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How Martina Navratilova Became the Smartest Player in the Game

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Tennis legends and best friends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert faced each other a record 80 times, including 60 meetings in tournament finals, from 1973 to 1988. While Evert dominated the early stages of what would become one of the greatest rivalries in sports, Navratilova eventually solved Evert and retired as the most accomplished player in women’s tennis history. Navratilova has a wide-ranging support staff, and the use of rudimentary tennis analytics, to thank for that.

Untapped Potential

In 1975, 18-year-old Navratilova defected to the United States from her native Czechoslovakia. She had already established herself as a rising star in women’s tennis, but it wasn’t until three years later that she captured her first Grand Slam singles title by defeating Evert in the Wimbledon final. Navratilova defended her Wimbledon title against Evert the following year, but after watching Evert finish 1980 as the world No. 1 singles player, Navratilova reevaluated her career.

Team Navratilova

Navratilova began surrounding herself with a support staff of nutritionists, trainers and other specialists to improve her game. During the summer of 1981, she began training with basketball star Nancy Lieberman, who helped improve Navratilova’s physical and mental strength. The decision paid immediate dividends, as Navratilova won the Australian Open in 1981 and the French Open and Wimbledon titles in 1982.

At various times over the next few years, Navratilova’s support staff included championship bodybuilder Lynn Conkwright and tennis kinetics expert Rick Elstein.

“It was a lot like the circus coming to town,” one player told Johnette Howard, author of The Rivals, a detailed history of the Evert-Navratilova rivalry. “You didn’t know what or whom you’d see next.”


One of the most influential members of Team Navratilova was Miami-based nutritionist Dr. Robert Haas, who was brought on board shortly after Navratilova’s upset loss in the quarterfinals of the 1982 U.S. Open.

“Martina was always a good player, but her career was erratic,” Haas told People in 1982. “She felt she trained hard, but there was some element missing. Her own good sense told her it was probably diet.”

Under Haas’s watch, Navratilova cut out red meats, fats and sugars. In The Rivals, Howard writes that Haas performed tests on daily-drawn samples of Navratilova’s blood for 39 variables and planned her meals accordingly. Haas, who authored the bestseller Eat to Win, called Navratilova his Bionic Woman. Indeed, Navratilova seemed more machine than woman in 1983, when she won 86 of 87 matches.

“Some day she will become the first computer-programmed player in history but all she wants is to win more Wimbledon titles than anyone else and to be the world’s No. 1,” the Glasgow Herald wrote in 1983.

Some of Navratilova’s peers found her focus on diet ridiculous.

“You should eat what you want,” Hana Mandlikova told the Sarasota Daily-Herald in 1984. “I would go crazy if some computer told me what to eat.”

Haas’s influence went beyond crafting Navratilova’s diet, however. He would sit courtside and chart Martina’s strokes and Evert’s reactions on his laptop. Navratilova would study this information before a match.

“[Evert] was the only player we did the computer analysis with,” said Haas, who nicknamed his program ‘Smartina.’

‘We Were Right’

In 1984, Navratilova won a record 74 consecutive matches, including six against Evert in tournament finals. After losing 21 of her first 25 matches against Evert, Navratilova ended her career with a 43-37 advantage in the series. Seemingly defying time, Navratilova went 27 years between her first and record-tying 20th win at Wimbledon and she retired with 18 Grand Slams.

While Navratilova’s numbers speak for themselves, her use of specialists and analytics is another part of her legacy.

“Even though other people weren’t doing it, our thing was, sports science will be huge one day,” Haas said in The Rivals. “Having your own trainer, nutritionist, using computers for analysis and teaching will be very big one day. … I think Martina was able to establish a new model for athletes. People were, of course, skeptical and they laughed at us. But what are you going to do? As it turned out, we were right.”

What’s Next?

In 2012, ESPN the Magazine ranked the advancement of analytics in the major sports and tennis ranked second to last, ahead of boxing. Craig O’Shannessy, a leader in the tennis analytics field, is hopeful that will change.

“Analytics in tennis should be something that is a strength of our game,” O’Shannessy said at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “To a lot of observers, tennis is like pinball. The ball goes here, the ball goes there. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, but tennis is exactly the opposite. It’s 50% chess; you’re going to make a move or hit a ball to a certain part of the court, there’s going to be a natural reaction to that. It’s also 50% poker; the percentages of the game absolutely matter. I think tennis very much lends itself to analytics.”

