Serving up tennis technology

Tennis is a forward-thinking sport where experimentation with new equipment and technology is explored and embraced.

Sports engineer James Spurr uses his engineering knowledge and skills to help strike a careful balance between tennis tradition and technology. 

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James and the team at the International Tennis Federation team design equipment to help beginners to pick up the techniques of the game easily.

At the other end of the scale, their work ensures that Murray, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all compete fairly and Wimbledon wins are down to talent, not racket-type!

Tomorrow’s Engineers took a trip down to the ITF, in leafy south-west London, to speak to James in an ex-squash court turned tennis-testing laboratory. It’s jam-packed with rackets and complicated looking machines and we wanted to find out what they were for.

Watch the video we made or read the full interview below...

Name: James Spurr
Job title: Sports Engineer, the International Tennis Federation, Roehampton, London

What does a sports engineer do at the International Tennis Federation?
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) is the world governing body for tennis. The science and technical department, where I work, looks after the rules of the game when it comes to equipment and our mission statement is to protect the nature of tennis.

We try to keep tennis something that the general public will recognise, something that they’re willing to watch on TV or down at Wimbledon and they’re happy to go out and play. The ITF has a challenging job to try and balance the traditions of the game with the increasing use of technology in sport to make sure that tennis is sustainable.

As engineers we try to preserve the traditions and skills that are required to play the game. When you watch tennis on TV, you want the deciding factor in any point, game or match to be the player playing the game, not their racket or the shoes on their feet.

You want the outcome of the game to be down to their skill and determination to become the best and the training they’re willing to put in.

We do a range of testing out in the field where we go out to tennis venues and set up cameras and work with athletes. We also work with athletes in the lab in London where we have a range of machines to test tennis equipment.

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What parts of tennis do you work on?
We have machines to test pretty much all the equipment used in the sport. The technical centre used to be a squash court. Now it has three different areas – ball testing, a wind tunnel and a general testing area.

I work in our ball lab doing specific testing on tennis balls. The rules of tennis have a very precise specification for balls. They have to have a certain mass and size. They also have specific stiffness characteristics and will bounce in a certain way. We have a climate controlled ball testing facility to measure this.

I also test tennis racket power with our racket power machine or our spin rig.

The next day I could be working on tennis court surfaces, looking at how the ball interacts with the surface, how it bounces and slows down due to friction. We also have a wind tunnel to look at the aerodynamics of tennis balls.
Outside of work I’m undertaking a PhD looking at tennis racket control so I spend a lot of time designing equipment to do the test as well as software for analysis.

Is your work for amateur players as well as tennis professionals?
We will often base our experiments on what the top players are doing on court but always at the back of our mind is the fact that the general tennis-playing public will have some expectation of the equipment they’re using.

The ITF has a large development department to help encourage people to get fit and healthy by playing the sport. Recently we’ve done a lot of work helping manufacturers design equipment that will assist new players to play tennis on their first go.

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We’ve created a new specification for introductory tennis balls, which are designed to fly through the air and bounce off the surface more slowly so new players will have more time to hit the ball back with greater control.

A recent rule change in tennis has been a requirement for players under 10 to use these introductory balls on a smaller court like other sports. You don’t get five year olds playing on full sized football pitches, for example. So we have specifications for smaller courts, balls and rackets all designed for young people.

We also provide tennis facilities in developing countries where there aren’t enough resources to invest in and develop the sport.

Has tennis been changed greatly by technology?
Yes, very much so. There are quite a few good recent examples. Tennis rackets were made with wood and natural gut strings (tennis strings used to be made with cow and sheep intestines – Ed) until the 1970s when newer materials were used to make tennis rackets, moving from metal rackets to composite rackets. This meant rackets could be made much larger and changed how people played the game.

With a larger racket you’ve got more room for error and with these new technologies the racket became much lighter so players could swing the rackets much faster which affected the speed of the game.

More recently they have started using technology such as Hawk-Eye. I think tennis is a really good sport for balancing the compromise between tradition and technology and the ITF has been one of the front-runners when it comes to introducing and implementing new technology.

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Do you work with any famous players?
I have worked alongside lots of famous players, although usually in an indirect way. A lot of player analysis work that I do uses high-speed cameras, for example if I am measuring ball spin rates. I set the camera up at the edge of the court and film the players without involving them directly because I don’t want the player’s performance to be affected by the knowledge that I’m measuring it.

