net.wars - unwiring tennis?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 21 June 2002

Veteran industry watcher Wendy Grossman reveals her dark side: a fascination with the game of tennis. Are there lessons for the wireless world? Yes, there are!

Wendy M Grossman

OK, OK, I know no one but me is interested in tennis. But still: bear with me. Wimbledon starts Monday, and this week I spent a couple of days down at the women's warm-up tournament in Eastbourne. It was a lot of fun - I got to be at both Martina Navratilova's matches, and enjoyed seeing quite a few other players that those who don't follow tennis have never heard of, such as Lilia Osterloh, Tatiana Garbin, Daja Bedanova , Patty Schynder, Anastasia Myskina, Ai Sugiyama, and Nicole Pratt. And if you're wondering what a geek reporter was doing there, I was there as press representative for Daily Tennis, and immediately started wanting to infiltrate the event with technology to make reporting more efficient.

It's not like the tennis journalists have only just given up using tom-toms or anything. Everyone had a laptop with a modem. But, not only no wireless network but no ethernet connections either. It also turns out that tennis journalists don't, in general, actually spend a lot of time watching tennis. Tuesday, Navratilova's match against Tatiana Panova was up second on the centre court. Plus there was a rain delay. So what were they doing during the first match, which featured Patty Schnyder versus Anastasia Myskina? Watching football on the TVs in the press room.

Once the football was over, the TVs were switched to a closed circuit system that showed the play on centre court plus a running ticker of the scores on all the courts. Since those facilities are not available in the stands or at courtside, you get more information sitting in the press room than you do watching the matches.

In addition, the players are in general only available for interviews about a half hour after their matches finish, and then typically only the winner (unless it's a really big match - Panova had little choice about facing the media). You request the player and the Women's Tennis Association media person does his best to get her to talk to you. Occasionally, additional interviews are set up, and the only way you find out about these is if you are sitting in the press room when the media guy walks past and says, " Dokic at five o'clock."

Naturally, geeklike, my first thought was: it doesn't have to be this way. You could have radio - a channel covering only the tournament grounds over which you could broadcast the press conferences, information about scheduling, current scores on all courts, and so on. You could use email-to-SMS to send journalists alerts like " Hantuchova press conference in ten minutes." It would not, in other words, take all that much to create a better system than the one they have now. We hear a lot about wireless these days, but most of it is in contexts where being untethered isn't all that important. Does anyone other than professional traders really need to have stock quotes delivered to their mobile phone in real time? A context like this is rarely discussed.

To be fair, from what I saw it's entirely possible that you'd deploy the technology and they'd still sit in the press room. After all, that's where the sandwiches and coffee are. And some of these guys lacked ... shall we say, a little ingenuity when their technology didn't work, like the photographer who'd been stumped by why his AOL connection broke a couple of weeks ago and didn't seem to be fixable. (I fixed it by getting him a UK phone number off the Web. AOLers, eh?)

But it would help the players, too. There they were, a few feet down the hall from the press room, cooped up in a player's lounge equipped with a load of cushiony chairs, a TV, and a long table (there was a player's restaurant upstairs, where one gathers they did their eating), bored out of their minds. Wouldn't a better information system free them up a little bit? Plus, it would a lot of fun to eavesdrop on if you were a fan casually visiting the tournament with a radio. In fact, if you are going to Wimbledon, a radio is a must-have item. The live coverage on BBC Radio Five and Wimbledon's own little during-the-Championships-only radio station lets you keep track of what's going on all over the grounds, no matter what match you're watching.

Low-tech stuff: but the high-tech IBM networked fancy system is tethered. The press get terminals that give them pictures from all the show courts and statistics on all the matches, plus playerbackgrounds and so on. The public get a terminal or two they have to trek across the grounds to get to. Someone equipped with a laptop and a mobile phone could pick up all kinds of stats at courtside from the tournament Web site, but they might annoy the people sitting next to them. To say nothing of looking like a trainspotter.

The problem is that once you're used to having everything on tap at home, it becomes harder and harder to go anywhere without it. I walk into bookstores now and long for a search button. At Eastbourne, it was easy to see how warped I've become by having broadband , as the journalists shouted questions to each other. "How old is Hantuchova?" "When is Indian Wells?" I would automatically reach for the modem button; they would scrabble through the supplied press information or dash over to the WTA media desk. One journalist walked by carrying a giant load of paper he travels with everywhere. Get that man Google! Or at least a CD writer.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).