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How AI is guarding Wimbledon's tennis traditions, and its digital future

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How AI is guarding Wimbledon's tennis traditions, and its digital future

Wimbledon's famous All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, bedecked in the iconic purple and green and overflowing with Ivy, flowers and generations of tradition might, at first look, seem like a strange place to be contemplating how technology and sport have become such familiar bedfellows.

And yet this most traditional of sporting environs is embracing technology on a whole host of levels, whilst maintaining the dignity and history as the home of tennis.

Mick Desmond, the AELTC's commercial and media director explained that there was an "alchemy" in the balance of seeking what's new and innovative whilst understanding and enhancing what makes this most famous of tennis tournaments great.

"We look at what's true in our brand in terms of the all-white dress code, the grass courts and the strawberries and cream, and as an event we do transcend the sport. We look at the things that make us special and we amplify them.

Wimbledon - instantly recognisable to millions

"But in the digital realm particularly we can be very innovative and push the boundaries… whilst still enveloped in a Wimbledon way."

This intent, according to former England cricketer and academic, Ed Smith, is not as new as many might think - insisting that embracing the latest technology has actually been at the heart of sport's development.

"If you think about sport as we now play it, it's rested on a series of technological evolutions," he insists, taking us on a whirlwind tour of innovation, from lawnmowers to the iPhone via vulcanized rubber and, of course the impact of sport in the media.

Ed Smith

"The year 1923 brought the moment that changed sport forever - a radio station in New York saying we're going to put every second of the World Series on air. And then TV creates a whole new energy for sport - allowing it to become the world's lingua franca. In fact I'd say it is the most important shared culture in the world."

At Wimbledon, IBM is at the centre of Desmond and his team's plan to reinvigorate tennis through data, and create their own '1923 moment' while remaining respectful of those all-important traditions. In the bowels of the broadcast centre, IBM has what it calls a bunker, and it is within these technology-packed rooms that the digital magic happens.


Sam Seddon, IBM Wimbledon Client and Programme Executive, explains how the now famous cognitive and analytical abilities of the Watson AI is being brought to bear on the reams of data the company is collecting from the tournament, and what impact it has on our social media, our apps, the media coverage and the commentary.

"We start by asking 'how do we help Wimbledon to be the best tennis tournament in the world? How do we help them achieve greatness?' And if you take something like social media the challenge that we're addressing here is 'how do you get a millennial to take an action within a six second window to interact with my social media rather than anyone else's?'.

"The limited opportunity window you have with young people on social media [means] that people need to see [the information] there at that point of time and that's where something like the Watson capability helps us, because we're using the cognitive solutions and capabilities of Watson to understand the reasons behind what is happening in the world of social media around sport and particularly around Wimbledon.


"So the command centre is looking at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram and saying 'what are the evolving topics of conversation and what are people looking at right now in this moment?'"

And the analysis - being performed at a scale that would be impossible outside of computers - extends beyond just tennis - with IBM understanding that to resonate the conversation needs to look outside of what's happening at Wimbledon to what's happening in the wider world of sport.

Seddon gives an example of Iceland playing in their high profile game against Portugal, and linking it to an Icelandic player playing at Wimbledon, and how you can join those conversations.

Wimbledon site

Of course 'winning' at social media is not the only use for IBM. The company's most visible work at Wimbledon is producing the reams of data that we see ourselves on apps, televisions and that is also being handed to the commentators, broadcasters and the players themselves on a special site that allows them to analyse and watch back each point.

"What we do here - and we've been here since 1990 - is a large, technical data-capture, transformation and distribution project," explains Seddon.

"At the heart of it is capturing information at the side of the court and, to give you a sense of scale, we captured around 3.2million data points last year."

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the sheer scale of this data capture means that it is technology that is doing the recording, but actually IBM's output relies heavily on good old human cognition as well.

"We have a team of highly trained analysts," explains Seddon, "There are technology solutions we can deploy - and in fact Wimbledon have one of their own on the practice courts.

"But when it comes to the speed, the accuracy and understanding the subtleties and nuances between forced and unforced errors it takes a human being, and a very good tennis player at that, to be able to interpret all of that at the speed that we need."

Seddon explains that data, Watson's smart analysis and, of course, the experts, combine to bring us a richer experience of this most traditional of sporting events without ever impacting on the values that have kept it so central to the tennis calendar.

First serves

"The data we capture at the side of the court - like is it 30 love? And was it an ace or not? - is then turned into analysis and statistics like '75% of first serves in'.

"In order to make that interesting information and invaluable to the club and the commentators we have to turn that into insight and that insight is in the context.

"So for Andy Murray you might ask 'when he won in 2013 what was his first serve percentage? What is it now? And how is he performing in this match?' All that information is available not only to the commentators but democratising it so we can get that info out to the fans around the world.


"With apps, and websites that information is becoming increasingly available to anyone from my mum to my 11-year -old daughter. People have a thirst for that information to bring it to life and to make it the best tennis tournament in the world."

And that is at the heart of what the team at Wimbledon are striving for. As Desmond puts it: "the banner of 'in pursuit of greatness' is something we think embodies Wimbledon.

"Everyone is so passionate about the brand that every single year they are looking to raise the bar. We'll never reach perfection but we'll pursue greatness."

Watson may not (yet) truly understand how it is contributing to that process - but IBM's most famous son is certainly now a part of this goal, and although still being aided by a crack team of human experts, the digital future is already pretty well wedded with one of the most traditional past and presents.

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