Wimbledon 2020: We're only scratching the surface – O'Shannessy says data & AI the future of tennis

By Sports Desk July 05, 2020

In what should have been the opening week of Wimbledon, Stats Perform News revisits an interview with analyst Craig O'Shannessy.

 

"By the end of that match, Rafa's mind was scrambled eggs."

Craig O'Shannessy was part of Dustin Brown's coaching team when the German qualifier sensationally eliminated two-time Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal at the All England Club in 2015.

Through numbers, patterns and data, Australian pioneer O'Shannessy orchestrated the gameplan to send Nadal packing in the second round almost five years ago.

"After the match, I described that as organised chaos," O'Shannessy told Stats Perform News prior to the Australian Open in January. "A lot of times with Dustin it's pure chaos. Sometimes he wins with it, sometimes he loses. What gelled was we organised his chaos so that people didn't know him, would've looked at that thinking all hell is breaking loose. Whereas I'm watching the match going 'he is running the patterns that we talked about perfectly'.

"It's about taking away what Rafa wanted to do. It's about attacking him early on the point, it's about attacking him wide of the forehand, going after returns simply because you know where the serve is going, about drop shots and bringing him in. It's just about messing with his mind and making it very unclear."

O'Shannessy – recognised as a world leader in teaching and analysis – has continued to transform the sport. He teamed up with Novak Djokovic as his chief strategist in 2017 and helped the Serb rise back to the top with four grand slams in three years.

Now working with 2019 US Open semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini, Jan-Lennard Struff, Alexei Popyrin and Tennis Canada, O'Shannessy crunches the numbers for his players.

Struff – with mastermind O'Shannessy in his box – threatened to derail Djokovic's quest for a record-extending eighth Australian Open title before the defending champion fought hard to survive in the opening round in Melbourne, where he eventually hoisted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup aloft.

"Every single match the player receives a pre-match report that has text, specific details about what the players like to do, I'll put in a bunch of numbers, tables and graphs particularly on serve patterns and rally length, then video," he said. "You just keep hammering away and supporting the winning strategy in as many different ways as you can."

At the forefront of analytics in tennis, how further can data go?

"Still a long away. We're only scratching the surface," O'Shannessy said. "There's a lot of numbers and data that we see but still don't know exactly what it means. The next five years will be incredibly important and we'll know way more than we do now. We're just at the start of the journey."

On data and patterns, O'Shannessy added: "For example, when you're returning, you can't cover everything. Players that try to cover everything, basically end up covering nothing. You look at it by the point score, if a player is at 30-30, they really need the point. If they're at 40-15, they don't necessarily need the point.

"So the players will have the tendency to gravitate to certain locations when they need that point and if you're sitting there waiting for it, all of a sudden the advantage of that point gets completely turned around. Instead of the returner being unbalanced, the server is off balance because the return is coming back harder and faster. They're on defence instead of offence.

"Early in my coaching career, I naturally put a big emphasis on the opponent, the idea being you're going to play 50 matches in a year and you may only play two or three where you think you've played incredible. The other 47 it's going to be your B or C game that triumphs, so the more you can understand it's not about you playing phenomenal tennis, it's about making them play bad. That mentality takes the pressure off and delivers it to the other side of the court."

Then there is artificial intelligence. Stats Perform harnesses the true power of sports data by leveraging advancements in AI to generate the industry's richest insights, though it is relatively untapped in tennis.

"AI is able to crunch some very big data and make sense of it," O'Shannessy added. "The ability to do forecasting through there about percentages and situations. I'm already looking at the best way to incorporate AI and the end result to basically help players win more matches."

World number 34 Struff also shared his thoughts on AI and numbers in an interview with Stats Perform News in April.

"Yes of course," Struff said when asked if AI will become more important in tennis. "I don't know exactly what the other players are doing on that area. You are always trying to hide these things. Nobody wants to talk about what he is doing, how his fitness training looks like and such things.

"Everybody is trying to hide himself, so the opponents don't see if certain things are working out or not. This is to prevent the other guys from copying certain things and actually catching up. But this is definitely going to come."

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    "You want to speak about my mother?"

    Romelu Lukaku was seething. A yellow card and a stern talking to from referee Paolo Valeri having done nothing to lift the red mist.

    Inter's diminutive playmaker Nicolo Barella attaching himself to Lukaku's torso in a bid to calm the powerhouse striker was one of the more memorable sights of an action-packed first 45 minutes in this Milan derby for a place in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

    Or the Derby della Madonnina, to give the game its full, grander title. A game that takes its name from a pristine golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

    It seemed for all the world that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had not spoken about Lukaku's mother with such reverence.

