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Tennis Science, Engineering and Technology

Jani Macari Pallis, 
Ph.D. Photo
Jani Macari Pallis, Ph.D.

Welcome to Tennis SET, a new monthly feature of The Tennis Server! I hope you will join me each month as we explore the latest advances in tennis science, engineering and technology (SET). From the biomechanics of generating power, equipment physics, material science and design, to the latest findings in sports medicine, we'll bring you the most up-to-date and significant findings from health practitioners, scientists and engineers around the world.

In this first column let me expand on the significance of SET in sports and in tennis particularly. First, let's define some terms. What's the difference between science, engineering and technology? Scientists conduct fundamental research; they observe, identify, experiment or conduct investigations to explain natural phenomena. Engineers use that fundamental knowledge to create practical applications, to design, construct, or operate efficient and economical structures, equipment and systems. In a nutshell, as Theodore von Karman (co-founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) said "Scientists discover what is, ... engineers create what has never existed."

Technology is an application of science. Generally, the term is used in reference to processes, methods, tools or materials used in industry and science. We've all heard the expression "racquet technology" which often refers to the materials used within the racquet or a design change.

There are specialties in science, engineering and technology. In particular there are two major science divisions: life sciences and physical sciences. Life sciences deal with a living organism (like the human body) and the function of its systems for metabolism, growth, etc. The physical sciences deal with matter, energy and the interaction between the two. So when we talk about a bouncing ball - we're talking about physical sciences; when we're talking about nutrition or hydration - we're talking about the life sciences.

In the life sciences individuals may have practices or conduct research in sports medicine (dealing with health, injury, rehabilitation), physiology (how the systems in the body function in athletic performance), biomechanics, psychology, motor learning (how movement skills are learned) and nutrition. The physical sciences include physics, aerodynamics, elasticity, mechanics and material science. (These are not exhaustive lists - there are many more disciplines and some fields overlap.)

What does this have to do with player performance? A player's performance is the culmination of on and off court experiences and training. The physical and mental "infrastructure" or support system a player develops within their own body and its interaction with tennis equipment, court facilities, environment and even clothing all contribute to (or diminish) a player's performance.

The body's condition, how it is supported through nutrition, hydration and supplementation, racquet stringing, court surface, wind and heat all affect player performance. Performance is not just dependent on your body and mental fitness, it's how it interacts with the tennis sport environment.

When researchers (both the scientists and engineers) decide to study a problem they model it first. They verbally or graphically sketch out the problem and all the different factors which influence that situation. Sometimes the problem can be simplified; one factor dominates the situation so much that all other effects are insignificant and can be ignored. Sometimes the problem has multiple independent significant factors which different researchers can study at the same time.

I've had conversations with several colleagues in sports medicine, biomechanics, motor learning, physiology and engineering and all agree: there are many unanswered questions; many questions are complex and need individuals from a variety of SET specialties to work as a team using a multidisciplinary approach. Individual colleagues noted a need to better understand women and child performance, and performance over the entire life cycle (as the body ages).

Regardless of specialty, these practitioners all work towards the same goals for the sport: performance enhancement, injury prevention and safety, enjoyment, health benefits, longevity (to play the sport as long as you like) and accessibility (any age and physical challenge).

So - that's the plan. Each month we'll look into an area of tennis science, engineering or technology. In some cases we will take some time to go through the background science or history of the subject.

Until next month, I'm off to the US Open, where my colleagues Dr. Carol Otis, Dr. Alison Cooke, Dr. Martha Ludwig and Dr. Jaci VanHeest and I will be presenting "Using Sport Science To Enhance Performance" at the Tennis Teachers Conference. In particular we'll discuss the physiological, biomechanical, mental and engineering aspects of generating power. As well my colleague, Dr. Rabi Mehta from the NASA Ames Research Center will be presenting our joint research on the "Aerodynamics of a Tennis Ball" to the USTA Technical Committee.

I'd like to thank Dr. Cliff Kurtzman, editor and publisher of The Tennis Server. Cliff is an innovator within the tennis community. He was a terrific supporter of our tennis sport science project for students conducted with NASA and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to The Tennis Server.

Enjoy the US Open!

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This column is copyrighted by Jani Macari Pallis, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

Dr. Jani Macari Pallis is the founder and CEO of Cislunar Aerospace, Inc., an engineering and research firm in San Francisco. In addition to her engineering practice, she has led two collaborations between NASA and Cislunar, creating educational materials on the aerodynamics of sports for pre-college students and educators. As the head of NASA's "Aerodynamics in Sports" project, she has led a team of researchers investigating the aerodynamics, physics and biomechanics of tennis. The group has conducted high speed video data capture at the US Open and research of ball/court interaction, footwork, serve speeds, trajectories and ball aerodynamics. Pallis received a BS and MS from the Georgia Institute of Technology, an MS in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in mechanical and aeronautical engineering from the University of California, Davis. She is a member of the Executive Committee of The International Sports Engineering Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Jani by using this form.


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