Tennis stats provide analytic aces

Even though Tony Mickelsen is no longer collecting stats, ,he never misses a BYU men's tennis match. (Natalie Bothwell)
Even though Tony Mickelsen is no longer collecting stats, he never misses a BYU men’s tennis match. (Natalie Bothwell)

Tony Mickelsen hasn’t missed a single BYU men’s tennis match in the last four years.

For Mickelsen, tennis is more than just a hobby. It’s a project that motivated him throughout his undergrad and master’s thesis.

Mickelsen came to BYU as a freshman in 2009 with clear ideas about his academic needs as a statistics major.

“I’d heard upon coming here that to be successful, you have to do research,” he said. “I went to some professor’s office and said I’d like to do research. He chuckled and said as a freshman, no one was going to pay me anything, but I could do something for free.”

When Gilbert Fellingham, PhD, asked him what he was interested in, Mickelsen said he had played tennis in high school. Brad Ferguson, a former BYU tennis player, was down the hall and was able to get Mickelsen in contact with the head coach.

Mickelsen developed a spreadsheet where he recorded data such as aces, unforced errors and winners. He sat on the court in a folding chair to watch the tennis matches.

“I’d do it all with a clipboard and a pencil,” he said. “I’d get the data, compile it, then a few days later I’d hand it to the players.”

Mickelsen says it’s rare for college tennis players to receive their own stats and still remembers the reaction he got out of senior Andrey Goryachkov. Goryachkov had a match just a few days after having flown in from Russia and wasn’t yet fluent in English.

“That was one of the first times when I talked to him, when I handed him a sheet of his stats,” Mickelsen said. “He could only speak two words of English, but he lit up.”

After returning home from his LDS mission in the Netherlands, Mickelsen went to Dr. Fellingham’s office and asked how he could get involved with research with compensation this time around.

At the time, Dr. Fellingham was putting together a sports analytics group, and Mickelsen was selected to be the intern for the tennis team.

“I was supposed to do two things,” Mickelsen said. “Serve the tennis team by providing the team with all the data and stats needs, and develop academic statistics through in-depth research.”

He described the overall experience as “amazing” and that it made him “excited about learning statistics.” Others were soon requesting his skills.

“I’d have other coaches hear about what I was doing and tell me they’d love it if they could have that resource at their schools,” he said. “A player from St. Mary’s said ‘Hey, could you email me the stats from my match?’ So I got his email and sent the information. A few weeks later, I got an email from his teammate asking the same thing.”

Other schools weren’t the only ones interested. The BYU women’s tennis team wanted stats as well.

“The women’s team coach came and said ‘I heard you’re doing statistics, I’d love if you could do it for my team as well,’” he said. “Because it was only me at the time, I had to say no because I didn’t have the bandwidth, time wise. It was great validation that what I was doing was important.”

Mickelsen enlisted the aid of other statistics students and provided six interns with class credit through an on-campus internship he developed.

One of the interns, Sean Miner, has taken over Mickelsen’s “baby” as the head research assistant this year.

Having come a long way from the clipboard and pencil days, Miner said the interns now use a spreadsheet Mickelsen developed.

“There’s about 10 statistics they’ll enter in for each point,” Miner said. “What kind of serve they shot, where was the shot at, how was it returned, what was the last shot, was it a forehand or a backhand, was it a winner, who won the point — things like that.”

Using that sheet, they’ll create match reports for each of the players. BYU tennis player John Pearce said being able to see his own stats and those of his peers has helped him improve.

“You can look where you’re missing first serve percentage, see how many of those points you’re missing and work on it,” he said. “You can see where other players are doing better than you, too.”

All of the information is put in a database the statistics department uses for further learning purposes. “We collect the data for all the sports teams,” Miner said. “We use that database to do research and learn things about how different players have unique styles.”

Miner said having statistic reports has been a game changer throughout professional sports as well.

“It’s really changed the world of sports, he said. “Players and teams can use these statistics and analytics to improve their team.”

Beyond the benefits to the team, Mickelsen said the experience has helped him in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

“I love tennis, it’s a high-energy environment,” he said. “This research experience motivated me and made school fun. I’m passionate about sports and it helped me build up this program. I’ve been able to use my statistics to help solve problems.”

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