After reading about the latest Congress on Tennis Science and Technology held by the ITF Science & Technical Department, I thought I’d track down one of the guys who published a paper in conjunction with the event. Matt Downing, a student at the University of Bath, conducted studies that led to “The effect of temperature on the court pace rating of tennis surfaces” and “The effect of climatic changes on the properties of tennis balls”, both included in Tennis Science and Technology 3 (edited by Miller, S. and Capel-Davies, J. ITF: London). In plain English, he basically did a study on how tennis courts and tennis balls are affected by variations in temperature.
Over e-mail, we chatted with Matt about how he fell into working with the ITF, what his research was like, and what his plans are for future tennis-related studies.
How often do you play tennis? How do you rate your game?
I try to play tennis at least once a week. I used to play for my county team (Hampshire, England) but a series of injuries, plus an ever increasing realization that I’d never become a professional, led to a decrease in opportunities to participate. I still try to play when I can.
What’s your favorite shot?
My personal favourite shot is the forehand. I think the forehand is the most naturally graceful shot when it’s performed correctly.
Who’s your favourite player?
Roger Federer. Not only does he possess an impressive range of strokes; he appears to glide round the court and makes tennis almost like an art form.
How did you decide to major in Sports technology?
I took a gap year between college and university to get some work experience and [save up]. I temped for TaylorMade Adidas Golf for eight weeks in their marketing department. And even though I was only working as an administrator, I found the marketing of the technologies used in TaylorMade’s clubs extremely interesting.
Also, having played tennis, I personally experienced a number of racquet developments first hand. So it seemed a natural progression to consider a degree [in Sports Technolgy], and hopefully, a career is developing sports equipment.
How did you did you come to your decision to study temperature and court performance? At what point did it become a collaboration with the ITF?
As part of my degree at The University of Bath, I chose to take a year out in the industry to gain an understanding of how the industry worked and to gain some work experience that would be relevant to my future search for employment. When I saw the chance to apply for an internship at the ITF, I was naturally excited. I almost snapped their hand off when they offered me the position!
I was lucky enough in that my internship coincided with the ITF organising and hosting the Third International Congress of Tennis Science and Technology. So it was pure luck in a way that I managed to do my research as part of my job and get three research projects published.
[As far as the research topic,] I have always noted with great interest the reaction of players at the Australian Open in response to the elevated temperatures. A number of players complain about a ‘tacky’ surface that they perceive to be dangerous to play on. Following some research, I found there was no comprehensive research into the effect of how temperature and humidity actually do affect how matches are played. I don’t claim to have definitive answers in any way but they are certainly a basis on which to build.
My papers look at a comparison of dynamic to static ball stiffness, the effect of climate on tennis balls and the effect of temperature on court pace.
Talk a little bit about how this study came to be commissioned. The ITF wanted to look at how to avoid extreme variations on tennis courts?”
One stimulus to researching the effect of climatic changes in tennis was the introduction of court pace ratings and limits to Davis Cup and Fed Cup world group ties from 2008 onwards. As many people are no doubt aware, Davis Cup and Fed Cup introduce a home-away dimension to the sport. The home team is allowed to choose the surface on which the tie is played. Recently, this has been used to create what many would call an “unfair advantage”. This is particularly evident in ties against countries consisting of clay court specialists — Argentina and Spain are the best examples. To optimize their advantage, the home team is inclined to play the tie on a surface that is as fast as possible, preventing the away team clay courters from getting into a rhythm. Quite often, this can ruin the spectacle of the tie. The ITF is well aware of this trend.
The ITF have the objective to maintain the integrity of the game. As such, it was decided that a limit should be introduced to prevent this “unfair advantage”. This is what was meant by standardising conditions. I couldn’t agree more that one of the most interesting aspects of tennis is the variation from tournament to tournament. I can’t think of anything worse than every tournament being played on the same surface. However, I am a firm believer that the surface should not provide an unnatural advantage to one player over another.
What kinds of surfaces have the most variation in performance due to temperature? What has the least? Which tournaments have these best/worst performing surfaces?
I’m not allowed to disclose the brand names of court surfaces we tested or the tournaments at which they are used.
But I can tell you that I personally tested only two types of surface; a carpet and an acrylic due to time constraints for the publication (and we had difficulty accessing grass and clay courts for testing). Of the two surfaces, the carpet surface varied a lot more.
What were the methods for your research? How long did it take to gather the data?
The data for all my papers was gathered over a period of several months. The climate related data was gathered within a walk-in climate chamber (to create the desired conditions). The ITF has equipment designed for the exact purpose of measuring court pace and tennis ball dynamic stiffness.
Do you think the ITF, ATP, and WTA are very open to scientific studies?
Based on personal experience, I can definitely state that the ITF is very open to scientific study..The ITF Technical Centre based at the headquarters in London, England carries out a huge amount of research into everything scientific in tennis. The ATP and WTA also back the work done by the ITF and help out wherever feasible and possible. The ITF are extremely active in studying current trends and future trends in tennis.
What will be your next study? What are your plans with your degree?
I will be continuing some research as a project in my final year at university to look at a number of different conditions and improve upon the results I have already found. The game is played at such a large range of temperatures and humidities so it makes sense to me to understand how these changes in climate affect the equipment used, not just balls and surfaces, but racket strings as well.
Read up: For more info about ITF’s Science and Technical Department, click here.