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October 2004 Article

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What I Learned About Tennis From Golf

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

Like everyone else, I had a hectic month. I was co-chair of the Engineering of Sport Conference at the University of California, Davis. This was the first time that the conference was held in the United States and it brought together about 300 members of the sports industry and academic community to present and discuss the latest research and innovations in sports engineering, technology and science. Baseball, volleyball, soccer, football, climbing, golf, fishing, skiing, martial arts, diving, gymnastics, swimming, curling (a sport which is much harder than I ever would have imagined) and yes, unquestionably tennis, were represented.

Dr. Stuart Miller, manager of the technical division at the International Tennis Federation (which also sponsored one of the series of tennis presentations) and Prof. Howard Brody chaired the tennis sessions which unveiled the latest information in tennis science. Researchers spoke on:

  • The relationship between string tension and the player's perception of control;
  • Where to hit on the racket for maximum power and reduced errors;
  • Biomechanical studies on tennis elbow;
  • Prediction and estimating wrist joint shock and effects on performance;
  • An abundance of computer software and simulations including: tennis ball simulation software, computer-aided prediction of racket power and stability; tennis science education using interactive CD's;
  • The effects of ball wear on the flight of the tennis ball and other works on ball aerodynamics;
  • Automating the testing of ball rebound height for ball certification;
  • Dissipation of energy during the bounce of a tennis ball.
These meetings are terrific - not just because you meet and network with people and hear the latest innovations, but because they trigger so many ideas for future/next research projects. The essence of sport science research is to chip away at answering questions by building on the foundation of other's work.

One of the keynote speakers was Art Chou, Vice President, Research, Development and Engineering of Rawlings Sporting Goods. Actually, I met Art Chou through tennis. Several years ago, Ed Weathers from Tennis Magazine wrote a small feature on tennis sport science education work we were doing with kids. The project had a broader scope - to show young students how science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) applies to sports and to influence students to consider STEM careers. Tennis Magazine had the same publisher as Golf Digest and Art was its Technical Editor. Ed suggested that I contact Art as someone who had combined his love of sports and engineering.

Art had been the Director of Golf Club Research and Development at Titleist from 1989-1996 and then started his own company with his brothers and father (an emeritus mechanical engineering professor at Drexel University in Pennsylvania). He really understood the science and engineering of golf and was respected by everyone in the industry.

Over the years he has adopted a methodology in assessing his own golf projects. For each innovation he goes through this checklist and asks himself: 1) which of these aspects of the game does this innovation primarily affect and 2) how would this innovation affect the other aspects.

  • "Aim and Alignment - The area that involves aiding the golfer in orienting their body and swing towards the intended target line.
  • Clubhead Delivery - The period from the moment the swing begins until the moment just prior to club/ball impact.
  • Club/Ball Impact - The period from the moment the club touches the ball to the moment the ball leaves the clubface.
  • Ball Flight - The time period over which a struck ball is airborne.
  • Ball/Turf Interaction - How the ball reacts after it lands on the ground."
  • [1]
Sure this is golf, but it's clear that a very similar list can be developed for tennis as well as other sports. For all the tennis research I've read and reviewed, I've never seen anyone document equipment performance and development in this comprehensive fashion.

Art has a completely realistic attitude about research and development. A balance needs to exist between research and commerce. The luxury of research for basic investigation rarely exists. At the end of the day there needs to be a product. New products introduced in the last five years account for 33% of a company's sales, and in some industries that number is more like 100% [Chou quoting Cooper, 2001].

Today, the consumer must perceive an increased level of technology and performance. Nonetheless, "superior marketing of an inferior product does not produce long-term success." Quoting Chou, " ... if the industry becomes marketing-based, then research and technology becomes a smoke screen." While technical buzz words and fads may temporarily sell, in the long run, a sports company can not sustain a market share or creditability based on those.

Another interesting point Art has made to me is that the Japanese golf consumer is more "tech-centric" and places a higher value on technical innovation. Referring to golf again, ".. performance differences are still recognized but marketing claims are so dominant (and sometimes deceptive) that the consumer is confused over what to believe. In the absence of true technology, "marketing technology" (faux tech?) will take over. It is the role of the research and technology sector in golf to protect the value of performance by creating and defining true performance-enhancing innovations."

I had never heard anyone from industry put it so matter-of-factly: "In a market-driven enterprise, technology is used as a smoke-screen." WOW!

Art's thoughts are something that I will keep in mind as I continue to write these Tennis Science, Engineering and Technology (Tennis SET) columns for The Tennis Server.

I always tell Art that I thank Ed Weathers and Tennis Magazine for making that introduction back in 1997.

Next month, we'll finish up the column that was started on "Warm up, Stretch and Flexibility: The Debate."

Until Next Month ... Jani

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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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