Australian Open 2022: Inside the quirky yet intense job of a USTA scout

USTA director of player development David Ramos, working with pro player CiCi Bellis. USTA

Few expected Sofia Kenin to win the 2020 Australian Open.

She was the No. 14 seed and had never advanced past the fourth round at a major. The then-21-year-old American was barely on the radar.

But point by point and match by match, Kenin stormed through the draw, setting up the biggest clash of her career against World No. 1 and beloved local favorite Ash Barty in the semifinal. With the vocal Australian crowd surely to be against her, even Kenin's most ardent supporters knew it would be an uphill battle.

Kenin had a secret weapon, though.

With two days before the semifinal, the USTA's performance analytics group immediately got to work, putting together a video playlist emphasizing exactly what they believed she should do to beat Barty.

"Kenin sometimes has problems hitting her forehand down the line, especially under pressure, and she gets locked into crosscourts," said David Ramos, the USTA's director of player development. "That's Barty's best shot. We thought if she could hit her forehand down the line and make [Barty] hit a backhand, and do that enough early, she could disrupt Barty's game plan and shake her confidence a bit."

The strategy worked.

"In the early part of the first set, Kenin's hitting her forehand down the line, like 30, 40% of the time," added Ramos. "You can see Barty looking over at her coach like, 'What is happening right now?'"

Kenin won the match 7-6 (6), 7-5 and went on to claim her maiden Grand Slam title two days later in the final against Garbine Muguruza.

While Kenin alone had to execute the game plan, the support she received from the USTA's scouts certainly helped her achieve her lifelong dream.

And the four-person team provides scouting reports like that ahead of every match for every single American in a major, including during qualifying rounds -- and even during some Masters-level events. The lone exception is when an American is facing a fellow countryman or woman. At the 2022 Australian Open, there have been a total of 51 American singles players between qualifying and the main draw. It involves sleepless nights and hours of intense data analysis every day and is a job that's equal parts statistician, trainer and psychologist.

Ramos, Geoff Russell, Adam Snook and Katherine Gonzalez often travel the world with the American contingent. But for this year's Australian Open, with the pandemic disrupting their ability to travel, the foursome will be providing advice from their offices at the USTA's national campus in Orlando, Florida.

On a sunny December day at the USTA national campus, players such as Madison Keys, Bjorn Fratangelo and Dana Mathewson are practicing on the courts outside, and members of the visiting University of Florida men's team are doing drills on one of the six Italian red clay courts.

Every court for the elite players is equipped with sensors from Kinexon, a German-based data and technology company that works closely with the NBA, that record both ball and player movement. Some players use wearable equipment to record body-specific aspects of health and performance. The season is rapidly approaching and everyone is hard at work and looking for any available edge.

Inside the facility at the High Performance Center is no different.

Ramos, Russell and Snook are masked and at their desks in their windowless office preparing for a meeting with Mackenzie "Mackie" McDonald's coach later that afternoon. McDonald, a former NCAA champion at UCLA, matched his career-best major result by reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open in 2021. He and his team are hoping to take his success a step further this season by utilizing every resource available.

And there's no shortage of information to help him get there. On a video screen, in front of a large circular couch, everything from McDonald's heart rate during different drills to his energy output to how his training compares to his matches, is at the ready. The goal is to answer one central question: What exactly will McDonald need to do to maximize his practice time -- to best prepare him for tournaments?

"With his match data in here, we can easily see the highest thresholds he's going to have to meet during a specific match," Russell, senior manager of performance, said. "So we need to make sure his practices are structured and every practice has its own purpose to get him as match-ready as possible. They're here in Orlando for four weeks during the preseason and we want him to have a better understanding, once they get back on the road, of the intensity and the purpose of each drill. [We] give him a baseline for the rest of the year and allow him to reference all the information we collected here."

Any American professional is welcome to train on the campus during the all-too-short offseason, or during any other break they might have, and utilize the resources and support -- though many would prefer to train at home because they get to so rarely.

In 2009, the USTA started using an athlete management system, which allowed coaches and trainers to log data from their own sessions with athletes. It soon included stats on things like shot selection and return patterns from matches at Grand Slams. Today, they can pull that historical and current information whenever it's needed.

"Tennis has always been seen almost as an art form and we're trying to put some science to it," Russell said. "We are providing objective information someone can use alongside subjective information."

So for some players, the team may provide all of the relevant data they have about an opposing player ahead of a match. For others, it might just be three key things the player should focus on heading into the match. Some coaches will be more proactive than others and ask for specific details or videos, and others won't ask for anything at all.

And thanks to partnerships with other federations like Tennis Australia and Great Britain's Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the USTA is able to get increased data on non-American opponents as well. Of course, those organizations have similar capabilities too.

"Reverse scouting is what we call it," said Ramos. "We like to provide a developmental report on our own players so they know exactly what somebody else from England or someone playing for Tennis Australia would be getting about them. So in addition to, 'This is what they're going to do,' it's 'This is what you need to focus on or change about your own game.'"

Providing that level of detail is significantly easier during the later rounds at majors when fewer Americans remain in the draw. But during the first few days, when dozens of players are still active, it can result in long, sleepless nights as they comb through the data, looking for any advantage they can find.

Most of the country's top-ranked players headed to Australia shortly after Christmas to play in lead-in tournaments before the season's first major. In pre-COVID times, at least two members of the performance analytics group would have followed shortly after to provide on-the-ground analysis and hole up in an office space at Melbourne Park, provided by Tennis Australia. (The USTA returns the favor to its Australian counterparts at the US Open, and both organizations frequently share collected data from their respective tournaments with each other.) The four-person team was able to attend the 2021 US Open in person but won't have such a luxury for the Australian Open due to ongoing travel restrictions.

Russell says they will likely watch as many of the matches live as they can overnight from their couches, and then will try and put together as much advance information as possible from the office the next day for the next round. Between the time difference and general Zoom fatigue, they know delivering the information might be tougher than usual.

"There are certain things that come up naturally and informally in a conversation," Snook said. "Someone might say something about a match and we're able to say, 'Oh, we did a return report for X player and it might work for you.' We lose that now."

Not to mention, one of the best and most rewarding perks of the job is the ability to see all of their hard work and painstaking attention to detail pay off in a match. In many instances, like with Kenin, they have known the player since their preteen years and have been heavily involved in their development.

"We're vested in helping these people," Ramos said. "We'd much rather be there in person, because not only do we supply them information, but then they hear us cheering them on during a match and know we've got their back. That moral support is as important as providing the information is."