INNOVATE

Meet the Innovators Who Shaped Wimbledon

A sports event steeped in tradition has gone 2.0. Here's a look at the pioneers turning Wimbledon high tech.
Darlene Hard serves to Althea Gibson during the 1958 Women's Singles tournament (left); Paul-Henri Mathieu and Gilles Simon on the first day of the 2012 Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament (right).
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The first Wimbledon Championship was held on a rainy July afternoon in 1877 at the All England Club off Worple Road in London.

Admission was one shilling—about $5 today—and nearly 200 spectators arrived for the final match. Competitors served underhand or at shoulder height. Rackets were made of wood, strings were spun from cow intestine, and the tennis balls were hand sewn with cloth. Players wore ties and hats. The prize for winning was 12 guineas—about $1,200 today.

Wimbeldon is still played at the All England Club in London, and the players continue to play on grass. But it's no surprise that more than a century of innovation in both technology and process, has radically changed the game.

Here's a look at a few of the companies that have completely disrupted how Wimbeldon works.

Strung Out

The days of intestinal tennis strings are (nearly) over, thanks in part to Luxilon, a family-owned company based in Antwerp founded in 1959.

For most of the company's history, the small manufacturing firm produced filaments for a variety of applications, from medical sutures to undergarments. In the early 1990s, the company began producing a line of tennis strings. 

But rather than using the more conventional nylon, Luxilon manufactured strings from polyester, which offered slightly more friction on contact with a ball, so players could enhance their topspin.

The strings went relatively unnoticed by pros until 1997 when Gustavo Kuerton, a young Brazilian player, decided to string his racket with Luxilon's co-polymer monofilament line of tennis strings. He won three French Opens with it--and the tennis world took notice.

Today, Luxilon sells a branded version of its tennis string--Big Banger--to tennis players around the world, including former No. 1-ranked Spanish player, Juan Carlos Ferrero.

An Infallible Umpire?

If you've watched tennis in the last few years, you've no doubt seen images from the Hawk-Eye camera—which unfold as an animated, slow motion instant replay of a tennis ball as it touches down on the ground. How does it work? The Hawk-Eye utilizes 10 cameras placed around the court to triangulate the motion of the ball in order to replay its trajectory.

The technology was developed and patented in 2001 by Dr. Paul Hawkins, a British inventor who hold a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence. Hawkins founded Hawk-Eye Innovations in London in September, 2001, in order to commercialize his invention.

Hawk-Eye made its debut in 2003 at the Australian Open. In the summer of 2006 it was introduced to the U.S. Open in New York. Just last June did it debut at Wimbledon.

In 2011, Sony acquired Hawk-Eye Innovations, but the company still operates under its own brand. The technology is being adapted for precision-judgement of other sports, including football, cricket, and even snooker, a British cue game.

Green Giants

When it comes to turf, this small, U.K-based company is at the forefront of grass technology (yes, really).  

The Sports Turf Research Institute is the company behind the turf at Wimbledon. Its 70 employees include grass engineers, chemists, researchers, agronomists--all of whom are charged with creating and maintaining the perfect slabs of turf for tennis matches.  

Founded in 1929, the institute (which reportedly brings in around $6 million in revenue) was one of the first to introduce scientific standards to turf management. For example, the guide for Wimbledon's grass maintenance is 33 pages, and includes such details as optimal measurements for ball-bounces off perfect turf.

At the institute headquarters, the company is constantly updating its methods for testing grass; it has, for example, a small machine that replicates a tennis player's skids to sample various grasses' endurance. The company has also consulted with the governing bodies of other turf-played sports, such as soccer's FIFA.

Going Mobile; Going Global

This year, Wimbledon is planning to boost its off-court presence. 

The Championships at Wimbledon and the All England Lawn Tennis Club just announced a partnership with Ooyala, a video streaming service for the Web and mobile devices.

Ooyala, a Mountain View, California-based start-up is set to provide global on-demand access to match highlights and special interviews via the official Wimbledon website and its mobile app. (The company acts as a sort of middle-man, providing Wimbledon the technology to stream various video content to multiple platforms).

The news comes on the heels of the company's series E funding round, which raised $35 million earlier this month, bringing Ooyala to $79 million in total funding.

Launched in 2007 by former Google employees, the company already has deals to facilitate online video content with big brands, including Yahoo!, ESPN, and Rolling Stone. Beyond video, the company also sells an analytics tool, which can give clients valuable access to user data.

IMAGE: Corbis/Getty
Last updated: Jun 25, 2012

NICOLE CARTER | Staff Writer | San Francisco Bureau Chief

Nicole Carter is Inc.'s San Francisco bureau chief. She was previously an editor at New York Daily News, and her work has also appeared in Consumer Reports magazine.




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