following article appeared in the Stowe Reporter in September
By Pete Hartt
It's not exactly the tennis version of Gary Kasparov
vs Deep Blue, but Dave Jordan is trying to take just such
a man-against-machine battle to the courts.
Former French Open winner (Doubles 1993) and TV commentator
Luke Jensen will be the first to tackle Jordan's tennis
machine "Boomer" in a match situation Sept. 26
when he takes the court against the machine. That battle,
regardless of the winner, will signal the start of Jordan's
business venture and the end of a five-year effort to build
a better tennis practice machine.
A single camera mounted high on the Topnotch Tennis Center
wall is the critical component. It feeds information into
the computer which calls the shots in or out, decides what
shots win points, keeps score, directs the opponent what
to do next, and determines how to place Boomer's own shots.
Innovative software inside the computer allows for ball
Waiting for a foe, Boomer sits at the baseline, directly
in the center of the court. During development the machine
has a computer on a card table behind it. Once final adjustments
are completed the unit will be self contained except for
the wall-mounted video camera, and a speaker at the opposite
end of the court.
Jordan's machine very nearly recreates the experience
of a complete tennis game: Boomer serves, returns shots,
moves the opposing player around the court, and even does
a modest amount of trash talking. Creator Jordan's voice
does Boomer's talking, offering both direction, "Serve
to the deuce court," and a little atmosphere, "I
can't believe you beat me!"
"It began mostly with a love of tennis," Jordan
said. "I started playing seriously at the age of 16,
and played all the time."
When Jordan first moved to the area (he lives in Jeffersonville)
from Connecticut, where he owned his own business called
Robot Optimizers, he was a fixture at area tennis courts.
Most often he would play other similarly skilled players,
but many times he was alone, serving and retrieving buckets
It was the time spent alone on the court that prompted
Jordan's five-year quest.
" Ball machines only move left and right," Jordan
said. "They've improved, but they are still limited.
When you reach a higher level of play, you have to work
on your footwork. I also wanted feedback. The most difficult
issue was judging the other players shots, whether they
would be winners, and how Boomer would react."
The machine, which is built around a tennis ball machine
called the Sports Tutor Shotmaker, can toss shots back
at foes at a variety of angles, a variety of speeds and
with various spins. Jordan, a 5.0 rated player, has set
the machine up to play at various levels, from 3.0 to professional
(where Mr. Jensen will do battle).
Boomers game is realistic except for one significant special
rule. All the machine's serves and shots are considered "good" and
need to be played, even when they land outside the lines.
That forces the human player to keep hitting until he or
she hits a "winner." And the higher the level
you set the machine, the better the shot that must be hit
"I picked what I thought was my level to set the
speed of shots," Jordan said. "It doesn't really
matter what level they are playing at, everybody's reaction
is the same, they all want to beat the machine."
Jordan's Robot Optimizers company grew out of his work
for the first robotics manufacturer in the United States.
His after-market add-on control enhanced the operation
of manufacturing robots. A major sale to General Motors
helped finance the beginnings of Boomer, but Jordan is
counting on sales of his new and improved training partner
taking off despite a cost expected to be around $14,000.
"I think initially I'm hoping to lease machines to
tennis clubs," said Jordan, who was educated as an
electrical engineer. "The price tag may be a little
steep for a person to buy one for himself. "
A friend from his Connecticut days wrote most of the software
for the machine, and Jordan has been tinkering ever since,
working on an unused court at the Topnotch Indoor Tennis
Center. The voice that Boomer uses to talk to its foes
is Jordan's, and there are always little niggling bugs
to be worked out.
The camera is not sensitive enough to adjust to varying
light levels, which is delaying the development of an outdoor
version since outdoor light levels change constantly. More
recently, acquiring the proper lens for a new camera has
been difficult. Little problems like that, and determining
exactly how he wants the machine to play, and then making
it play that way, have kept Jordan busy and will make him
even busier as he tries to make it perfect in time for
"That's the big kick off," Jordan said. "I'm
trying to make it perfect by then."
By Pete Hartt
Yes, it's been two months since I last picked up a tennis
racket. And no, I wasn't really all that good to begin
with, but I'm ready to take on... that!
Boomer sits squatly on the baseline of Court One at the
Topnotch Tennis Center as its creator Dave Jordan stands
in the service alley wagging his arms, apparently to control
the tennis playing machine he built, or at least to get
its camera-to-computer attention.
Clad in my not-quite regulation shorts and shirt, with
racket in hand, I await my cue to stride out and show Jordan
the folly of his efforts. It's a machine for goodness sakes,
and it can't move as well as I can (only because it doesn't
move at all). Most important, it's never seen a tennis
game like my tennis game.
I get the okay to proceed and stride out to the service
line. The machine is set at the lowest level of play, and
Jordan's voice (also the voice of Boomer) speaks from a
speaker behind me.
"First serve, to the deuce court."
The ball comes whipping over the net, low and to my forehand.
I step forward and hammer a return. It floats gently across
the net and lands toward the left alley near the service
line. Back Boomer's return comes, to my backhand, for a
"15-love, serve to the add court," Boomer's
I prepare for the next serve, and Boomer applies it to
my backhand again, apparently thinking he has found a winning
strategy. It has.
Back in the deuce court, trailing 30-love I set up to
receive serve again. It comes to my backhand again and
I manage a firm return, which Boomer again returns to my
I charge across the baseline and loft a high shot that
sails over Boomer's head (well, he doesn't really have
a head per say, but it sails over where his head would
be if he had one), and hits the computer monitor sitting
four feet off the court.
The point is over and Boomer announces that I have hit
a winner. Dave Jordan pipes up from the sideline that the
camera gets confused when you hit Boomer and judges the
But hey, there's no arguing with a machine, I'll take
the point. I tuck the priceless piece of information away
for future reference.
Three points later I've mastered just enough of the 3.0
level to beat Boomer.
"I can't believe you beat me," Boomer says.
It's head would be hanging, if it had one.
Now I'm ready to move the level up. "Regional?" "Satellite?" "Professional?"
Right to the top baby, give me the Andy Roddick.
Four points and a quart of sweat later Boomer's nonexistent
head is again held high and Dave Jordan turns the machine
down to regional.
Boomer never forgets to attack my back hand, punishes
me for every weak return, and runs me around the court
until I am moving at exactly the same speed it is. As the
severe emotional beating goes on, the shots from the human
end of the court actually start to improve. But, while
the machine doesn't get any better, it's still much better
than I am.
After a few brief lopsided victories, Jordan takes pity
and lowers the level to regional. The beating continues,
but at a pace where I can both see the ball, and see a
light at the end of the tunnel.
After dropping three more games, I get the serve, and
get lucky. After two aces and one shot on the baseline,
I stand ready to use the knowledge gleaned early in the
afternoon. I crank up my serve and aim at Boomer. Success!
My shot hits the back of the monitor, confuses the camera,
and I walk smugly off the court with a single-game, regional-level
It would be nice if Boomer could actually break down and
cry at his defeat (as I was tempted to do at mine), but
instead he doesn't even offer an "I can't believe
you beat me." (That, apparently, is a random feature.)
Oh well, Dave Jordan never said it was perfect, just better.