Editors Note: This piece was originally produced in 2016, to run with coverage of that year’s Wimbledon. We’re just about at mid-point in the tournament and since some really, really big matches are coming up, it seems like the right time to re-post it because in the past year, the technology has only improved.
It’s Tennis Season. We’ve had the French Open and now comes the Big W, Wimbledon, the most famous tennis tournament in the world. Tennis played on grass is distinctly different from tennis played on any other surface: it’s faster, a great serve (and a great service return) can take you all the way to the finals, and the surface itself is treacherous: balls can skid and skip and players can slip (that’s why the players wear shoes with small, miniscule cleats on them). Hard court tournaments, like the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, are played on surfaces that offer a truer bounce and require an all-court game. The French Open is played on clay, which requires a game of solid ground strokes, on-court physical endurance, and the ability to work a point to get a winning shot.
At Wimbledon–as in all tennis tournaments–there will be lots of close line calls. And even though Wimbledon has expert linesmen (as do most tournaments), the Big W uses a technology called Hawk-Eye to finalize decisions on close line calls.
It’s pretty snappy technology and three of the four major tennis tournaments use Hawk-Eye: Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. The French Open does not use it; the French say that the unique qualities of playing on clay do not make the surface ideal for Hawk-Eye and point out that because the clay playing surface is soft, the umpire can walk over to the area where the call is disputed and see the actual mark made by the ball and use that information to make the call.
Hawk Eye is relatively new technology. It was invented by an English computer scientist named Paul Hawkins and was first used in 2001. The system has improved every year and even though players say they have by reason of experience a very good take on when a shot is or out, it turns out the players are wrong approximately 45% of the time. That means that taking the player’s word on these types of things gives an approximately 50/50 chance of having the call turn out right, and 50/50 is just not enough for major tennis (or any sports) event. As you might suspect, Hawk-Eye technology is being seeded into other sports (soccer for example) that have similar issues with inbounds/out of bounds play.
Hawk-Eye adds to the speed of the game by quickly solving disputed line calls and takes the pressure off harassed linemen and chair umpires, but it has removed from the game one of its’ great spectacles: watching a player plead his case or toss a hissy fit over what he believes is an erroneous line call. The Michelangelo of line call dispute arguments was John McEnroe, who raised his protests to an unnerving art form. To hear McEnroe scream out “Are you kidding me?” after a line call that did not go his way, was to see a player totally and completely invested in the game and each and every point in the game. Hawk-Eye leaves no room for a successor to McEnroe. Some are very glad of that fact, and others miss the day when an American player cared so deeply about the game, me among them.
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