My colleagues and I will go and film the same players, who are known for producing lots of spin, like Rafa Nadal. I have filmed most of the top 20 players as well as many others – some of whom can be very interested in what I do, so I’ll show them a few high-speed clips and take them through the research.

What first got you interested and involved in engineering?
I vividly remember having a conversation with my Dad when I was choosing my A-Levels. I had university prospectuses in front of me and was checking out the courses that looked of interest.

Dad mentioned engineering and I had a perception of what it was but didn’t really know. So he explained that it involved everything from working with your hands and building things right through to understanding, testing and looking at how things perform.

From that I realised I had an interest in the subject. I picked my A-Levels based on the entry requirements for the kind of engineering courses that looked interesting to me, so those were maths, physics and chemistry.

I was interested in different branches of engineering such as aeronautical engineering, motorsport engineering and mechanical engineering as well.

But the University of Bath was starting a new course called Sports Engineering and they were keen for students to take on the course. I took a leap of faith and signed up to that and have never looked back.

And why did you choose these subjects?
I chose them because of my particular strengths. I’ve always liked maths and particularly physics. When I did my GCSEs I certainly performed better in those subjects than others and I got on well with those teachers. I was determined to become an engineer and that made it easy to pick what to do at A-Level and degree level because it has astructured routeinto the field.

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How useful are these subjects to what you do now?
Incredibly useful. The things that you learn at A-Level are a stepping stone up to university. They teach you the basics and are also a test of what you find interesting and what you’re suited to.

I’m surprised how often I will revisit the things I learned at A-Level and degree level in my job, in particular, mathematics.

At A-Levels I did pure maths, statistics and mechanics and I use all three every day. I use mechanics to look at trajectories and the conservation of energy and momentum in tennis balls. We use statistics a lot because we’re generating data and we want to identify trends and find out whether the results we are seeing are statistically significant. I use the pure side with calculus and trigonometry. Everything seems to be about angles and triangles, so I’m using it every day and wish I was a lot better at it!

What personal qualities do you need as an engineer/sports engineer?It helps to have a general interest in sport if you want to be a sports engineer. It’s useful to be inquisitive and strive to improve your understanding of concepts and situations. Sports engineering is quite a new discipline so there are lots of new things to be discovered and found out.

What does an average day look like in your job?
It’s a fifty-fifty split between lab/field-based research and analysing the data we’ve gained from that. We conduct research by setting up lab equipment or going out into the field to set up high-speed cameras to film players as well as software to collect information from courtside and television feeds. Then the other half is going through data we’ve collected and trying to write up anything we’ve found out.

What’s your favourite part of your job?
It’s such an interesting job that I’ve never had that Sunday night feeling - that dread of going into work on Monday. I haven’t met anybody in this industry who has that and it’s probably why the job is so highly prized. The job combines something that everyone is interested in with the engineering-based skills that I have.

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It’s given me some great opportunities. We’re not just based in the lab here in London; we do a lot of work out in the field and I’ve been to countries all over the world which has been a really good experience.

I’ve been to Europe, North and South America and Asia. I usually make four or five trips a year, mainly to Davis Cup and Fed Cup events. For these events, I typically go to make measurements of the pace of the court using specialist equipment, which has been specifically designed for this job.

I’ve had opportunities to work with people involved in the sport at all levels. I’ve worked with the groundskeepers at a grass court centre and with coaches, players and other sports engineers to get the job done.

One of the best things is it’s so easy to be working on a project that has implications on the game. You can watch any tennis and there will be one bit, no matter how small, that will be related to something you’re working on, which is quite reassuring in a way, to show you that what you’re working on is relevant to the sport.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do something similar?
Find out what you’re passionate about because that will be the best motivation in your career.

What do you do in your spare time?
I’m doing a PhD so I spend quite a lot of time working on that at home and I enjoy cooking. I like to go running, swimming and ridinge my bike. I love being outdoors and love the water so I go SCUBA diving and wakeboarding but I can quite often be found slumped on the sofa in front of the TV…

Links and further information...

Students - find out about routes into engineering here

Find out more about the International Tennis Federation Technical Centre, watch videos of their other equipment and learn more about the tennis testing process...

The International Sports Engineering Association

Engineering Sport Blog

Engineering at Bath University

Images: All courtesy of the ITF except for Rafael Nadal, CC-BY-SA-2.0 | Yann Caradec