Tennis, IBM’s Data Tracker, and the Hidden Order of Things

If it’s the first–or sometimes, the second–weekend in July, it’s time for Wimbledon brunch–or breakfast. Today, I hosted a few friends to partake of the pleasures of the 2012 finals.  Among them, Roger Federer’s biggest fan, one whose fanhood makes for very interesting watching from up close. I have watched many tennis matches with her in the past five years, and am always struck by her involvement, her anxious following of her favorite, an anxiety compounded and made worse by a tennis match’s fluctuations and the ebbs and flows of its dramatic resolution. It’s been a long time since any sports encounter has done that to me but I remain susceptible under the right sorts of circumstances and thus, sympathetic to her trials and travails. (During the epic Federer-Nadal 2008 final, as it moved into a fifth set and into another cluster of deuces, she had simply stopped watching the television and started doing the dishes instead: the tension had grown to be too much for her. I knew from past experience exactly what she was feeling: a tightening of the gut, a nausea whose phenomenology is distinctive.)

Today, as Andy Murray won the first set, and Roger Federer began his comeback in the second set, I was introduced to a newer palliative for her anxiety. The mundane, domestic, hands-on relief of dishwashing was exchanged for tracking, er, the IBM Data Tracker, which, well let me just let IBM’s marketing folks do the talking from here on:

IBM has mined more than seven years of Grand Slam Tennis data (approximately 39 million data points) to determine patterns and styles for players when they win. This insight is applied to determine the “keys” to the match for each player in a match.

  • Prior to each match, the system runs an analysis of both competitors’ historical head-to-head match ups as well as stats against comparable player styles, to determine what the data indicates each player must do to do well in the match (SPSS technology)
  • The system then selects the 3 most significant keys for each player in the match
  • The Keys to the Match dashboard updates in real-time with current game statistics as the match unfolds

So, at any given moment, the Tracker displays how well the player in question is doing in terms of the ‘three most significant keys:’ conformance with the required value of the key indicates the player is headed for a win (roughly).  Thus, then, the reassuring power of the IBM Data Tracker for the bundle-of-nerves fan, wondering whether the 0bject of her attention, her vicarious desires, is performing as he should in order to win. The Data Tracker dips beneath the contingent unpredictable flux, to reach into the hidden order of things and reveal a glorious stability, a movement along a data line that indicates progress, and hopefully, inevitable movement towards the desired endpoint. The analytic grants us the security, that despite all the seeming variance of the surface, the chaos of the visible, there lurks the reassuring solidity of the conforming data point.

The ancient motivation for the statistic, made so starkly manifest in providing therapeutic relief to the sports fan.

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