The Racquet Scientist: Hawk-Eye

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 /by

PicMornin', faithful readers. You'll notice the somewhat unusual headline above, which is the first in what I envision as a series of relatively brief, targeted, opinion-driven, daily posts providing commentary on news items as well as general issues and themes in tennis. We all know that tennis isn't exactly racquet science, but then everyone loves to play boyor girlgenius. I just happen to be lucky enough to do it for a living, under the imprimatur of TENNIS.com. And so, away we go. . . 

by Pete Bodo

The United States defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in January 2006 to win the ITF’s Official Mixed Teams Championships, aka the Hopman Cup. The tournament began, as always, on December 30th of the previous year. Here's a trivia question for you: Why will that date live in infamy in the mind of Roger Federer, who didn't even play that event?

Because it marked the first use of the Hawk-Eye Electronic Line-Calling System, or HELCS. (Okay, I made that upthere is no acronym, but doesn't it beg for one?) And we all know how Roger feels about that.

Interestingly, the major challenge for the concept of electronic line-calling was deciding how to employ the technology. Would every point be tracked and a buzzer sound when a ball was out? Would the umpire have a video hook-up, enabling him to review every point-ending call? What about balls that flew beyond the line but were never called outhow would you deal with that?

The main, often unspoken problem was how to use technology in a way that didn't intrude on the natural flow of play (can you imagine a breathtaking rally between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic ending when a harsh buzzer sounded, seemingly out of nowhere?), and also retained the precious "human factor" in a game that already can seem slightly antiseptic, at least on televisiona rigidly-drawn playing field, a lot of empty space at all times, not very many eye-pleasing or diverting distractions.

Ultimately the powers that be embraced the current challenge system, which awards each player three challenges per set and an additional one if a set goes to a tiebreaker. It was a brilliant decision, because it increased decision-making, rather than eliminating it, or leaving it in purely in the hands of a machine. It also added drama, a digital seal of approval, and fan-friendly componentsall without eliminating the umpire and the platoon of linespersons who always add some welcome human interest to the proceedings. 

But it also left the game open to a nightmare scenario, which is the prospect of a player losing a match because he or she has no challenges left with which to reverse a call that instant replay shows as clearly wrong. While I'm a fan of the present system, I've been waiting for six years now for that other shoe to drop, and it almost did about 10 days ago in Miami.

You may remember that Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki were tangled up in a fiercely competitive semifinal at the Sony Ericsson Open. Wozniacki had exhausted her three challenges by the time Sharapova served for the match at 5-4. Sharapova failed to convert a match point, but soon arrived at another one. She wacked a service fault. Those who were aware of her persistent serving woes (she had five in the match to that point, bad in general but actually pretty good for Sharapova these days) held their breath as she delivered that second serve.

Give her credit, she went for itand the serve proved unreturnable. But the big second serve was immediately called a faultDeuce!

But no. Chair umpire Kader Nouni immediately overruled to call the serve good and called for a let to be played.

Wozniacki was livid; she glared at Nouni and argued, unable to challenge. She refused to shake Nouni's hand after losing the following point, and threw her towel in disgust as she packed up her gear. Had that second serve been a fault, and had Sharapova's serve been, say, a clear ace that Wozniacki wasn't near (but a serve that Nouni still felt the need to overrule in her favor), we would have had a historic, first case of a very close match ending on a bad call because the wronged player had run out of challenges. That it would have ended on a mistaken overrule would have added an extra, exquisite layer of irony to the scenario, making it a kind of Golden Slam of officiating screw-ups. But the game dodged a bulletthe closest one I ever saw in this regard, because Hawk-Eye showed the serve clearly was in and thus a clean, match-ending winner.

By the way, Wozniacki later said she was angry because she felt that Nouni should not have overruledthat he should have waited for a Sharapova challenge (it was sure to come; she hadn't used up hers). But that doesn't make sense at all. Nouni was right. The serve was good. The right player won.

And the vigil for the nightmare scenarios continues. . . 

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