits out
Many of the statistics are fed through to the website within moments of the action happening and on to all the external websites who are syndicating the information.

IBM has reciprocal agreement with the BBC, the official broadcaster for the tournament, to stream video of matches on to the web.

When necessary the relevant results of a game, set or match are packaged in an SMS and sent on to mobile phones of those following particular players or matches.

Much of it is translated into a language that Wap phones can understand.

The statistics for games taking place on the Centre and Number 1 court are also used to prepare a 32-page report and video for the players, so the winner can see how they did it and the loser can see what went wrong.

Mr Taylor said it is interesting to see how people use all this information.

He said: "Over 80% of people come to the website to look at scores and results but we are finding that it is changing as people become more comfortable with the rich media that is available."

Rather than driving people away from television, he said, it seems to be engaging them more. Many people use both web and TV together to get a more rounded sense of what they are seeing.

He said the sheer wealth of information means people have a much better sense that what they are seeing is not just one booming serve against another, but is the tenth time this pair have played on grass, that one has won the last three times they met, but this game is going to five sets and one of them usually crumbles during marathon matches.

This is one time when IBM can never take its eye off the ball.

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