Pioneers in Tennis: Crunching the Numbers
You know all those stats we love to see with our pro tennis matches? You can thank Leo Levin for that.
By Cindy Shmerler
Deep inside of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is a room that, during the US Open, looks like the bridge on the starship Enterprise.
Computer screens line one wall, showing the action on multiple courts. Stenciled on another wall are statistical facts from the 2012 US Open, such as: “Of the 29,038 points played in the men’s singles championship, 8% were scored with an ace.” “Serena Williams lost serve just 6 times in her 7 matches en route to the women’s singles championship.” “Of the 775 challenges made, the players were right 30% of the time and the umpires were right 70% of the time.”
The players competing at the US Open never see this room. Nor do their coaches or the tens of thousands of fans.
Leo Levin, on the other hand, sees it all because from this room, the 55-year-old Richmond, Va., native charts and logs more matches than Roger Federer will play in his lifetime.
For more than 30 years, Levin has been analyzing statistical data at tennis’ four Grand Slams, providing valuable insight that helps players, coaches, broadcasters and the print media determine how and why a match was won or lost. Using software he developed, Levin and his team at IDS — a division of Sports Media Technology that provides analysis to the NBA, NHL, PGA and NASCAR, as well as MLB and NFL broadcasters — can literally track every serve and return, as well as the exact direction a player is most effective in hitting the ball.
“You can ask a coach what went wrong with his player’s forehand and he’ll say, ‘He dropped the head of the racquet.’ But we’ll be able to tell him the exact percentage of forehands that he hit crosscourt and how many went long or into the net,” says Levin, who worked his 112th major at the 2014 Wimbledon. “For example, a few years ago Richard Gasquet used our stats to target his second serve. Once he understood the percentages and reasons his second serve was letting him down, he began to focus on his control, the shot became more reliable and he moved right up the [ATP] rankings into the world’s Top 10.”
Levin himself was a middling player at Foothill College in California (as well as a teammate of Brad Gilbert) when he used his bench-sitting time to chart his teammates’ matches and then provide statistical analyses afterward with an eye toward helping them improve. The players who listened to him suddenly began beating players they had never beaten before.
In 1983, Levin helped develop the first computerized statistical system for tennis, trying it out on then-Stanford head coach Dick Gould’s 1983 men’s NCAA championship team. “That was a very young team,” says Levin, referring to top singles players Scott Davis and Dan Goldie, among others. “None of them had ever played serve-and-volley, even though Coach Gould was imploring them to be more aggressive. I was able to quantify their effectiveness by showing them when they got to the net they were winning 70 percent of the points, as opposed to just breaking even from the baseline. They understood those percentages and immediately started playing more aggressively.”
The basic concept that Levin is most proud of is the notion of “forced” versus “unforced” errors, which tracks whether a player hit it long because the opponent threw in a sneaky drop shot that made them dash forward to retrieve, thus forcing the ball up and long in an unsuccessful effort to keep the point going, or whether a player simply smacked a forehand long because he or she was overzealous in stroke production. The term “unforced error” is now used in most sports.
“Leo is truly a pioneer,” says broadcaster Mary Carillo, who long ago nicknamed Levin “The Doctor” for his ability to dissect and diagnose a player’s game. “He continues to create terrific programs for tennis that are informative and interesting. Leo and his colleagues have a deep understanding of the game and its players so their stats reflect the true pattern of matches, the tipping points and bottom lines. It’s good stuff.”
“Pioneers in Tennis,” an occasional column in Tennis Industry, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest? E-mail TI@racquettech.com.