I recently sat down with Rich Kaufman, Director of Officials for the USTA and Chief Umpire for the U.S. Open. We spoke briefly about his introduction to umpiring, and then discussed his involvement in testing several line-calling technologies, one of which became Hawk Eye.
Justin diFeliciantonio: What are your responsibilities?
Rich Kaufman: I’m Director of Officials for the USTA. We certify, we train, we educate. We have about 3,000 certified officials in the U.S. I’m also Chief Umpire for the U.S. Open. As Chief Umpire, I have no power. I can’t go on-court and assess penalties. What I do is work with the Referee, Brian Earley, who’s my immediate boss. [One of our main tasks is that] we assign linemen to all courts.
JD: When did it all start for you, umpiring?
RK: 1977. I was living in London going to grad school. And I got involved with the British officiating, starting at Queen’s Club and a couple other tournaments. At the time I was interested in International Relations. I got an M.A. from U.S.C. My interest in international relations was peace and conflict resolution, diplomacy. In the early ’90s, I went back to London to try to finish a Ph.D. at the L.S.E. But I never finished it, because they offered me this job. I was A.B.D.—All But Dissertation.
JD: That seems to make a lot of sense, your dual interests in diplomacy and officiating.
RK: I umpired in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with McEnroe, Connors, Nastase, and that’s what we were doing—trying to get two bad boys to behave themselves, but also feel comfortable and play a tennis match. That’s how we got jobs, initially. The context was, changes were being made to protect officials. We were hired by the overall tennis council, rather than being contracted by a tournament director to come work the tournament. Problem was, if a tournament director asked you to work a tournament, but you had a tough match with one of their top players who ended up losing, chances were you’d get a miss the next year. The officials were picking up on those dynamics, and people were a little hesitant to penalize or drop a hammer.
JD: You talked earlier about how, as a chief umpire for the USTA, you were involved in the testing and development of line-calling technology, such as Hawk-Eye. What did that involve? How did Hawk-Eye come to be?
RK: Even before Hawk-Eye, there were a lot of people trying to create a technology to do this. And actually, unlike the group that runs the current Hawk-Eye system, people building the technology intended to sell it to clubs, as a sort of novelty—come to this club and have your lines called by this electronic device. Which would be kind of neat, you know. But for a club, the system wouldn’t have to be perfect, right? But when they came to us and said they wanted to build it for the professional level, we said, “It’s gotta be 99.9 percent.” It can’t be 95 percent. But going back before Hawk-Eye, these systems we tested were always 85 percent, 90 percent.
JD: This is going back 20 years?
RK: Yeah, they just weren’t good enough. And the problems that they had were from their approach: They were building things into the balls, into the courts, building wiring into the courts. But what would happen was the environment would break down the system.
JD: Ah, so the strategy always involved the hardware of the game.
RK: Yeah, sensors in the balls, sensors in the courts. But the problem is, in heat, the court can shift, so the sensors, they couldn’t recalibrate because they were in the court. You’d get flooding on the court, which would shut the thing down. Someone’s sneakers with metal in the tips of the toes would set off the machine. So after about, I’d say, 12 years of multiple failures of these companies and millions of dollars of investments and investors, much to their frustration, they packed it in. And a few of us, though we’re not technical experts, we came to the conclusion that maybe we needed to go digital so that the environment didn’t kill the system.
JD: What other rudimentary systems did you encounter? Sensors in the balls, courts—anything else?
RK: Threads on the lines.
RK: It was a very accurate system, once. But the threads were visible. And players thought it affected the bounce of the ball as well as their footing. Which it would. And we tried to tell these people, “The players aren’t—” And then they tried threads underneath the court.
JD: So wait, if the ball hit a thread, a light would go off or something?
RK: Yeah. It’d make the call immediately. You wouldn’t even need a linesman. Hawk-Eye could do this, but it’d take a little more work. But you know, the powers that be in tennis, they didn’t want to get rid of linesmen. Really, once a novelty fades off, I mean, if it’s just “beep, beep, beep, beep,” it’s not very interesting. The human call, the challenge, everyone’s excited. “Oooohh,” you know, where will the ball hit?
JD: So after witnessing all these failures, what happened with Hawk-Eye?
RK: We ran into these young, British tech guys, one of whom was Paul Hawkins. (That’s why it’s called Hawk-Eye.) They had an idea, they said. Digital. They realized a lot of the systems failed because they were hard systems, subject to the wind and the heat and the rain. So they built this system using stationary cameras, tracking the speed, trajectory, and spin of the ball, making calculations right off the racquet. Actually, their system knows within about 15 millimeters, as soon as it leaves the opponent’s racquet, where it’s going to land. And as it gets closer, it re-calibrates. There’s a two millimeter margin of error. And two millimeters, we could accept that. And the system didn’t break down.
But before it all came together, we tested the system for awhile. It was about 90, 95 percent—not good enough. And we were concerned: How do we get them to 99 percent? So they went back to their drawing board and tweaked their system—better cameras, better computer programs. And suddenly we started testing it, and it jumped up to the 99 percentile.
JD: And this was back when?
RK: Eight years ago.
JD: And you were on the committee to—?
RK: Well, it wasn’t a committee. A few of us experts since the beginning would meet in Toronto or London to test a machine. It was always the same guys, because we had the history of testing these machines and knew the questions to ask. The ITF [International Tennis Federation] Technical Committee ran it, but they’d invite a couple of us to come to the testing. Shoot balls out of cannons and take pictures with high-speed cameras to test accuracy. That sort of thing.
JD: You’d shoot balls out of a cannon?
RK: Yeah, we’d put powder on the court to get a mark, like on a clay court. And we’d compare measurements. What’s the computer telling us it’s out by? What’s the baby powder telling us it’s out by? With Hawk Eye, we did a lot of this sort of testing, until it became very accurate. So we tested it behind the scenes at tournaments. We didn’t use it, but we used it; it didn’t affect the match. And it looked like it was working pretty good. And then we threw it out there. A couple glitches, but they’re a pretty good group. And now—the Olympics, every Grand Slam, a lot of Tour events, they use Hawk-Eye.
JD: Why do you think people still enjoy the human element? You know, we have the technology to make practically every call correct. What’s the appeal of having line umpires?
RK: As an official, I like the human element. I’m a realist. If they said to me, we’re getting rid of all your line umpires, and it’s all going to be beep, beep, beep, that’s what we’d do. But the powers that be in tennis—those who run Grand Slams, those of the ATP and WTA tours—they’ve thought about this a lot. And currently, they’d rather still have humans on court making calls that can be tested, if a player wants to challenge.
To read all of Justin diFeliciantonio's reports from the 2012 U.S. Open, click here.