Near Misses, Cramps, and Electronic Racquets

By Jane Voigt

January 21, 2015 — Rafael Nadal was saved by the seat of his pants today as Tim Smyczek, a qualifier and Wisconsin native, came mighty close to becoming the first qualifier ever to beat the Spaniard at a Grand Slam.

Maria Sharapova saved two match points against another qualifier, Alexandra Panova. Per her usual gritty style, Maria saved her day 62 46 75. 

Nadal v Dimitrov AO GE-2

Rafael Nadal in his 2014 victory over Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria. Photo credit Gillian Elliott tennisclix.com

But let’s get to the real news … Nadal’s new Babolat racquet. The electronic magical one. It’s got a chip inside and compiles heaps of data about spin, smashes, and generally the weather Down Under. Well … not the weather. 

Dubbed a ‘smart racquet,’ the Babolat Aeropro Drive is no different, playing wise, than the other Aeropro Drives Nadal has used except for the chip, which is activated by an on-off switch. Once switched on it records number of forehands, backhands, and smashes, converting absolute numbers to percentages through Bluetooth technology. But first you need the app, the brain’s of the design. 

“Sensors embedded in the handle of the racquet record data on every ball struck,” the AP reported. “The data can be downloaded to a smart phone or computer and used to help analyze a player’s strengths and mistakes.”

Nadal certainly made mistakes against No. 112-ranked Smyczek, including 7 double faults, during the Spaniard’s narrow win: 62 36 67(2) 63 75. The racquet data has not been released by Babolat or the Associated Press. Perhaps Nadal doesn’t want to know. 

But in his win over former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny the AP reported Nadal saying this about the data, “I know I play well I need to play 70 percent of forehands, 30 percent of backhands. If I’m not doing that, I know I’m not doing the right thing on court.”

In January, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) reversed a ruling that banned player analysis technology while competing. Now it can be used for analytical purposes, but players cannot whip out their smart phones on court to check how they’re doing during a match. At least the men can’t because they are not allowed to consult a coach during matches. The ITF considers the data, ‘coaching.'

Caroline Wozniacki is also using the ‘smart’ Aeropro Drive. She’s on the border about it’s usefulness. Because it can record where the ball hits on the string bed, it can show how far off center a player’s shot lands. And numbers don’t lie, which can be hard to swallow if you believe you’ve hit the center of the racquet.  

Today, though, it wasn’t the racquet … smart or otherwise. Nadal felt sick within the first 40 minutes of play and considered retiring from the match. 

“I was close to not continuing,” he told the press, as reported by The New York Times on Twitter. “I felt very tired. I suffered too much on court. Felt very dizzy [and] almost threw up. There was no fun."

Tim Smyczek’s performance will forever follow his career, being referred to as almost the first qualifier to defeat Nadal at a Major. But the slightly built American saw it differently.

“I started to believe that I really, you know, had a chance and could get it done,” he told the press. “But he turned it up to another gear. Before that was his C or D game, and he found a way to win. That’s why he’s the best.”

Smyczek has been ranked as high as No. 73 in the world, but has never progressed past the third round in any Major. Last year he lost in the first round in Melbourne Park. At least he can say he did better this year. 

“I had a good game plan going in,” Smyczek began. “The most important thing I thought was for me to try and stay within myself. I thought I did a pretty good job of that. I didn’t really struggle with nerves too much just because I got nothing to lose.”

The conditions on Margaret Court Arena during the match were more humid than earlier in the week. Nadal, like most pros, sweats easily and profusely. Having just returned from injuries and surgery, the heavy air could have accelerated the amount of perspiration his body eliminated. But it does not account for the stomach cramps. 

Nadal played through most of October, after being diagnosed with an appendicitis. However, he cancelled his two remaining tournaments, electing to have surgery November 4. That was 77 days before the beginning of The Australian Open. He mentioned in an early interview on site that he still is recovering from that, as well as all the other problems he suffered in 2014: right wrist injury and cartilage problems in his back for which he had stem cell treatments. 

Too bad Nadal's Babolat Smart Stick can’t diagnose or foretell health problems. Now that would certainly be a technological breakthrough. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013