The following article appeared in the Thursday, September 25, 2003 edition of the Burling Free press.

Desktop tennis, anyone?

By Tim Johnson
Free Press Staff Writer

STOWE -- Now that it's over, I must admit that I had two misgivings about playing a tennis match against Boomer.

The first was that Boomer is a computer. I've never been much good with computers, so I figured that Boomer would have the edge from the outset. I was right about that, but it turned out that Boomer had an even bigger advantage than I imagined because he called the lines and kept the score -- usually in his own favor.

I refer to Boomer as "he" because his score-keeping, trash-talking voice was unmistakably male, quite similar to the voice of Dave Jordan, his handler. Since Boomer has just one eye -- a wide-angle video camera overlooking the court -- I tried to think of him not as a computer but as a kind of clumsy Cyclops, but I had trouble holding on to that thought once the match began.

Boomer is multidimensional. He comprises a desktop model connected to a ball-throwing machine, tied in to the video cam. The ensemble is a cut above -- actually, several cuts above -- the standard ball-throwing machine.

At its best, the standard machine can swivel, projecting one ball to your forehand and the next one to your backhand, over and over. It's fine if you want to stand in the same place and practice the same shot again and again, but that's about as far as it goes.

Jordan, a longtime tennis player with a professional background in robotics, wanted to come up with something more challenging. He wanted a machine that could move the ball all over the court, with topspin or backspin, passing an opponent who rushes the net or able to lob into the back court. He wanted a contraption that could discern not only whether the opponent's shot was in, but how good it was -- by virtue of its pace and location.

And, oh yes, he wanted a device that could distract the opponent by making snide comments throughout the match.

Jordan, 48, an electrical engineer whose main business is designing control systems for industrial robots, has been perfecting his idea for the past five years or so. In addition to his technical expertise, he brings some knowledge of tennis to the task. He was on his college tennis team, at the University of Rochester, and he acquired the nickname "Boomer" when he was playing competitively in Danbury, Conn., where he won the municipal men's singles title one year. (A few years ago he injured a foot and gave up tennis for volleyball, so he's happy to pass his tennis moniker on to his machine.)

Part of the challenge of playing tennis against a decent player, Jordan realized when he was conceiving Boomer, is that you never know where, or how fast, your opponent is going to hit the ball. A good player will keep you guessing, and disrupt your rhythm. Jordan wanted Boomer to be an opponent like that. In fact, using a voice command, he can adjust Boomer's level of play from novice (2.0) to professional (7.0).

All of this was fine by me (except for the computer part). I was quite intrigued, especially after I received a press release from Jordan's publicist, promoting Boomer's debut Friday, at Topnotch Resort and Spa at Stowe, against Luke Jensen, a retired tour player and former French Open Champion.

"Not since Riggs vs. King has a match generated so much intrigue," the press release hyperventilated. "It's science fiction meets tennis reality. It's ... Man vs. Machine." As if that weren't enough, the blurb went on to invoke the famous chess challenge that pitted Gary Kasparov against IBM's Deep Blue.

Being a sucker for clever press releases, I decided to take on Boomer myself for a preview story. This would certainly be a match for the ages, with Boomer representing the Modern Age, and me the Dark Age -- or, more charitably, Middle Age.

After all, I was playing tennis when computers were garage-sized lummoxes that consumed stacks of punch cards. True, I haven't played much tennis since then, which must have been obvious to Boomer and company when I showed up at Topnotch carrying two ancient rackets, one of which was wooden -- a Dunlop Fort, my favorite model back in the old days. (I picked this one up at Recycle North a few weeks ago. When I happened to see it on the shelf, I couldn't believe my good luck -- the frame was unscarred, unwarped, with tight, gut strings that by themselves were easily worth the price -- $2.)

Great outdoors

All of which reminds me of the second misgiving I had about this match: It was indoors.

See, when I was a kid in Wisconsin, we never played tennis indoors, for the simple reason that we had no indoor courts. If we wanted to play tennis in the winter, we'd have to wait for an improbable thaw, and then we'd have to find an open court with a wire net -- the only kind of net that was left up year-round. I wish I could say that we sometimes shoveled the courts or plowed them -- that would make a nice story -- but we never did, I suppose because we weren't really into tennis that much.

