By Lionel Laurent
LYON, France (Reuters) - Budding tennis stars who dream of being the next Novak Djokovic should think twice before shelling out for more coaching when they might better invest in the racket that tracks every move.
Created by venerable French tennis company Babolat, which started out in 1875 making strings from animal gut, the soon-to-be-unveiled prototype invention is designed to look and feel just like a regular, hollow-tube racket.
The twist is that the frame is lined with tiny sensors recording reams of data on every volley, lob, serve and drop shot. Uploading this information to a separate monitoring device will allow players to pore over the finer points of their performance without a coach or high-end video equipment.
It could be a big leap forward for a sport where rackets are often seen in a reverential, almost mystical light, and where critical distance and scientific analysis are left to the pros.
"There is an imaginary side to a player's racket, that it's like Excalibur, the sword that will win it all," says Eric Babolat, the company's grey-haired but youthful-looking 42-year-old chief executive, at his offices in Lyon, southeast France.
"We feel that people are looking for more rationality, more information on what is actually happening."
Surrounded by display models of current rackets he believes will become relics of the past, the CEO reels off examples of precision data measured by the prototype racket dubbed "Play & Connect": Force exerted, ball speed, string vibration and the exact position of where the ball is hitting the racket.
While international champions are already used to having their stats plastered across the world's TV sets during top-flight tourneys, this will be the first time average players at the local club will have access to such data.
The more it is used, the more the racket will build up a broad performance history and track how a player is improving.
"It's going to be like having your own personal coach," says Babolat, who believes the new racket will be a key weapon in his fight for market share against rival brands like Amer Sports' Wilson and Head.
Such souped-up electronic equipment exists already for other sports that require more endurance testing, such as rowing or cycling, helping athletes get prepped for this year's Olympic Games in London.
Rowers can use computerized oars to measure power and position, while cyclists can buy mini-computers to fit to their bikes to measure speed and distance.
Where a similar invention for tennis could prove useful is in analyzing mechanics and the arc of motion, rather than just power, according to Philip Friere Skiba, director of Sport and Exercise Medicine at Exeter University.
"In racket sports, not only could power data be valuable, but things like direction or position of the face of the racket," he says. "Those things determine how fast the ball is going to travel."
Whether the device takes off will depend on how sophisticated it is and whether it will be more than a marketing gimmick that few players will really use, adds Skiba.
There is also the risk that coaches might feel threatened if players are encouraged to analyze their own performance.
"Coaches tend to look at a good player and think: "That's my brain, that's my witchcraft"," Skiba said.
Babolat counters that the device could help coaches deal with players who are sometimes blind to the flaws in their own performance.
Retailers and players will have to wait until May to see the first unveiling of the racket at the French Roland Garros Open, though some already see the benefits.
"I do believe the average customer could benefit from this," says Chris Gaudreau, owner of Connecticut-based retailer Racquet Koop. "You can take it out, you can plug it in, you can look at how you've improved or haven't improved. This is data that's kind of cool."
(Reporting by Lionel Laurent, editing by Paul Casciato)