The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, host of the annual tennis tournament better known as Wimbledon, is a very traditional place. Players still compete in (almost) all-white outfits. Visible sponsor activity is kept to a minimum. And it even subsidises the cost of its strawberries and cream to keep the time-worn treat affordable to visitors (it’s only a shame they don’t do the same for the £8 cups of Pimm’s...).
But like most other organisations it’s also been undergoing a transformation as new digital technologies create better ways to communicate with remote fans, make life easier for visitors and keep broadcasters happy. During the championships last week MT ventured deep beneath the SW19 turf to take a tour of the IBM-run bunker from where all this tech is controlled.
Wimbledon isn’t all about Centre Court - there are 17 others which can each be holding a match at the same time. Keeping track of what’s going on is a complicated process. Data is collected at each court by tennis players trained to use the technology. ‘The reason for using players is [they know] the difference between the forced and unforced errors, what's a backhand drive,’ says Sam Seddon, IBM’s client executive for Wimbledon. ‘Our objective is to have 100% accuracy and to have those points of information captured within seconds.’
Along with video footage of each match, that data feeds into an application called Wimbledon Interactive, which is used by commentators and members of the press, as well as players and their coaches, to keep track of what’s going on, point by point, game by game.
Coaches can drag up all the videos of their player’s second serves, for instance, if they want to focus on improving those in training. Commentators can dig into match data going back decades to make a comparison between how Andy Murray has been playing thus far with how Fred Perry was doing at the same point in 1936.
Spotting the best games
With so many matches occurring at any one time it can be difficult to keep track of which are worth watching and reporting on. IBM’s tech helps spot which are the most competitive. ‘A match where a player has a strong competitive margin is if they're playing well, they're forcing their opponent to make errors rather than their opponent just making mistake,’ says Seddon. ‘When two players are playing like that, that indicates it's an interesting match.’ This info is then served up to broadcasters and Wimbledon’s content teams to be promoted through their apps, online and on TV.
IBM’s Watson AI is best known for winning the TV gameshow Jeopardy back in 2011, but it’s since been put to commercial use – including as the brains behind Ask Fred, Wimbledon’s virtual assistant. Part of the tournament’s smartphone app, Ask Fred is like Siri or Cortana if they just knew a lot about Wimbledon. The assistant can answer questions about how to get to the club, where to eat and how to buy souvenirs.
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Watson is also used to compile match highlights in seconds, eliminating the need for human editors to trawl through hours of footage looking for the best bits. ‘We have the whole video of the match and we've indexed it with different points - we know whereabouts the momentum of the match changes so we know which points are significant,’ says Andy Burns, digital producer and senior managing consultant at IBM.
‘Watson analyses the video, looking for certain things. For instance a player raising their arms, looking excited or pleased, which could tell us there's a significant moment. We can also listen - if the crowd volume is very high that may indicate a key point. We then create a ranking criteria against every point and from that choose the points we think have the highest storytelling capability and stitch them together. And at the end Watson is looking for the handshake footage, we grab that and put it on the back end.’
Everybody is getting cyber attacked these days and you won’t be surprised to learn Wimbledon is no exception. But you might be taken aback at the scale of the problem. When MT visited about three quarters of the way through the championship, IBM’s systems had dealt with 101 million suspicious events and fended off around 1.9 million attacks, with China, the US and Russia the biggest culprits. That will largely have been automated attempts to break into the systems rather than specific plots to target Wimbledon specifically but it’s a pretty arresting figure nonetheless.