Given that Tennis Talent is all about becoming a better player, no matter what your starting level, it’s natural that the very first racket we review is designed to help you develop your game.
The Babolat Pure Aero Play may look normal, but inside sit numerous sensors that help the racket detect not only where you hit the ball on the strings, but what type of spin you applied, what type of shot it was (backhand, for example) and even the speed with which you hit it.
This raises two obvious questions. First, how accurate is the data it produces? Second, what can you do with that data to make you a better player?
How accurate is the data?
When it comes to detecting the type of shot you hit – backhand, forehand, volley or serve – the Pure Aero Play is spot on. I tested it in a ball machine session and its result tallied perfectly with mine.
I found it less useful when it came to spin detection, with it declaring that of the 85 backhands I played only three had topspin. Perhaps it’s too used to Rafa-strength topspin, because I would say at least 70 of those had some – albeit not quite to the same extent as Mr Nadal.
Its forehand results were much more accurate, which suggests that it could be something in the way I hit the ball. In other words, your results may differ!
I can also say, categorically, that’s a huge improvement on the data offered by third-party add-ons such as Zepp’s. Yes, this allows you to use your existing racket, but it’s a cumbersome addition that I found flew off far too frequently.
What can you do with the data?
Much of the data you can act upon; much of it you can’t.
For example, I do find it useful to know that I’m hitting the serve in the middle or left of the racket. If I’m spending quarter of an hour on my first serve and it tells me that I keep hitting in the middle – when I’m trying to hit at the top – then that’s something I can act upon.
Likewise the fact my topspin wasn’t being recognised made me more determined to hit it with aggressive topspin when I was going for those shots, rather than being half-flat, half-spinny. If that’s even possible.
Finally, it’s worth noting that so long as you remember to switch it on before you play – press the Power button on the butt of the racket – it acts as a handy way to keep track of when you played and for how long.
We need to talk about the app
Babolat has integrated the stats feedback into its generic Babolat app, and the end result is in stark contrast to the sleekness of the racket itself – at least on the Android version I was testing.
To start with, I never found a way for it to automatically synchronise. Instead, I had to add the racket within the app each time. Perhaps I was doing something wrong, but either way this isn’t an intuitive process.
Once detected the app stores your activity against a date, and you can tap on it to list whether it was an “open session”, training or a match. A few steps later and you’re ready to press “Validate” at the top right of the screen, at which point it should be uploaded to Babolat’s servers.
Except I only got this to happen sporadically. That’s also a shame, because it meant I couldn’t climb the rankings list – each session gives you a number of points. Kind of like the ATP Tour, but with no cash.
This is part of Babolat’s attempts to create a social network of Play-ers, but I didn’t find anyone with more than two followers… and I’m not quite sure what good it does anyway.
Then there were the stability problems. Since the most recent Android update, the app crashes immediately upon opening. I’ve restarted the phone to try and get around this, but without any luck. Even before the update, I would never describe the app as stable.
The racket itself
I’ve played with the Babolat Play for over a month now, including four singles matches and too many doubles matches to count – plus various drills and social sessions. And I must admit that I’ve fallen in love with it.
That may have something to do with the Babolat strings as well, while my coach would argue that it’s due to his excellent stringing service, but the end result is a racket that gives me control with the option of power.
Whether it’s due to me improving as a player or the racket, I’ve been more consistent since switching from my regular Wilson 101 – perhaps because I don’t feel I need to add so much racket-head speed to generate power.
Should you buy the Babolat Aero Play?
The Aero Play is expensive at £240 to £300, depending on the handle size you need, but I’d break it down into two parts. You’re effectively spending £150 on the racket – the straight Babolat Aero costs £154 from Amazon as I write – and at least another £90 on the technology.
So you’d have to derive that much benefit to justify the cost (and you’d need to like the racket, of course). To put that into perspective, that’s three to four one-on-one tennis lessons. Could the Aero Play really help your game as much as that?
“Perhaps” is the not-very-helpful answer. Doing regular drills to improve your forehand, to make sure you’re hitting in the right place, could help you iron out niggles in your style that would be difficult to do even in four tennis lessons.
Likewise volleying and serving, where it’s key to hit the ball in the right place, but difficult to know if you are unless someone is watching you.
Arguments against: you’ll have to be pretty determined to glean £90 of benefit from the stats on offer, and the data should be seen a complement to regular coaching or drills rather than a replacement.
Overall, though, I’m a fan, and I’ve found the data more useful the more I’ve delved into it. If the app was less frustrating then this racket would get a Tennis Talent Recommended award. As it stands, though, it just misses out.