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If it doesn't help you improve your tennis game, the Babolat Play Pure Drive racket will at least motivate you to play more. And that by itself is a good thing.
Thanks to a variety of sensors inside, the racket will analyze your game and spit out the information in a mobile app. You'll also be able to chart your progress toward various skill levels and, if you like, compare your performance in a Community section.
Technology became more important in tennis about nine years ago, when the Hawk-Eye system began to be used in some pro tournaments. Babolat is designed for both amateurs and and pros, but I wouldn't put too much stock in using the data it gathers to actually play better. It's great, for example, to know how hard you've hit a ball, but a powerful serve is useless if you can't return a serve in court.
The Babolat Play Pure Drive is available for $299, and the company's new model that will go on sale this spring for $349.
The Pure Drive is the first racket from the French company that integrates sensors to analyze your game and allows you to compete with other Pure Drive owners online. Even with the tech inside, the Pure Drive isn't abnormally bulky or heavy, with a head size of 645 square cm and a balance point of 320 mm. It weighs 300 grams, which should make for a consistent playing experience if you've never used a smart racket before.
The graphite Pure Drive looks like any other racket on the market, but look closely at the grip and you'll see the sensors that measure the various aspects of your game. At the end of the grip there's a small door with two buttons: one to turn the racket on and off and another to activate Bluetooth. A blinking LED in the grip shows notifications of the racket's status. For example, a blue light tells you that the racket is on, a purple light shows when Bluetooth is activated, and a blinking red light warns of a low battery.
Underneath the door there's a Micro-USB connector for charging the battery and transferring data to a PC or a Mac. Babolat claims that the battery life should last for as long as 6 hours of gameplay, which should be enough for practice and a couple of matches.
To its credit, Babolat has been able to accomplish something in the racket's design that no other competing product can match. Zepp Tennis, for example, requires you to add a small device to the end of a racket's grip, an unwieldy arrangement that places the sensors in a more inconvenient location.
Of course, an advantage of the Zepp Tennis sensor is that you can use it with any racket, while Babolat only offers three rackets with smart components: the Play Pure Drive, the Play AeroPro Drive and the Play Pure Drive Lite. So, if you're used to keeping a spare racket and still want to measure your play, you'll have to shell out some serious cash for two smart rackets. And that's keeping in mind that the racket is the most precious tool for a tennis player. Just like there are no two players alike, there is no one racket that fits all.
Inside the grip, the Babolat Play Pure Drive has accelerometers, gyroscopes and piezoelectric sensors. The accelerometers determine the direction of the racket while the gyroscopes tracks its rotation to analyze the shot you're hitting. It provides that information to the app that you can install for free on an iOS or Android device, as well as on a PC or Mac.
Through the ball impact locator feature, the piezoelectric sensor analyzes the vibration of the racket to inform you of the racket's "sweet spot" (the best place on the racket head to impact the ball). And from there, other components such as the microprocessor translate and record the data and send it to the app. The racket connects to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, and to your computer using the included USB charging cable.
In the Babolat app you'll find a breakdown of your shots by type, your total number of shots, and the time that you've used the racket. In addition, you can see your frequency (shots per minute), power and best rally, and get data on your power and spin.
You have to approve each session before it's included into your Pulse, which is your overall score that lets you compete in the Babolat Play community. There you will find an analysis of your performance, including technique, endurance and power, and a comparison with the community to give you a ranking.
The app also has a Skills section to see what levels you've reached, while the Records section shows your highest performance in different areas. Lastly, the Community section allows you to check both your rankings and the rankings of others. By enabling Bluetooth in the racket, you can sync data with the app. You can access this information at any time through the community's Web page or the Babolat app.
In general, Babolat offers the same kind of information that Zepp Tennis and other sensors offer, but Babolat's data is more accurate. Zepp outdoes Babolat with a 3D analysis of your serve, but it lacks a community section.
The data that Babolat's technology delivers only helps you better your game if you have the correct guidance. And even then, it's not perfect.
During my tests, the total number of shots that the Pure Drive recorded usually was slightly off from the real number. I suspect that the racket was counting some occasions when I was just picking up or bouncing the ball -- things that are really common for a tennis player.
At other times, the racket recorded shots that I never hit. For instance, after hitting a few forehands and backhands while warming up, the app said I had hit a couple of serves. Perhaps the racket confused a smash with a serve, even though it's supposed to determine the difference between the two. In addition, the total number of serves was not equal to all the shots that I hit, even if I was including the smashes.
The racket also recorded some shots as flat when I was hitting them with topspin. That may have happened because I was following through all the way (or finishing my shot), which the racket detected as bad technique. But whatever the reason, that's something that happens frequently in tennis.
The Pure Drive can't differentiate between a ground stroke and a volley, either. Babolat claims that the string type or tension and the vibration dampener don't affect the sensors collecting the data, but I'm not so sure.
Pulse, the score that measures your technique, resistance and power will slowly decline the longer you go without playing. The more you play and the more consistent you are, the stronger your Pulse will be.
The Babolat Play Pure Drive is an excellent racket for getting to know your tennis game more in-depth. Its electronics are totally embedded, giving it the same design, weight and balance as Babolat's regular rackets.
The racket records a lot of data to help you understand your game. Unfortunately, the app can be confusing, and many people won't know what to do with all that information. Sure, counting an approximate number of shots hit, the rallies and similar information is useful, but the data you get isn't perfect, and it won't be the solution that most coaches look for.
That's why you have to take all that information as only a piece of the puzzle for improving your game. A detailed breakdown of how you're hitting the ball can be insightful, but what really matters is whether the ball is going into the court and that you're winning the points. That's why the data won't make you a better player by itself. Your technique may improve, and technique is important, but other factors will make the ultimate difference between winning and losing.
What the Pure Drive will do is motivate you to play more and to compete with others. Both are great things, with the latter being a lot of fun if you're competitive.
At $299, the price of the Babolat Play Pure Drive is almost twice the price of the regular model ($159). This makes it hard to recommend unless you are a really avid tennis fanatic who wants to know all kinds of details about your game and you want to compete with friends and the rest of the Babolat community.