Stan Honda // AFP // Getty Images
A Brief History of Deep Blue, IBM's Chess Computer
Stan Honda // AFP // Getty Images
Stan Honda // AFP // Getty Images

On July 29, 1997, IBM researchers were awarded a $100,000 prize that had gone unclaimed for 17 years. It was the Fredkin Prize, created by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor Edward Fredkin in 1980. An artificial intelligence pioneer, Fredkin challenged fellow computer scientists to create a computer that could beat the best human chess player in the world. That's exactly what Deep Blue did in May, 1997.

It was an extremely long road to victory. After Fredkin's initial challenge in 1980, a team from Bell Labs created a chess computer in 1981 that beat a chess master. In 1985, Feng-hsiung Hsu created ChipTest, a chess computer that set the stage for later efforts.

By 1988, a CMU team including Hsu created a system that beat an international master. That one was called "Deep Thought," named for the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—a fictional computer spent 7.5 million years calculated "the Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything." (That answer, of course, was 42.)

Deep Thought underwent additional development at IBM, and in 1989 it went head-to-head with Garry Kasparov, who is widely considered the best chess player of all time. Kasparov destroyed the machine in a two-game match. Here's the first part of a documentary about Deep Thought, which helps set the stage for Deep Blue:

Deep Thought eventually led to Deep Blue, an IBM project led by Hsu, along with his former Deep Thought collaborator Murray Campbell, among others.

The computer science problem of chess is deep. First the machine needs to understand the state of the board—that's relatively easy—but then it needs to predict future moves. Given that the 32 pieces on the board are capable of moving to a variety of other positions, the "possibility space" for the next move (and all subsequent moves) is very large.

In theory, a sufficiently beefy computer could simulate every possible move (and counter-move) in its memory, rank which moves end up doing best in each simulated game, and then perform the optimal move on each turn. But to actually implement a computer that powerful—and fast enough to compete in a time-limited tournament—was a matter of extreme effort. It took Hsu more than a decade to master it.

Six men pose with a chess board and timer. On one side of the board, a sign reads Garry Kasparov. On the other side, a computer keyboard and monitor represent Deep Blue.
The IBM Deep Blue chess computer team poses in May, 1997. From left: Chung-Jen Tan (team manager), Gerry Brody, Joel Benjamin, Murray Campbell, Joseph Hoane and Feng-hsiung Hsu (seated).
Stan Honda // AFP // Getty Images

On February 10, 1996 in Philadelphia, Deep Blue went head-to-head with Kasparov, and Kasparov beat the computer handily. Though Deep Blue scored one winning game and two draws, it lost three games to Kasparov outright. Deep Blue did set a record for winning that one game, but it needed the match to earn the Fredkin Prize.

By this point, Kasparov was used to destroying chess computers, and the media lapped it up—this was a man-versus-machine story for the ages. By May 1997, IBM had heavily upgraded Deep Blue (some called it "Deeper Blue") with vastly improved computing resources, preparing for a rematch. When that rematch came, Kasparov would face a worthy opponent.

On May 11, 1997 in New York City, the upgraded Deep Blue entered the match with a large, excited audience. Kasparov won the first game, but Deep Blue took the second, tying the players. Then came three games that ended in draws. In the sixth game, Kasparov made a mistake in the opening. Deep Blue won that sixth game quickly, winning the match, much to the astonishment of the crowd. Kasparov asked for a rematch. The Deep Blue team declined.

Kasparov claimed to have perceived a human hand in Deep Blue's play. Kasparov wondered whether a human chess player was somehow feeding the computer moves, much like the infamous Mechanical Turk of yore. Various conspiracy theories flourished, but came to nothing.

When the Fredkin Prize was awarded to Hsu, Campbell, and IBM researcher A. Joseph Hoane Jr., Fredkin told reporters, "There has never been any doubt in my mind that a computer would ultimately beat a reigning world chess champion. The question has always been when." Hsu told The New York Times, "Some people are apprehensive about what the future can bring. But it's important to remember that a computer is a tool. The fact that a computer won is not a bad thing."

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