Few expected Sofia Kenin to win the 2020 Australian Open.
She was the number 14 seed and had never made it past the fourth round at a major. The then 21-year-old American was barely on the radar.
But point by point and game by game, Kenin stormed through the draw and staged the biggest clash of her career against the world’s number 1 and beloved local favorite Ash Barty in the semi-finals. With the vociferous Australian crowd sure to be against her, even Kenin’s most ardent supporters knew it was going to be an uphill battle.
However, Kenin had a secret weapon.
Two days before the semifinals, the USTA’s performance analysis group got to work right away, putting together a video playlist highlighting exactly what they thought they needed to do to beat Barty.
“Kenin sometimes has trouble hitting her forehand down the line, especially under pressure, and she gets stuck on cross courts,” said David Ramos, USTA’s director of player development. “That’s Barty’s best shot. We thought if she could hit her forehand down the line and make it” [Barty] hitting a backhand, and if you do it early enough, she can disrupt Barty’s game plan and shake her confidence a bit.”
The strategy worked.
“In the beginning of the first set, Kenin hits her forehand down the line, like 30, 40% of the time,” Ramos added. “You can see Barty looking at her coach like, ‘What’s happening now?'”
Kenin won the match 7-6 (6), 7-5 and claimed her first Grand Slam title two days later in the final against Garbine Muguruza.
Although Kenin had to carry out the game plan alone, the support she received from the USTA scouts certainly helped her achieve her lifelong dream.
And the four-person team provides such scouting reports before each match for any american in a major, including during qualifying rounds — and even during some Masters-level events. The only exception is when an American is up against a compatriot or woman. At the 2022 Australian Open, there were a total of 51 American singles between qualifying and the main draw. It involves sleepless nights and hours of intense data analysis every day and it is a job equivalent to statistician, trainer and psychologist.
Ramos, Geoff Russell, Adam Snook and Katherine Gonzalez often travel the world with the American contingent. But ahead of this year’s Australian Open, where the pandemic is disrupting their ability to travel, the foursome will provide advice from their offices at the USTA’s national campus in Orlando, Florida.
On a sunny December day on the USTA national campus, players like Madison Keys, Bjorn Fratangelo and Dana Mathewson practice outside on the courts, and members of the University of Florida men’s team practice on one of six Italian red clay courts.
Each lane for the elite players is equipped with sensors from Kinexon, a German-based data and technology company that works closely with the NBA, that record both ball and player movements. Some players use portable equipment to record body-specific aspects of health and performance. The season is fast approaching and everyone is working hard and looking for an available lead.
It is no different within the facility in the High Performance Center.
Ramos, Russell and Snook are masked at their desks in their windowless office, preparing to meet Mackenzie “Mackie” McDonald’s coach later that afternoon. McDonald, a former NCAA champion at UCLA, equaled his best major result of his career by reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open in 2021. He and his team hope to take his success one step further this season by using all available resources.
And there’s no shortage of information to help him get there. On a video screen, in front of a large circular couch, everything from McDonald’s heart rate during various exercises to his energy output to how his training compares to his competitions is laid out. The goal is to answer one central question: What exactly should McDonald do to maximize his practice time — to best prepare him for tournaments?
“With his race data here, we can easily see the highest thresholds he has to meet during a specific race,” said Russell, senior performance manager. “So we need to make sure his training sessions are structured and each training has its own goal to get him as race ready as possible. They’re here in Orlando for four weeks during the pre-season and we want him to have a better understanding once they’re back.” on your way, of the intensity and purpose of each exercise. [We] give him a baseline for the rest of the year and have him reference all the information we’ve gathered here.”
Any American professional is welcome to train on campus during the far-too-short off season, or any other break they have, and use the resources and support—although many prefer to train at home because they are so infrequent.
In 2009, the USTA began using an athlete management system, which allowed coaches and trainers to log data from their own sessions with athletes. It soon included stats on things like shot selection and Grand Slam match recurrences. Today, they can retrieve that historical and current information when needed.
“Tennis has always been seen almost as an art form and we’re trying to add some science to it,” Russell said. “We provide objective information that someone can use alongside subjective information.”
So for some players, the team can provide all relevant data about an opponent prior to a match. For others, it might just be three main things the player needs to focus on going into the match. Some coaches will be more proactive than others and ask for specific details or videos, and others will ask for nothing at all.
And thanks to partnerships with other federations such as Tennis Australia and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) of Great Britain, the USTA can also get more data on non-US opponents. Of course, those organizations also have similar opportunities.
“We call it reverse scouting,” says Ramos. “We’re happy to provide a development report on our own players so they know exactly what anyone else from England or someone who plays for Tennis Australia would get about them. So next to ‘This is what they’re going to do’, it’s ‘This is what’ you should focus on or change about your own game.'”
Providing that level of detail is significantly easier during the later rounds at majors, when fewer Americans remain in the draw. But during the first few days, when dozens of players are still active, it can result in long, sleepless nights as they sift through the data, looking for any advantage they can find.
Most of the country’s top-ranked players left for Australia shortly after Christmas to play in lead-in tournaments for the season’s first major. In pre-COVID times, at least two members of the performance analysis group would have followed shortly afterwards to do on-the-spot analysis and hide in an office space in Melbourne Park provided by Tennis Australia. (The USTA is favoring its Australian counterparts at the US Open, and both organizations regularly share aggregated data from their respective tournaments.) The four-man team could attend the 2021 US Open in person, but will not have such luxury for the Australian Open due to ongoing travel restrictions.
Russell says they will probably watch as many of the matches live from their couch at night, and then they will try to gather as much information as possible in the office the next day for the next round. Between the time difference and the general Zoom fatigue, they know that delivering the information can be more difficult than usual.
“There are certain things that come up naturally and informally in a conversation,” Snook said. “Somebody can say something about a match and we can say, ‘Oh, we’ve made a return report for X Player and it could work for you.’ We’ve lost that now.”
Not to mention, one of the best and most rewarding perks of the job is the ability to see all their hard work and meticulous attention to detail pay off in a match. In many cases, such as with Kenin, they have known the player since their teens and have been closely involved in their development.
“Our job is to help these people,” Ramos said. “We prefer to be there in person because we don’t just give them information, but they hear us cheering them on during a match and know we’re behind them. That moral support is just as important as providing the information is.”