    Here was Milan's 39-year-old talisman, who suggested the youthful make-up of the Serie A leaders' XI was a factor in their 3-0 weekend defeat to Atalanta, deciding to display his own brand of leadership in the guise of juvenile schoolyard bully.

    Ibrahimovic's crowing chuckle as mayhem unfurled around him (Arturo Vidal got involved - of course he did - for no apparent reason) was one of a player who had recently enjoyed a familiar feeling for the 499th time in his career.

    Freed from shackles of their knife-edge Scudetto battle, both teams played with freedom and the intent to land a psychological blow. The fact each team had the same idea appeared to irritate all concerned, but it made for great entertainment.

    It is doubtful Antonio Conte would consider such a cavalier selection in league combat as he rolled out on Inter's left flank here. Ivan Perisic was at wing-back, paying as much attention as you'd expect to the part of his position lurking after the hyphen.

    That increased the defensive burden on Aleksandar Kolarov on, a defender who has worn 11 for the bulk of his career. Kolarov's shirt number is a statement of particular intent.

    Ibrahimovic showed he recognised that point of weakness in the 13th minute, when he leapt athletically to meet a Rafael Leao cross, knocking Perisic and Kolarov to the ground in the process. Brahim Diaz was just unable to turn home.

    Kolarov still seemed distracted when he backed off enough for the former Sweden international to fire though his legs and beyond Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

    The script seemed written, goal 500 was surely on the way to take Ibrahimovic closer to yet another piece of silverware. Why not have some fun and wind up the opposition's star man.

    Ibrahimovic's language and his message seemed appalling, with ESPN footage showing him at one point appearing to yell: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey."

    A flaw in the plan to rile Lukaku was the yellow card that Ibrahimovic received for his part in the spat. Not a problem in itself, but in the 58th minute he clumsily and needlessly fouled Kolarov to collect a second booking.

    Displaying none of his vast experience, Ibrahimovic had gone from hero to villain to idiot within half an hour of playing time.

    And so, it was over to the youngsters and backup players who the star striker sometimes seems to consider walk-on extras in his one-man show.

    First there was on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori, who was quickly disabused of the notion he had escaped chaos by leaving Chelsea this week. Thrust into a debut by Simon Kjaer's first-half injury, he made a brilliant last-ditch block to deny Lukaku.

    Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez defended heroically down the Milan left but reduced numbers forced willing attacking players back to man unfamiliar barricades. Leao was pressed into action and brought down Barella. After consulting the pitchside monitor Valeri pointed to the spot.

    Lukaku has been known to roll his penalties home. On this occasion, he tested the structural integrity of the crossbar and the ball ricocheted into the turf and home. Then there was a shouting match with a team-mate (Yes, Vidal; nope, no idea).

    Enough mayhem? Nonsense. Valeri had to limp out of the action injured. Fourth official Daniele Chiffi looked like he was putting on the microphone and headset for the first time in his life and 10 minutes of stoppage time were required.

    In the seventh of those, wantaway midfielder Christian Eriksen curled home a sumptuous free-kick, leaving Ciprian Tatarusanu no chance to add to his fine catalogue of eight saves.

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    Ibrahimovic likes to call himself a lion but Tatarusanu and the Milan players he left behind were the lions here, roaring defiantly at wave after wave of Inter attacks before buckling at the last. Nine of Inter's 27 shots were blocked.

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  • Chelsea appoint Tuchel: Fixing Werner woes on new coach's to-do list Chelsea appoint Tuchel: Fixing Werner woes on new coach's to-do list

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    Frank Lampard was sacked on Monday, with Tuchel's widely anticipated arrival promptly following.

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    HELP WERNER AND HAVERTZ

    Having worked with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar during his time at PSG, Tuchel knows all about the challenges of motivating some of the world's top talents.

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    Werner, for whom Chelsea paid RB Leipzig close to £50million, scored 28 Bundesliga goals in 34 appearances last season but has mustered just four in 19 in the Premier League, the most recent of which came on November 7.

    Meanwhile, Havertz arrived from Bayer Leverkusen with a price tag in the region of £70million and a reputation as one of Europe's most creative young stars but has one goal, two assists and just 11 key passes to date.

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    KEEP ACADEMY ACES INVOLVED

    Hindered by a transfer ban in his first season in charge, Lampard at least made use of Chelsea's impressive academy to bring a number of young talents into the team.

