Coach Talks: How Thomas Drouet is using statistics to improve Tímea Babos’ game
By James Henry
(August 15, 2018) CINCINNATI — The numbers do not lie.
When Tímea Babos complained her slice serve on the deuce side of the tennis court was not good enough, her coach, Thomas Drouet, knew the shot was not bad, but she was serving too deep.
“I said, ‘Reduce the speed. Like this, you will have more control, but serve shorter,’” he recalled.
To prove that point, Drouet went to his computer and downloaded the statistics from Babos’ five previous matches. After reviewing the data, she practiced the serve with a game of “kill the can” and applied the lesson in her next match.
“Slice, boom, forehand — she looked at me and started to smile,” said Drouet, noting he celebrated that coaching success for a full month.
THE NUMBERS GAME
One of the first coaches to use SAP Tennis Analytics, Drouet said he has built a base of 140 different players on his computer.
Before every match, he creates a PDF that details 25 to 30 key statistics, such as first serve percentage, speed on first serve, speed on first- and second-serve break points, average forehand and backhand winners, percentage of forehands and backhands played, and percentage of forehands played under the service line.
He now also includes video clips in his presentations to Babos to show those figures in action.
“Of course, I try to simplify, to go to the essential, to point the weakness, or what is their strengths,” he said at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
“It helps me to prepare the match, but what I realized, it helps me also to prepare my practices. It gives proof. It gives value to what I say. I say, ‘Tímea, I think in this moment you play too much cross your backhand, you don’t going down the line,’ and then, boom, I go on SAP and we have the talk of the impact on court and I print it and I’m like, ‘Voilà, this is all your areas.’”
Drouet explained he uses statistics about opponents to pinpoint and exploit their weaknesses, and he uses statistics about his own player to determine and then implement ways to improve.
“It’s really my passion. I love it,” he said, noting he spends two hours per day compiling the statistics.
Drouet, of Monaco, and Babos, of Hungary, have worked together for five years. That familiarity enables him to predict what she needs — an important attribute for on-court coaching, in particular.
“Mostly now I can anticipate a lot of things before going on court. I feel when she is going to call me, or when she won’t need my help,” he said. “So, I can prepare my speech a bit before.”
Drouet said on-court coaching is not easy for coaches. After running from his seat to the tennis court, he must make the most of his time, to be efficient, as well as effective.
“We also have stress. I am not a machine,” he said.
Primarily, he said, a coach’s job is to reassure the tennis player, who typically is feeling overwhelmed in that particular moment.
“Mostly, they know what to do tactically. They know what’s wrong, what’s happening. But they just need someone to say, ‘It’s OK. You’re gonna do it. Stay aggressive. Don’t change. You were hitting to the forehand when the ball was short. Keep going. Don’t slice it,’” he said.
“We have only 45, 50 seconds to speak. What do you want to do? You are not going to speak and say 10 informations. It is impossible to remember and to do. They are in the heat of the action with the stress and everything.”
Nobody is doing on-court coaching perfectly, Drouet said.
“Knowing your player, I think, it helps a lot,” he said. “Before, when I started to coach her, I was really into the tactical part. But I realized that sometimes she’s blocked, she’s stressed, she won’t be able to do this forehand, for example, this spinning forehand down the line.
“I played. I know that when you are like this, you want to do it, but your arm is not going to.”
MAKING POWER MOVES
Babos is known for her big serve and big forehand. She has won three singles and 17 doubles titles on the WTA Tour, including this year’s Australian Open with Kristina Mladenovic of France.
“I always coach girl who has power, because I think that the game is to go for it, to go to take your chance,” Drouet said.
“And those player who has this natural capacity, of power, to be able to make rhythms, then we try teach them, or we try to improve, the part of when to do it. This is what is important.”
He rhetorically asked which of today’s top players are only defending on the tennis court? None, he said, because they also must be aggressive, citing the successes of Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep.
“They are trying to improve their game by doing drive volley, or to step in,” he said.
Was Drouet an aggressive player when he competed on the ATP World Tour?
“Yeah,” he answered and then paused.
“At my level,” he added with a laugh.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
Looking to the future, Drouet said he is helping Babos to better manage her emotions, so she can stay cool, regardless of her stress level, while competing.
He mimics those stressful situations during their practice sessions, setting specific goals for her to accomplish. For example, he marks a zone on the tennis court where she has to hit eight out of 10 balls.
As she gets closer to achieving that goal, and as her nervousness grows, she has to learn how to adapt her technique and the quality of her shots. That skill can then be used in competition.
And that’s when Drouet again gets on his computer and shows statistics and videos to prove to Babos, who currently is No. 41 in singles and No. 2 in doubles, the difference when she is in control.
“When she has the control of herself, naturally, her level is like this — she wins against top 10,” he said.