How Artificial Intelligence is changing fans’ perceptions of tennis
By James Dielhenn
Last Updated: 21/04/20 9:33am
Think of Wimbledon and your mind will almost inevitably drift to lush green tennis courts, sporting greats, white clothing and possibly a few strawberries and cream.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is probably not in your list, but maybe it should be. The AI, named Watson, is helping the famous tennis tournament reach for the stars.
So what is Watson? It is an altogether cleverer way of analysing tennis and the mass of data that tennis produces. IBM's system has the ability to understand, reason, learn and interact; it is not a threat to the statistics that lie at the heart of all sports - in fact, they are being used together to provide fans with more insight than ever.
The plan is for humans and machines to communicate more naturally, and in the case of Wimbledon, to enable a deeper understanding of all the goings-on at The Championships. Think for a moment about the size of the challenge. There are 18 matches underway at once all being filmed and beamed around the world. Play can carry on for over 11 hours a day and in 2017 4.8 million points of data were captured. How do you make sense of all of that? That is where Watson comes in.
What are Cognitive Highlights?
How did Wimbledon's digital channels command 69.9m views last year? The answer is IBM's Cognitive Highlights.
But how can a computer decipher between a brilliant Andy Murray winner and an ordinary error that flops into the net? How do you know which points are worth watching again and which are not? Rather than a mere human like you or I trawling through endless reams of video and data about how Roger Federer's effectiveness with his second serve is superior to Novak Djokovic's, AI will process it and deliver results.
This is where it gets really clever. IBM Watson is taught to recognise what are the best moments in a match. It listens to the crowd noise and how they react and, if it detects an excitable gasp or huge cheer, the AI will flag a moment worth revisiting. As well as listening Watson watches the video. This allows it to notice body language, as a human might do, and therefore decide the player's excitement levels and what must have caused it. Only then will Watson look at the match statistics. By combining all elements together, it is able to automatically generate video highlights making tennis accessible to fans on the go, via social media and on Wimbledon's website and apps.
"It's hugely significant in that it can tell us things that maybe an editor, in a best-of-five men's match, isn't going to be able to pick out so swiftly. AI is huge from that point of view," said Sky Sports' Mark Petchey.
"There are a myriad of things that go into creating this edit."
Looking at data from last year's final when Federer beat Marin Cilic, Petchey observed: "There was a net winner from Federer - why did AI pick that out? I went back to the stats and saw it was 1-0 to Cilic in the opening set, 15-30 on Roger's serve. This was a significant point that AI picked out."
But the real essence of AI is not just its number-crunching, but the human element. Watson's Personality Insights is a stunning service that can produce insights into a sportsperson's character, and how that shapes their sporting performance.
Do Federer's cool, calm and collected interviews literally mean he is composed during Wimbledon? Watson takes enormous quantities of data from players' quotes, and articles written about them, and uses linguistic analytics to produce intrinsic personality characteristics.
This is how AI can create living, vibrant information about your favourite tennis player that tells you more about them than a chunk of numbers. Sky Sports will produce a detailed series of articles and videos on this subject throughout Wimbledon.
Watson technology is leading the way for Artificial Intelligence in sport and Wimbledon is ahead of other sports and events' uses of AI. Ask Fred debuted last year as a Chatbot for fans to communicate their questions helping them make the most of their day at one of the best sporting events in the world.
So while AI and Wimbledon may not have been put together like strawberries and cream when you first thought of this summer's Championships maybe they should be in the future. Expect further innovations.