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    Both Mount, 22, and Gilmour, 19, started Lampard's final game in charge against Luton Town and formed a creative double-pivot in an attack-minded side, earning praise from the coach for their discipline and movement.

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    SETTLE ON HIS BEST SIDE

    Between the big spending ahead of this season and the promotion of a number of academy talents, Lampard was certainly not short of options. But that might have been to his detriment.

    Looking to pack an array of star names into a first XI, the team too often lacked balance.

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    There has been concern regarding the form of N'Golo Kante, perhaps played out of position, while Lampard struggled to work out the best fit up front in his 4-3-3.

    Tuchel must be more decisive.
     

    EFFECTIVELY MANAGE UPWARDS

    An increasingly strained relationship with director Marina Granovskaia reportedly contributed to Lampard's demise, so keeping the Chelsea board onside will be crucial for Tuchel.

    Dealings with the top brass at PSG in his previous job were not always straightforward for Tuchel and may have been a factor behind his departure from Paris, which came despite impressive results across recent seasons.

    Criticism of PSG's transfer business did not go down well with sporting director Leonardo, who fired back at the coach, telling him he "must decide to respect the choices of the sports management".

    Tuchel could hardly complain about the level of investment at Stamford Bridge over the past year, so similar comments towards Chelsea power-brokers would be unlikely to go down well.

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    Having departed Paris Saint-Germain in late December, the highly regarded tactician will now continue his coaching career in England.  

    Former Borussia Dortmund boss Tuchel won two straight Ligue 1 titles and steered PSG to the Champions League final last season, yet ownership decided the time was right for a change in the French capital.

    Mauricio Pochettino's status as a free agent arguably persuaded PSG to act fast and the boot is now on the other foot for Tuchel, whose availability has allowed him to step straight in at Stamford Bridge.

    FROM PARIS TO LONDON

    There was little Christmas cheer for Tuchel, who left PSG with a record similar to his predecessor in the job - Unai Emery. Both recorded an average of 2.37 points per game in Ligue 1 - tied for the best in club history.  

    The German tops the list when it comes to top-flight win rate at 75.6 per cent (62 wins from 82 games), though that number dips slightly when taking into consideration all competitions, albeit only down to 74.8 per cent (Emery's was higher, at 76.3 per cent).

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    Only Laurent Blanc (173 games) was in the PSG post for longer than Tuchel in the time since Qatar Sports Investments purchased the French club. 

    Tuchel averaged 2.67 goals per game in Ligue 1.

    It helps to have a squad that contains stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, of course, though he was the first PSG boss to make it beyond the quarter-final stage of the Champions League, the one trophy that has so far eluded the owners.

    An unconvincing start this term was enough to lead to change. Tuchel became the first PSG head coach to be fired during a season despite sitting in the top three of Ligue 1 since Antoine Kombouare, who lost his job during the 2011-12 campaign.


    FAMILIARITY, PLUS A CASE FOR THE DEFENCE

    Roman Abramovich made clear he has the "utmost respect" for Lampard in the statement released to confirm his departure. Still, there was no doubt left over the reason for making the change. 

    "We are grateful to Frank for what he has achieved in his time as head coach of the club," the statement read from Chelsea.

    "However, recent results and performances have not met the club's expectations, leaving the club mid-table without any clear path to sustained improvement." 

    Chelsea have a home game against Wolves on Wednesday and Tuchel will get up and running by taking training on the eve of the match. He takes over a team in ninth place, though just five points off fourth in what is a congested league table. 

    It will be hoped the new man can get the best out of compatriots Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, two of Chelsea's big-money recruits in the previous window who have yet to fire. 

    However, Tuchel will also need to tighten things up at the back, particularly on the road. At PSG, his teams conceded 0.81 goals per game, while it should be noted they leaked just six in Champions League action in 2019-20.

    Since the start of the previous season, only Newcastle (54) have conceded more away goals in the Premier League than Chelsea (50).

    They kept a clean sheet in just 17 per cent of their away games under Lampard; among those to have taken charge of 10 or more such fixtures in the competition, this is the lowest percentage of any Chelsea boss. 

    Tuchel will, of course, be able to call upon his old PSG captain Thiago Silva in trying to mastermind a defensive revival.

    There will also be an expectancy to improve the team's fortunes against their major rivals, too. 

    Since August 2019, Chelsea have won just 15 points against fellow 'big six' sides, a joint-low tally alongside Arsenal. During that run, they have scored 17 goals and conceded 28 times. 

    At least Tuchel understands the demands of working for owners with lofty expectations. There is still time to turn this season around but, like his most recent Stamford Bridge predecessors, he will be expected to produce instant results.

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