Some tennis players turn to VR as 'game changer' when they're off court

Some tennis players turn to VR as ‘game changer’ when they’re off court

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Jennifer Brady, a 2021 Australian Open finalist and one of the top 15 players in the world, has been unable to play a competitive match for more than 14 months due to a serious foot injury.

But when Brady puts on her virtual reality headset and taps into a new rig built by Sense Arena, she’s transported to a familiar place: a large stadium with noisy fans and tennis balls banging at her.

“It allowed me to be able to get back into the world of tennis and swing the racket without hindering my rehabilitation process,” Brady told US TODAY Sports. “It’s been hugely beneficial and can only help me get back to playing sooner than I expected.”

Brady, who plans to return to the tour next year, knows that virtual tennis can’t replace actual training and the physical act of hitting a ball. She also knows there is no shortcut to getting back into the top 15 after more than a year on the sidelines. But in a sport where the margins are painfully small, players are constantly looking for new ways to gain an advantage in their preparation.

In recent years, top players and coaches have embraced analytics to learn more about patterns and trends. Now virtual reality could be the next frontier in tennis training, encompassing everything from teaching basic skills to beginners to helping elite professionals prepare for matches or stay alert during injury. .

“It was quite eye-opening when they came to me and we tried it for the first time,” said four-time Grand Slam doubles winner Jack Sock. “I think that’s a game-changer.”

Sock and Brady are two of seven tennis professionals who have signed on to use and promote Sense Arena, a Czech Republic-based company that launched a virtual reality platform for hockey in 2018 and has since been adopted by several teams across the country. NHL and NCAA.

Tennis, said Bob Tevita, CEO and founder of Sense Arena, was an obvious choice for the second sport to explore. Like hockey, it has deep roots in the sporting culture of the Czech Republic and notably signed Czech-born legend Martina Navratilova as a global ambassador long before the official launch of the product this week.

But also, the development of a virtual tennis platform was a natural evolution as both sports involve swinging a piece of equipment and favor the use of playing surface geometry. field training, Tevita said, the amount of variables, drills and game situations the VR platform offers can benefit them in a variety of ways, from keeping their rest days or to prepare for specific game situations.

“It’s not just about replacing or recreating the same on-court training environment with digital technology,” Tevita said. “It actually takes that to the next level and to the next level for us in the part of training that has historically been overlooked and that’s the mental part.”

So how does it work?

Paired with a MetaQuest 2 VR headset, Sense Arena has developed a haptic tennis racket that replicates the grip and weight of a regular racket. Once users are on the platform, players can choose from a variety of drills and variables to simulate certain conditions they might face in a real match, whether it’s a rowdy crowd or a shaded ground on one side.

If a pro has a match against a big server the next day, maybe he wants to work on his reaction time to a ball coming at him. Or if they’re playing against someone who comes to the net a lot, there’s a pass shot drill to get a bit more sense of how to deal with approach shots coming in at varying speeds and areas of the ground.

“You can put yourself in different situations,” Brady said. “You can do tennis-specific things or non-tennis-specific things in terms of working on reaction speed, anticipation, cognitive skills, even solving small equations with your brain improving concentration.

“I think it’s visually very realistic, and the racquet looks like a real tennis racquet. It helps players with different skills in terms of anticipation and just visual visualization of ball spin, types of speeds that happen to you, slice, topspin, flat balls. It’s very immersive.”

As the season wraps up for Sock later this month at the Davis Cup Finals, where he will be Team USA’s top doubles player, he plans to incorporate the device into his training schedule. training to prepare for 2023. Next year he plans to bring it with him to tournaments to use for about half an hour a day.

“One of my favorite things about it is the mental stuff where you hit the ball in a certain spot and a number pops up that you have to remember,” he said. “There are puzzles in a competitive environment and some really cool drills you can do that will be fun to do on days off or before a game the day before so you feel like you’re on top. “

Although the platform continues to evolve and improve, its potential is intriguing as players try to find just a few percentage points of a margin advantage. After all, tennis matches at the highest level are usually decided by a handful of points, and those points are decided in inches.

As technology becomes more and more a part of how athletes understand their own games and the way their opponents play, being able to simulate certain situations on the VR platform or simply having an outlet to deal with anxiety pre-match could be a real advantage for some. players.

“You can use it for a warm-up just to speed up your brain,” Teveta said. “Tennis is all about quick decisions. The pros love it for recreating game patterns, and we’ll be adding other features like connecting real data from real matches so they can prepare for a type of a typical adversary. There are a wide variety of use cases and we’re only at the beginning of the whole journey.”

And for Brady, the hope is that this can be an aspect of reviving her career once she is physically able to return to the court. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brady’s career was on a rocket out of the top 50 to become one of the best hard-court players in the world. But after making the 2020 US Open semi-finals and the ensuing Australian final, losing both to Naomi Osaka, she was derailed by a litany of injuries involving her foot and knee.

As she manages her body during what Brady hopes will be a successful comeback next year, she hopes the mental rehearsals she’s racking up through Sense Arena will help speed the process of getting back to being comfortable in situations of match.

“Even 20, 30 minutes a day is huge mentally,” she said. “Physically the sport has changed so much and everyone is a physical specimen right now and any little mental advantage you have over someone is huge. To immerse myself in that and not have to deal with the physical load on my body is important. ”

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