The Paralympic movement continued its growth in Tokyo as the number of participants, the number of sports and the broadcast opportunities have increased with each cycle. Channel 4 broadcasted 300 hours of content to UK viewers this year, a profound shift in exposure of these amazing competitions compared to the 15 minute highlight package shown on TV back during the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games. The performance support wrapped around Paralympic athletes is advancing too, taking key learnings from Olympic programmes and other professional sports, and tweaking them to provide a greater understanding, insight and contribution to each para-athletes development and success.
Performance Analysis is no exception in the Sport Science support available to Paralympic athletes, with Analysts working in Para-Canoe, Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Basketball and Wheelchair Tennis, to name just a few. The LTA’s Wheelchair Performance Pathway team started their Performance Analysis support back in 2013, seeing vast changes in the analysis service over the last 8 years. Skylab has been supporting the LTA Wheelchair Performance Pathway since the start of 2020, initially focusing on the Men’s Doubles. “At the start of our relationship with Skylab, we utilised the data with our top Men’s Doubles pairing. Their coach and I were interested in developing our British team. Last year was a great success, with the pair going unbeaten throughout 2020. This year, they won the Paralympic Silver medal in the Doubles in Tokyo, narrowly missing out on Gold, and are now ranked #1 and #2 in the world.”, says Dev Sharma, Performance Analyst at the LTA, who leads on the Wheelchair Tennis support.
Since March 2021, Skylab Analysts have tagged a further x100 Wheelchair Tennis matches for the LTA, collecting data on over 18,000 match points. “The information the Skylab team has provided is invaluable to our analysis. We’ve been using shot-by-shot data for a while now and it’s given me time back, allowing me to further explore the game, both technically and tactically. I’ve been building reports in Power BI over the last few years to support Player Development, as this is at the forefront of what we do. The combination of our integrated approach and the strength of the data has helped the review process, with our players and coaches looking at the data at any time. Moreover, we’ve now built reports to connect with Dartfish TV, the next step in connecting data to video.”
Whilst there is a lot of crossover with able-bodied tennis with regard to rules, tournament structures, tactics and areas to collect data on, there are very distinct differences in Wheelchair Tennis too. “The obvious difference is they play in a wheelchair; but at its essence, on the court, the ball can bounce twice. Other notable differences include the sport has three divisions: Men’s, Women’s and Quads. The latter incorporates athletes who have three or more limbs affected. There are tactical differences in tagging elements, for example ‘Situations’. We’re more likely to see players attacking balls more often, with around 70% of the rallies ending within four shots.
Due to the limited pool of players in the sport, the Grand Slams have a much smaller draw size, typically including the Top 8 in the world. As a result, these players are less likely to change, meaning we can conduct deeper analysis work. Our head-to-head information carries a greater weight due to the frequency in which players match up in major tournaments. The pinnacle of the sport revolves around the Paralympics, and we now have a wealth of information on what it takes to win which directly impacts our ‘Gold Standards’.”
On the tour, there is more money coming into the sport, offering greater prize money at each competition. This allows more players to turn professional, but the level of play increases too, making it harder for newcomers to qualify to major tournaments. Nonetheless, with increasing numbers of players coming into the pathway, improved player support (sport science, coaching and funding through NGBs) and access to external funding/sponsorship opportunities, the sport naturally evolves and becomes more competitive. Over the last five years, the development of the serve and the tactics employed by players has taken the sport to new heights.
“The last 3 years in the sport have been fascinating. Across the board, most of our KPIs have stayed consistent. Interestingly, we’ve seen a greater reliance on the serve. From the last cycle, dating back to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, it would be natural to perceive the serve as a ‘luxury’ weapon, with players struggling to generate speed as they’re connecting the ball at a lower height. However, now the serve is considered of great importance. We’ve seen more aces being hit and serves down the T become more popular. As the serve has developed, both in power and consistency, there are players with physical limitations and players are beginning to reach a tactical limit due to their impairment. In particular, the men’s game has become far more aggressive, with players taking the ball after one bounce rather than the two that are permitted. Furthermore, with technology in the sport improving, I think we’ll see wheelchairs becoming lighter, thus further impacting the intensity on court. We can already see game styles and patterns of play changing. It’s an exciting time to start following Wheelchair Tennis.”
Paralympics GB won four Wheelchair Tennis medals in Tokyo, two Bronze medals in the Men’s and Women’s Singles, and two Silver medals in the Men’s and Women’s Doubles; making these Games their second most successful Paralympic medal haul behind Rio in 2016. The British Wheelchair Tennis success continued through to the US Open too, as Jordan Whiley made the final of the Women’s Doubles, Alfie Hewett made the Men’s Singles final, and the pairing of Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid went on to win the elusive Calendar Slam, taking the Wheelchair Men’s Doubles US Open title in two sets (6-2, 6-1) against Fernandez and Kunieda, from Argentina and Japan respectively.
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