Published on December 27th, 2013 | by Greg
Babolat Play Pure Drive: The First Connected Racquet
Technology is such an integral part of so many sports that it can be easy to take it for granted. In swimming, there were plenty of waves made when specific types of suits were outright banned from competition. Of course gear has always been part and parcel of the basketball world, where the right pair of sneakers might just hold the key to becoming the next Lebron. The golf world has more than it’s fair share of gadgetry, which makes sense as so little of the game is actually about natural strength or typical athletic talents. Tennis was a sport revolutionized by technology- the modern racquet is so far superior to older ones as to be a completely different game. But it’s proven strangely traditional in the smartphone era, where companies like Nike and Fitbit have made running and other exercise programs so very social.
The oldest company in tennis, Babolat aims to change that, with a first-generation device that feels already impressively stable and remarkably advanced. Of course, the interfaces and the technology are already well-established in other arenas, with miniature gyroscopes and batteries and wireless connectivity in so many tiny gadgets. We’re thrilled that it’s now available for tennis, and that it’s so well implemented. Anyone who loves data and tennis- Infinite Jest fans, there must be a solid overlap there- should certainly be excited about the complete package that Babolat now offers. The Play system might soon encompass other products, but for now we’ve been testing the brand new Babolat Play Pure Drive. The basic original racquet- 300g with a nice, large 645 square centimeter head- now comes with a nifty set of invisible sensors and a couple of tiny buttons hidden in the base. If you didn’t examine the handle closely, you’d never know that it was perhaps the first “smart racquet”.
The hardware is nice, but there isn’t much to talk about that you can’t learn by reading reviews of the top-selling Pure Drive itself. The new version feels solid, connects easily via USB, and requires charging but offers a six-hour battery life and pretty quick recharge time that never cramped our play time, since you’ll connect it to a computer regularly. The feel is solid, perhaps thanks to the great dampening, or the graphite tungsten hybrid of braided carbon fibers and tungsten filaments that run throughout the entire racquet. We’ve tried several other Babolat racquets, and they are among the best, consistently used by many of the top-ranked players in the world (including Nadal) and much of the top-tier amateur community as well. The quantified self folks might be disappointed, but the tennis world doesn’t really have a gadget (yet) like the Zepp GolfSense or the Misfit Shine- the new Play system is the closest, but currently is built into the racquet, so you’ll have to set aside your trusty other weapons and use the Pure Drive. It’s worth it though, if only as a coaching addition and supplement- the information is only valuable if you do something with it.
And that’s where the software part comes into play, which is the more interesting section. The culmination of a decade-long project, it certainly feels pretty polished, with apps available for both Apple iOS and Android devices. You can connect the racquet via Bluetooth to transfer information as well, but we set up our racquet initially via a PC with their “Connect” program downloaded online in a few seconds. During setup, we had to create a profile on Babolat’s servers, which can be linked to Facebook or other social media profiles (yes, expect to see your friends post their service speeds like some do their marathon times). The system is built to detect stroke type—forehand, backhand, smash, and first and second serves—and also measure and display statistics on spin and power, rally length and play time, and also maps out the location the ball strikes the string bed. It’s this last item that can be crucial to understanding how you play, and though you can’t yet get much in the way of direct advice from the system, it doesn’t take a professional coach to analyze some of your hits and find ways to adjust and tweak your game for better results. The International Tennis Federation has come around as well. It recently added tennis’s 31st rule, which states that starting next month, players may record data during a match.
It’s not perfect- figuring out second serves is a bit of an art. But the “Pulse” metric is really nifty, the performance charting is a great way to drive a bit of fun competition, and the racquet really does help get you more engaged in the game. Granted, technophobes won’t love the intrusion into the sport, and for many folks, it might be a lot of noise that can’t take the place of a real coach. But the system offers exactly what it should, and more, and one of the more exciting things to come onto the tennis court in years. As you might expect, the price is a reflection of early adopter status- at $400, we probably wouldn’t suggest it for any casual player, or anyone who doesn’t love gadgets, but the Play Pure Drive is the perfect way to use those gift certificates and is available online and in stores now.