Renowned as the greatest serve and volley player in women’s tennis history, Martina Navratilova attacked the net with a lethal combination of speed, aggression and dexterity that may never be replicated.
Leading 1-0 in the third set of the 1991 US Open semi-finals, Navratilova, then 34, rushed to return a low backhand from Steffi Graf that skidded over the net. Anticipating a cross forehand from Graf, Navratilova quickly moved to her right and responded with a piercing backhand. Undeterred, the top-ranked Graf then sent a forehand backwards, only to see Navratilova knock it back with a stretch volley for the winner. Navratilova outlasted Graf in three tight sets, a win that is still considered one of the most impressive ever for a woman over 30.
Exquisite legal coverage might explain why Washington Post Columnist Sally Jenkins once marveled that when Martina was flying at the net she looked like she was “pulling the strings”. But even a 18-time Grand Slam singles winner needs an additional tool at its disposal to differentiate itself from the competition. Navratilova won her fourth singles title at the US Open in 1987, decades before the advent of immersive virtual reality cognitive training in sports.
Last month, before the US Open, Navratilova signed a partnership with Arena of the senses, a Prague-based company focused on developing revolutionary virtual reality training in sports. Hours before Serena Williams’ final professional match of her storied career, Navratilova promoted the innovative VR product from a suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium last Friday.
“If they had the helmet, I would have used it,” exclaimed Navratilova. “Yeah why not? You don’t have to go anywhere; you can do it from the comfort of your living room and still work on specific plans.
Financial terms of Navratilova’s deal were not disclosed.
Sense Arena has had minimal success with a hockey training platform that is used by 30 professional teams worldwide, including five in the NHL. At least 10 NHL goaltenders have used the training system, including Philipp Grubauer, finalist for the 2021 Vézina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s best goaltender. By training with Sense Arena, goaltenders can improve their box control by tracking the puck faster and becoming more proficient at reading the clearance of opposing snipers. While donning a Meta Quest helmet, keepers can also practice their ability to handle screens in a variety of situations before encountering clean traffic on a Nathan MacKinnon slapshot.
What started as a training tool for goalies quickly spread to all skaters on the ice. A 3D printed mount for the touch controller allows skaters to test their stick handling in virtual reality. A player can be coached on the proper technique to use when making a cross pass or how to hold the stick during a controversial face-off.
The mounts contain motors that create a vibration known as “haptic feedback”, each time the virtual stick makes contact with the puck. Sense Arena engineers have worked hard to apply the same concept to tennis. When there is an impact between the VR racquet and the ball, the racquet vibrates according to the type and pace of the shot. A saw-like forehand produced by Rafael Nadal’s far western grip may look different in VR than a flat forehand down the line. A low slice on grass tends to skid, while a topspin shot on clay can kick to shoulder height. The product development team strives to create an experience that is as realistic as possible to reflect game conditions.
Still, there are critical differences between the products. While the hockey product helps players optimize their physical performance, the tennis product will serve as an aid in refining the mental aspects of the game. According to supporters, comprehensive mental training via Sense Arena can help players visualize the game better. , while improving their decision-making skills. A litany of ball-striking drills and cognitive training also help players anticipate shot depth and spin, while reducing reaction time.
Around 90 professional and junior players, including a European Women’s Top 60 singles player, tested the demo during the tournament. The player, who was knocked out of the doubles draw earlier in the afternoon, was perfect in a groundstroke drill in virtual reality, connecting on nearly two dozen consecutive shots over the course of the session.
The drill tests accuracy, with a virtual terrain divided into quadrants separated by four distinct colors. As a virtual opponent takes a shot over the net, she was instructed to hit a deep cross forehand into a yellow box guarding the baseline. In a given rally, a player can develop peripheral vision by connecting on a backhand down the line into a purple box, followed by a crossover forehand into a white box.
