This story, from the August 2007 issue of British Tennis magazine is an in-depth look at what the new regime at the LTA is doing to improve talent identification in that country. A systematic approach is the goal of all national tennis federations I would imagine, but it sounds as if they are also trying to take some of the subjectivity out of the process. Take this excerpt:
During a fairly intensive six-hour session at the National Tennis Centre the juniors (numbering between 20-22 each day) warmed up, took part in competitive speed agility games, fitness evaluations, tennis games, tennis evaluations and non-tennis games. At the same time, the parents and coaches attended presentations by Martens, Judy Murray and other members of the Technical Support Team.
Some of the evaluation procedures are being used for the first time in this country. “We’re trying to do a very different job here,” said Lewandowski. Tennis is very much an open gauge sport. To make objective measures is very difficult. With some sports such as cycling, rowing, swimming or athletics you have your distances, you have your times to be a county player and you have to get this sort of time. To be a tennis player it’s much more difficult to objectively define these measures. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.
“This afternoon we’re doing a technical breakpoint test where the players hit balls fed by a coach to the beat of a metronome, and the kids have to hit at least 60 per cent of the balls cross court and into play. If they are successful, the beat of the metronome will be set to the next stage of tempo. Eventually they will reach a point where they don’t make 60 per cent, and that is noted as their technical breakpoint.
“This is a new and interesting test and will enable us to determine more objectively each player’s capacity to hit with control, on the move and under pressure. It will be important to see how it correlates across the different activities the kids do today. If we’d known 10 years ago that Andy Murray could pass 60 per cent with 24 beats a minute – which is actually very tough – that would have given us some clues as to why he was going to be a top player.
Are there clues to top tennis performance in numbers such as these? I think the "Moneyball" concept in baseball, which I discussed in a post last year, has in some ways discredited the stopwatch/radar gun approach to sport scouting, but on the other hand, with so few actual numbers available in tennis, aside from serve speed, quantifying some isn't a bad way to start. And if it turns out that the British successor to Andy Murray ten years from now didn't put up any better numbers than most of his fellow prospects at age 8, well, something's gained from that knowledge too, I suppose. Maybe finding the key to tennis talent is just a process of eliminating what doesn't work.
Saturday, July 28, 2007