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Tennis of the future

As the Babolat Pure Drive Play, the world’s first interactive tennis racket, hits UK stores next week, the company’s CEO reveals that it has taken 10 years to bring the product to market.

The concept of “connected tennis” has been a decade in the making, but the introduction of Rule 31 by the International Tennis Federation in January, permitting the use of Player Analysis Technology during competition, has provided a timely opportunity for the French brand.

“I don’t think we can underestimate how significant it really was,” says Eric Babolat, owner and CEO of Babolat on the vote to permit smart equipment. “I really think it is a big move and it will bring a lot of value to everyone in the industry; for manufacturers, trainers, teachers and shops because we will have data of what is happening when people are playing, which is the core part of the game.

“This idea started in our minds ten years ago. It came from our engineers in our labs. It is difficult to qualify a tennis product because it is all about feel. Ten years ago we wanted data, but back then to equip the player he would have had to worn a backpack with a big battery and a lot of cables.”

On inspection, the only difference between the Pure Drive Play and the standard Pure Drive, one of Babolat’s best-selling rackets, is the butt cap. It may seem alien to charge up your tennis racket and turn it on before a match or training session, but sensors in the racket collect data and allow players to analyse their stats immediately via a Bluetooth connection with a smartphone or tablet, or via USB cable to a computer.

With data regarding shot power, ball impact and technique, players can track their progress over time by comparing different sessions, and measure their performance against friends, opponents and even the likes of Rafael Nadal and Li Na.

“You can see an image of your game on three axes; technique, endurance and power,” explains Babolat. “The size will grow if you improve and the more you play the faster it will beat like a heart.  Sharing it with your friends is an important part of the experience. You can see your worldwide ranking in the Play community and within your friendship group.”

Having launched in the USA in December after testing with 100 testers worldwide, the Babolat Play community has already passed the 4000 mark. The Play launches across Europe on May 19, but Babolat insists that any targets are subjective.

“It is more of a qualitative than quantitative target; as we do when we bring innovation we offer it to the market, we are a long-term oriented company so we give time to things,” he says. “What we want is that people test the racket and like it and tell their friends.

“It’s not a quantitative target, it’s really to demonstrate that the product we have developed is valuable and that people should try it. I think it addictive, when you try it you don’t want to play with a non-connected racket anymore!”

The Babolat Play is the first of its kind, but the other racket manufacturers are expected to follow suit – Babolat believes within ten years everyone will be playing with a smart tennis racket.

“We are the first racket to be approved by the ITF but we sincerely hope that other manufacturers are working on it,” he said. “I sincerely believe that within ten years all tennis rackets will be connected. I think it is good for the industry; it makes tennis cool. It gives another dimension to the game.

“Investment is key. Ten per cent of the people working at Babolat are working on innovation and trying to bring new things to tennis lovers because it comes from observation on the tour and in the clubs.  It is important to keep players in the game, to attract new players so I think it is positive for us as a brand but for the industry too.”