The player, who once beat US Open semi-finalist Caroline Garcia during her young career, felt like she was quickly anticipating volley drills in VR – in part because she finished his doubles match just two hours earlier. She also liked the feel of the racquet which packs a 4 3/8 inch handle and weighs around 270 grams, which can be increased if needed. After her session, she indicated that she was open to potentially adding VR training to part of her regimen.
Sense Arena also offers exercises that go beyond the virtual tennis court. A cognitive exercise called Syncro Reflex tests the player’s reaction time by identifying the correct square at a fast pace of work. After each drill, the player also receives instant feedback on their performance with relevant specific data collected. In the reflex test, in particular, Sense Arena provides the player’s average reaction time and accuracy in hitting the correct squares, said Yannick Yoshizawa, director of business development at Sense Arena.
Another virtual drill helps players perfect net hitting technique. The optimal volley technique contains a quick punch with no backswing, as the player steps forward to absorb the power of the opposing shot. In order to conjure up the right image, imagine Mike Tyson donning a pair of VR goggles while testing his skills on the net. Tyson has also been at the US Open for the past few years as his daughter is a rising junior player.
Sense Arena, Navratilova pointed out, is a valuable training tool for rapid eye movement, anticipation and building quick reflexes.
“The ball is coming at you at 100 miles per hour, you better be ready,” she said. “It’s not the real deal, but it’s as close as it gets. All things being equal, of course you want to be on the pitch, but he’s the best substitute.
Anticipation drills help users determine where the ball lands, how it will bounce, and ultimately make faster decisions on their next shot. Very often, that difference of 200 hundredths of a millisecond can make the difference in earning a point, said Sense Arena CEO Bob Tetiva.
In total, professional and junior players across the United States have performed nearly 1,000 exercises with Sense Arena over the past two weeks. The list of participants who demonstrated the product includes: Jack Sock, Luisa Stefani, Anna Bondar, Jennifer Brady, Rohan Bopanna, Petr Pala, Casper Ruud’s teams, Brandon Nakashima, Matteo Berrettini. Sock, who has been ranked up to eighth in the world in singles, also gave high marks to the hockey product.
While Sense Arena could be instructive for pros, Navratilova thinks it could have a bigger impact on the grassroots level for budding teenagers. Claudio Pistolesi, senior director of tennis at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in Jacksonville, has joined Navratilova on the Sense Arena tennis advisory board. Armed with a training science background grounded in sports psychology, Pistolesi implores his students to play with confidence.
“Confidence is like gasoline, sometimes that’s what you need to get the Ferrari,” said Pistolesi, a former Italian player who counts a victory over Mats Wilander among his career highlights. Pistolesi has also coached Monica Seles, Robin Soderling and Daniela Hantuchova, among others, during his 25-year coaching career.
Pistolesi was drawn to Sense Arena after seeing the use cases in hockey. For a high-level junior, the player can use VR training as a vehicle to regain confidence after a tough loss. The platform also helps players maintain “controlled aggression”, with their coverage on the pitch. Aggression can usually be misinterpreted as hitting harder, Pistolesi explained. It is more important, he noted, to learn to work the point, not to rush and to choose the most opportune moments to advance.
Another top junior who demonstrated the product is a JTCC student in College Park, Maryland, Frances Tiafoe’s former training ground. Pistolesi envisions more than 200 JTCC students training with the VR headsets soon after the product launches later next month. After Tiafoe’s decisive victory over Rafael Nadal on Monday, ESPN presenter Chris McKendry described how a young Tiafoe spent hours on the pitch in solitude, hitting a ball against a wall for practice. Perhaps Tiafoe would have been an ideal candidate for the Sense Arena product had it been available 15 years ago.
Navratilova was on the court at the US Open throughout the fortnight. When asked if she would rise to world No. 1 if she played against Serena and Steffi Graf as all three hit the peak of their careers, Martina replied with a hearty laugh.
“I would pay to watch those games and I think it would be tight,” she told me.
Maybe it could come to life in VR, a guest from the suite joked.