"Champions keep playing until they get it right." So said female tennis great Billie Jean King, and more appropriate words could not have been spoken about last night's US Open match between Andre Agassi v. James Blake in the mens' quarter finals.
If you didn't see it, you probably feel a lot more rested today than do I, but you also missed one of those classic, nail-biting, under-the-lights US Open tennis matches. The final score was 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in favor of Agassi, who is playing in his 20th straight US Open, and who just absolutely refused to quit -- even after losing the first two sets to 25 year-old James Blake, whose speed-of-light serves were like a single yellow snowflake creating its own singular blizzard, and who seemed to have all the momentum when the match first started.
Keeping track of all those insanely speedy rallies, point-by-point, was the IBM scoring system. During a recent visit with my 100+ IBM colleagues who work underneath and in the vicinity of Arthur Ashe stadium, it dawned on me that the IBM scoring system serves as a sort of information nervous system for the tournament, helping every constituent -- the players, the officials, the media, and most importantly, the fans -- keep track of what's going on at the US Open: Who played who. Who beat who. Who lost to whom and by how much. Etc.
So, logically, significant resources are dedicated to ensuring the timely and accurate delivery of match scores -- in real-time -- to a whole set of endpoints: to broadcasters, both domestic and international; to the on site scoring displays for the players, officials, and fans to keep track of what's going on on the ground; and for the millions of fans following the action online, via the Web site.
From the Baseline to Your PC Screen
To try and bring this closer to courtside, follow the bouncing tennis ball to get an idea of how each point ends up on your TV or computer screen:
When Agassi or Blake scores a point, the chair umpire scrawls the score on a Palm m500, which is connected via wi-fi to the IBM scoring system hub. This immediately feeds the official score into the scoring system hub, which, in turn, is sent along to multiple constituencies in real-time, including broadcast TV, the external US Open Web site, the US Open intranet (for players, tournament officials, statisticians, etc.), closed circuit TV, the on site electronic displays, and to automated voice applications (for players and other officials who are want to check in on tournament proceedings using a voice-response unit).
All of this is facilitated by IBM Software's WebSphere Business Integration Event Broker, which uses message brokering to publish real-time scores to HTML pages without the need to refresh the whole page. This speeds up the site response time for page downloads, while at the same time lowering demands on bandwidth (and ultimately lowering the site infrastructure costs).
But if the scores themselves are the cake, it's the added features which are the icing. Via the Match Information Displays on site (and on the Web site), fans can get access to schedule information, information on the match in progress, and result information for every match by court. They can also get player bios, match stats, competitive data, and even custom messages.
Of course, it is the dynamicism of the information that brings true on demand value to the US Open tournament experience. As an example, because much of the data resides in a DB2 Express database, broadcast producers can make instantaneous queries such as "What percentage of the time does Agassi serve in what portion of the receiving court?" The query produces the results in a nifty graphic templates, which is then automagically populated with the information and displayed on your TV screen. Set point.
Point Tracker: Animating the Play
This year, a new addition was made to the Web site which brings you about as close to the action on the court as you can get without actually being there, the "PointTracker." Using a Flash-based animation tool, after each point a fan on the Web site can now watch a replay of the trajectory of the ball throughout a rally.
Have you ever watched peoples' heads bob back and forth when they're watching a tennis match, particularly when they're sitting in center court? The Point Tracker experience is similar, except it provides a view from multiple angles (including overhead). The USTA also feeds out information about how a player won the point, giving fans more information about how the match is being played. While this is its primary purpose, there's also significant potential to use this information as a coaching tool.
While it may seem like magic, particularly when you first see it in action, know that it's all being driven by technology. A third-party outfit's cameras convey the player and ball position information to the IBM scoring system, which is then integrated with the scoring data using the DB2 Linux database on an IBM i5 server. That information is then pushed up to the Web site for visitors to see graphics on the virtual scoreboard, showing the arc and path of each point as the ball flies through a rally.
But don't take my word for it. See the "Point Tracker" in action in today's quarterfinals match between Lleyton Hewitt and Jarkko Nieminen to get your own taste of how IBM database technology can bring real-time information to life right before your eyes.
Just be careful not to blink -- you might miss something.