Arabella Byrne

What Wimbledon gets wrong about tennis fans

What Wimbledon gets wrong about tennis fans
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Brace yourself for the unmistakable sound of a tennis ball thwacking away in the background of your living room for two weeks - Wimbledon is finally upon us. As skilled as the players on the court are, it's the delightful spectacle of my family's amateur commentary that I enjoy the most. 'Who on earth is that?' my grandmother used to ask, unfailingly, when anyone unseeded dared to play against her beloved Steffi Graff. 'The Spaniard is touching his bum again' is the refrain in our house when Nadal prepares to serve. For the casual spectator, it's our lack of true tennis expertise that makes the tournament such a delight to watch: we like to gaze at its alchemy, without knowing too much about how the magic comes about.

This year, however, we may supplement this highly (un)professional commentary with Wimbledon’s new AI system Watson available on the official app. Watson, powered by the IBM power index, will now provide spectators with 'Win Factors' that give a better understanding of player performance along with a daily ranking of player momentum before and during the tournament. 'Win Factors' include court surface, ATP/WTA rankings, head-to-head, ratio of games won, net of sets won, along with a host of other performance statistics. All of which is designed, the All England Club says, 'to help fans get closer to Wimbledon by understanding which players to follow'.

Wimbledon hopes that those only interested in the top players – that’ll be most of us, then – will be able to identify underdogs to follow and support, thereby upping the crucial 'engagement' factor, the holy grail of all sponsorship tycoons. Alexandra Willis, head of communications at the All England Club explains rather sadly: 'We found that most fans didn’t watch tennis the rest of the year […] They also hadn’t heard of most of the players.'  

Call me a luddite, but I have no interest in consulting Watson this Wimbledon fortnight. I don’t want to know the percentage points of matches won, first serves in, speed of baseline rallies and performance at Indian Wells. I just want to watch the tennis in the moment, each match a blank canvas of thrilling possibility. If we knew too much about the underdog it wouldn’t have at all the same effect. The underdog can only be the underdog, after all, if he conceals his advantage.

Think of the best upset matches at Wimbledon: Roger Taylor’s four-set win over Rod Laver in 1970, Lori McNeil’s first-round victory over Steffi Graff in 1994, or George Bastl’s second-round win over the titan Pete Sampras in 2002. A large part of the excitement of seeing a superstar knocked off their plinth lies in the obscurity of the underdog’s profile, in the sense of surprise at what he or she might pull out of the hat. Because, if we know too much about their forehand statistics we lose the human theatre of it all.

The world became so entranced by Emma Raducanu’s fairytale in New York last year in large part due to the lack of precedent, personal history or analogue. There is no app available for the sense that both Leylah Fernandez and Raducanu were discovering their game and learning about themselves as the match evolved.  

Sport and AI will continue to court each other in the coming decades. Already, in sports such as cycling, AI leads the way. At the Giro d’Italia, spectators on turbo trainers may race virtually against the avatars of the professional riders in real time, a kind of participation that fuses computer gaming with audience participation.

But the All England Club seem to have forgotten that we tune in to watch humans - not data sets - battling it out on the SW19 grass. So, in the time honoured tradition of Wimbledon this year, I shall mute the commentary (especially now there’s no Becker), walk away when the big graph of statistics flashes up on the screen and wait for the underdog to surprise me.