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, 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
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
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.)
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.
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
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.