They Said What? Check Marks

by: Peter Bodo | April 16, 2013

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“I don’t think we need it. There are ball marks on clay, and our chair umpires are used to checking the marks when needed, so why would we need Hawk-Eye?”—Gilbert Ysern, a former umpire and director general of the French Open, to the New York Times in 2009.

Watching the first stirrings of the clay-court season in Europe this morning, I again found myself wondering why red-clay tournaments persist in ignoring the advances brought to the game by the electronic line-calling system known as Hawk-Eye.

I can see why the French Open and other major clay events resisted at the outset. The technology was unproven and—as we came to learn—not quite as accurate as first thought. The price was prohibitive. And, of course, there was (and still is) the sentimental attachment to the tradition of chair umpires climbing down and dashing over to examine a mark at the request of a player.

This can be quite a spectacle, especially with a portly umpire. Let’s be honest about this—haven’t you secretly hoped that an official might tumble off his perch in his hurry to get down, or rip the back of his trousers as he dashes over to study the mark left by the ball? Undeniably, mark-checking is a charming nod toward history and a quaint tennis ritual, like a player lifting his hand in apology after he hits a let-cord winner.

But since those early years, Hawk-Eye has become not only ubiquitous but presumably less expensive as critics—including players—have been won over, the fan-friendly benefits have become obvious, and the demand has increased. And Hawk-Eye has become truly accurate: To within 3.6 millimeters, according to its inventor, Englishman Paul Hawkins.

Alright, I can hear the stock arguments against this, starting with the traditionalist voice defending the forensics of ball marks and ending with the reasonable point that the gain—if any—would not justify the financial outlay. Let’s remember, too, that Hawk-Eye still doesn’t exist on all courts of any event that doesn’t have the financial backing of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, the owner of the all-Hawk-Eye, all-the-time Indian Wells tournament.

But keep in mind that there are still periodic conflicts about both mark location and proximity to the line. Sometimes, player and umpire argue over the mark being examined. And in an age when television uses Hawk-Eye-like technology even when the system is not in effect, tournament officials are just asking for trouble if they don’t use what technology is available. There has yet to be a big dispute over a mark at a critical moment in a tournament, but it’s bound to happen.

In Monte Carlo this week, you have one “system” on court (the human one, which is the final word) and another coming from the TV booth, which uses Hawk-Eye-like imaging to show where shots landed.

How about we start with this: An experiment in which Hawk-Eye covers a match and then officials compare its projections with the “human” technology of mark-checking. The experiment would need to be done a few times, given that many matches are free of disagreements over marks and calls. If there’s no discrepancy between the Hawk-Eye results and the decisions made by umpires, then Ysern and his like are vindicated. But if there’s a difference, something is wrong somewhere and needs to be fixed.

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