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Are a tennis player’s reactions better than an F1 driver’s?

novak djokovic

Formula One drivers are feted for their incredible reaction speeds, darting off the grid in a frantic start. But is this perception correct? Or can tennis players actually react faster?

F1 drivers, for example, are perceived as having lightning-fast reaction speeds when beginning a race but the spin and misdirection of a tennis ball served by an opponent trying to fool you is altogether different.

The average tennis players' reaction times is estimated at 0.5 seconds by IBM, compared to 0.2 seconds for a Formula One driver - by contrast, Usain Bolt's 0.155-second reaction was the second-slowest in the 2016 Olympics 100m final but he still won gold. Akani Simbine reacted in 0.128 seconds, the fastest in that race.

IBM at Wimbledon 2018
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Valtteri Bottas caused a stir in winning the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix, because his reaction speed was clocked at 0.201 seconds when he started the race, prompting rivals to call him "unhuman".

Bottas reacted, after his fast start was proved to be legit: "When the car was moving the lights were off, so that was the main thing!

"It was probably one of the best starts, maybe even quite risky."

Bottas' 0.201-second reaction speed propelled him to just a third win in 103 grands prix (as of May 22 2018), underlining the importance of a fast start. A Sky Sports study would later measure F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg's reaction time at less than a tenth of a second, describing it as "approaching the shortest amount of a time that a human can look at something, and take in what he sees. On the road, you or I would typically need half-a-second."

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That half-a-second for a normal person would result in a tennis serve flying behind you before you've seen it.

Hulkenberg said: "It is natural for us and we do it instinctively."

The F1 study continues: "In athletics, anything under a tenth of a second is considered unhuman and therefore a false start."

Sky Sports' F1 expert David Croft said: "Unlike in tennis, you accelerate from 0-100mph in around four seconds with 19 other cars jockeying for position. It is more pressurised."

IBM's Watson, their Artificial Intelligence platform, discovered 7.09% of media articles written about "reaction", "alertness" and "instinct" in F1 were negative sentiments, and 5.46% positive, which dwarfs the 2.43% negative and 1.87% positive mentions in tennis.

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F1 drivers measure their reaction time, simplistically, by pushing the accelerator yet it is a crucial aspect.

"Lance Stroll, one of the youngest drivers, people can learn from - he isn't in the best car but he picks up three or four places on the first lap," Croft says, about his reaction speed.

But tennis players, to do the same, must move their bodies and apply technique to a return shot. The mechanisms are more complicated.

Reaction speeds and the ability to read an opponent's intention is best analysed in tennis by looking at how many times a player is aced, how many first serves they return, and how many points they win when returning. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer demonstrate better results than anyone else.

Federer has been aced just 10.53% of points when receiving a first serve, the best of all the great players (Murray was 10.86% and Djokovic 11.94%).

The best returner of a first serve among great players was Murray (68.72%), known for his athleticism above all else which demonstrates how a tennis player must rely upon more than just reaction time. Federer (62.06%) and Djokovic (60.93%) trailed Murray, still above the 59.81 average of all great players.

These factors can be affected by the position on court of the receiver, their observation of minor variations in the server's technique, and a tactical understanding of where the opponent is more likely to serve.

"Your reaction time is intertwined with your technique. Rafa Nadal loves to go deep on grass and clay courts, but that opens up angles for a big server so you'll probably get aced more. Roger Federer loves to be on the baseline and blocks more," Mark Petchey told Sky Sports.

Watson provides a deeper assessment by using linguistic analytics to infer individuals' intrinsic personality characteristics from digital communications - measuring tennis' top returners (Federer, Murray, Djokovic) and F1 trio Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and Bottas.

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Largely, the three Wimbledon champions are similarly rated for their emotional range, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and extraversion with Hamilton also very similar. For example they have a higher emotional range compared to Vettel and Bottas, self-control, confidence and calmness under pressure.

This is notable because, over the past five years, the Wimbledon champions and Hamilton (a four-time world champion including the 2017 title) have been more successful than Vettel and Bottas.

Hamilton shares characteristics with Djokovic, Federer and Murray (for example, their extraversion is low indicating a dislike of risk-taking) but less so with his two fellow F1 drivers.

Is it a coincidence that the four most successful sportsmen over the past few years share these personality traits, or are they core to their results?

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