In any case, I grew up with the idea that tennis was an outdoor game, and that was that. The only people who played indoors, as far as I knew, were big-name pros like Pancho Gonzales and rich, big-city folks. My high school tennis team played only outdoors, often against kids from farm towns for whom tennis was still something of a novelty, and I recall winning one match quite handily against an opponent -- a wrestler -- who didn't know how to score.

The wide-ranging quality of the outdoor courts in Wisconsin was always part of the sport's charm for me. Playing tennis in various towns was kind of like playing golf on different courses. For example, my high school's courts were concrete, and the cracks had been filled in with tar that formed little ridges -- so, if your shot hit the tar just right, the ball wouldn't bounce at all.

One of my favorite rural courts was paved by a local highway department. Ants built little hills in the cracks, so some sections of the asphalt played almost like a clay surface. Around the edge of the court were several large birch and cottonwood trees, which were all in play according to the house rules, and I remember saving more than a few points by lofting the ball into the overhanging branches.

Now serving

Alas, Boomer is strictly an indoor player. That's partly because the camera isn't sensitive enough to work well in dusky, cloudy conditions. Jordan hopes eventually to make the necessary improvements so Boomer can go outside -- that's where the market for this invention undoubtedly is, since the great majority of tennis courts worldwide are, ahem, outdoors. For now, though, Jordan is hoping to peddle Boomer to indoor clubs. The purchase price is $14,000 -- about three times the price of the standard deluxe ball-thrower -- but he's hoping that some clubs will spring for his rental option, a paltry $305 a month.

In any event, there I was last Thursday morning in alien territory -- standing on a smooth, unrutted court in an indoor "tennis facility," facing a computerized opponent across a perfectly raised, fully intact cord net. It seemed almost like another sport altogether.

Here's how the match worked: When it was my turn to serve, Boomer would toss me a couple of balls, wait 20 seconds, and tell me to serve. Soon after I hit my serve, Boomer would send another ball to my side of the court, which I had to return (assuming my serve was in) to keep the point going. If I hit a shot out, or into the net, Boomer would announce this and give the score. Now and then between points or games he'd say, in a sneering sort of voice, "OK, Mr. Burlington Free Press," or "Timmeee," in an annoying falsetto, or "Tim-m-m-m," with a deep, horror-movie style tone. Meanwhile, Jordan stood off to the side taking it all in.

Boomer is a pretty good player, but his game has one obvious weakness: the serve. Since he's only about two feet tall, there's no way he can put any real speed on his serve and still get it in, even if he uses topspin. He reminded me of some of those wrestlers I played against in high school who despaired of ever getting a serve in overhand and were reduced to serving underhand. I used to eat those guys alive, and I loved it.

Boomer's ground strokes, however, were far better than those of any wrestler I've ever seen, and they proved too much for me.

I played three games at level 4.0 (intermediate). I lost all three, but I did win a few points. ("On the line," Boomer would say grudgingly, after several of my best shots.)

Then I played three games at level 7.0 (professional), just to get a taste of what it might have been like to play against Pancho Gonzales (apart from the serve, of course).

I might have won one point, maybe not. I can't remember clearly. It was all over so fast.

One annoying thing about the 7.0 game: During several of our "exchanges" I hit the ball in, but not deep enough. When my shot landed inside the service line, Boomer peremptorily awarded himself the point. Jordan later explained that, at the professional level, shallow shots like the ones I was hitting are pure losers.

Even more annoying, though, was the time Boomer netted one of his serves. (I was incredulous -- a fault on a namby-pamby serve like that!) He didn't even bother with a second serve -- he just gave himself the point. (Outrageous! He must have thought I didn't know how to score.) Jordan explained afterward that I could have challenged this call -- the computer program makes this option available if you stand in a certain part of the court and shout and wave your arms, or something. But by the time I found out about this, it was too late, and I had resigned myself to completing the match under protest.

My only regret is that I never had a chance to use my other antique racket: a Wilson T-2000, which was one of the first steel models to come out back in the late '60s.

But then, my T-2000 is strictly an outdoor racket. I can't wait for Boomer to work himself into good enough shape to face me on my turf -- a pock-marked, weed-sprouting, moss-besotted outdoor court. When that happens, I'm going to kick his you-know-what.



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