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Li Na Wants Data Privacy as Electronic Tennis Racket Looms

Babolat, a French family-owned company which made the first racket strings out of animal gut in 1875, is working on another tennis novelty: a racket that records shot data.

The racket is aimed at club players and professionals and will go on sale next year, according to Chief Executive Officer Eric Babolat. Sensors in the handle will be able send data such as ball spin and shot power to a computer.

“The only precise data you have as a tennis player now is the score at the end of the game or your ranking,” Babolat said in an interview at the French Open. “That’s quite limited if you want to try and improve your game and really look at your game in some detail.”

Babolat will post a 10 percent gain in revenue to 135 million euros ($169 million) by the end of its fiscal year in June, Babolat said. It’s targeting an increase in sales of “between 12 and 14 percent,” in the next three years, he added.

The company, which is competing with Amer Sports Oyj, the maker of Wilson tennis rackets, and Head NV, is forecasting growth, “even though the tennis market is not growing,” in the U.S., Europe or Japan.

Sales of tennis rackets in the U.S. have dropped to close to $100 million last year, compared with $121 million in 2007, according to the Tennis Industry Association.

The Future

“Technology is the future, and this type of stuff will sell and become common over time,” Paul Swinand, an analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago.

“But unless the new racket allows you to adjust your serve so you don’t hit the net, I’m not sure it gets people to play more tennis rather than just shift market share,” he added. “And other companies will follow with their own technologies.”

Shortly before the start of the tournament, defending champions Rafael Nadal of Spain and China’s Li Na tested the so-called ’Play & Connect’ racket at Roland Garros. Babolat has an endorsement agreement with both players. Li Na lost today in the fourth round against Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan in three sets.

“Li Na said when she had tested it ‘this is really interesting for me, but I don’t want the other players to see my data,”’ Babolat said. “I want to have it for me and not to share it.”

No price has been set for the new racket because it’s still in the development stage.

Coaching Issue

Toni Nadal, Nadal’s uncle and coach, said the innovation may blur the line between player and coach.

“It’s good for the coach at first but after that maybe some players can think they don’t need a coach because they see their performance and they think they’re very good player,” Nadal said in an interview.

Babolat is aiming for “double-digit” growth in China, the world’s fastest-growing major economy, where it has been present for two decades. Li Na became the first Asian to win a major tennis title last year in Paris.

“China is building tennis academies, it is building tennis courts and Li Na is a hero there,” Babolat said. “We estimate that a little over 1 million people play tennis in China.”

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