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Tennis Moves Toward Taking the Human Element Out of Line Calls

In tennis, few things arouse the crowd more than confrontations, especially those involving players, umpires and line judges.

Who can forget Ilie Nastase pulling down his pants and mooning the chair umpire Charles Hare in Palm Springs in 1976? Or John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981 screaming, “You cannot be serious, man!” after what he perceived to be an incorrect call, and referring to the umpire Edward James as the “absolute pits of the world”?

Or that night at the 2009 United States Open when Serena Williams cursed at and threatened to stuff a tennis ball down the throat of the line judge Shino Tsurubuchi for calling a foot fault, an incident that cost Williams her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters?

But tennis tantrums could soon go by the wayside. The ATP World Tour, the governing body of men’s professional tennis, is testing Hawk-Eye Live, an electronic line-calling device that would eliminate the need for line judges. The system will be discussed by ATP leadership and then debated by players and officials during ATP Council meetings at Wimbledon this summer.

“In our sport, things change really slowly,” said McEnroe, 59, who played under Hawk-Eye Live during the ATP Champions event at the Delray Beach Open in Florida last month. “But if the technology is there, all you really need is an umpire to call the score. It’s not like it would be the players calling their own lines.”

He added that he might have been a better player with no line judges to argue with, “but I would have been more boring.”

The current Hawk-Eye system, which made its debut in 2004, acts as a check on human line-calling. Through computer-generated software and courtside integration, line calls are made and recorded but put into play only when a player challenges the validity of a call made by a line judge or the chair umpire. The replay of the ball’s bounce is projected on giant screens around the stadium, generating suspense — and often rhythmic clapping from spectators — until it is determined whether the call was accurate. Each player is allowed three incorrect challenges per set and is awarded another should the set go to a tiebreaker.

More than 100 ATP and WTA tournaments use Hawk-Eye, as do all four Grand Slam tournaments, though the system is not available on all courts. (At the French Open, as at other clay events, Hawk-Eye is used only for television broadcasts and statistical analysis as ball marks are more definitive on clay courts than on hard or grass surfaces.)

Hawk-Eye Live, which has been in the works for the last two years and was tested at the NextGen ATP Finals in Milan in November and again in Delray Beach, goes beyond the challenge system and makes every on-court call. The system sends visual and audio cues to the chair umpire and off-court monitors within a tenth of a second of a ball bouncing.

The core technology is very similar to Hawk-Eye,” said James Japhet, managing director of Hawk-Eye Americas. “We’ve just added more live elements, like cameras mounted behind the court and looking across the baseline that can detect foot faults. We’ve taken the entire human element out of it.”

There is, however, a manned booth behind and above the court, and there will always be a chair umpire on court. In Milan, line judges wearing plain clothes sat in the stands as seat fillers, ready to intervene if the system malfunctioned.

One of the biggest issues was determining what sound Hawk-Eye Live should emit in making an “out” call.

“We tried horns, buzzers and beeps,” said Gayle David Bradshaw, the ATP’s executive vice president for rules and competition. “We didn’t want it sounding like the buzzer on the ‘Family Feud.’ Finally, we decided to record different human voices yelling ‘out,’ so it doesn’t sound monotonous. We’ll add a different voice for the foot fault call.”

According to Japhet, the extra cost to tournaments for upgrading to Hawk-Eye Live will be offset by eliminating the cost of paying, housing, feeding and clothing line judges.

Japhet and Bradshaw acknowledged that replacing line judges with technology will not only put people out of jobs, but it will also dehumanize the game a little bit.

“I understand that this may officiating, especially because our up-and-coming chair umpires are almost always linespeople first,” Bradshaw said. “We’re also taking away some of the entertainment value with the challenges because fans like to debate whether they think the call was right or not.

“But we can replace that by showing close calls on the big screens so the fans can see them as replays at the same time the players and officials are seeing them. As far as the players, they no longer have to worry about bad calls; they can just play the game. And if we have a system out there that’s better, don’t we owe it to our athletes to have access to it?”

Japhet said Hawk-Eye Live was being used worldwide in soccer, cricket and Nascar racing.

Jesse Levine, who competed on the ATP Tour for eight years before retiring in 2014, played the Champions event in Delray Beach using Hawk-Eye Live. He saw the pros and cons.

“It’s cool because it’s a computer-generated system, so it’s never wrong,” said Levine, 30, who now coaches the WTA pro Jessica Pegula. “There can’t be any mistakes. You’re not going to argue with a machine.

“That said,” he added, “the negative is that there’s not so much interaction with the fans. There’s no cheering during challenges. More important, it’s not in the tradition of tennis. In all these sports, there’s a human element that creates suspense. That’s what the challenge system is for. This is really cool to experience once in a while, but not all the time.”

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