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If Hawk-Eye Live works in NYC, prepare for tennis to use it everywhere
Is there any reason why fans shouldn’t welcome their new robot overlords to the court?
Published Aug 25, 2020
If you’re a tennis fan who also happens to be a technophobe—i.e., if you fear that robots will soon be running our lives—the next few weeks might be tough for you. In the eternal battle between man and machine, the machines are on the verge of claiming a major, long-awaited victory.
Starting this past Saturday, the Western & Southern Open became the first dual-gender tour event to replace line judges with an electronic line-calling system. Next week the US Open will become the first Grand Slam tournament to do the same. Hawk-Eye Live is the name of the technology, and as the name suggests, it was created by the same company that brought electronic replays to the sport—and largely killed the tennis tantrum forever—in 2006.
Over the last three years, Hawk-Eye Live has been used by World TeamTennis and the ATP’s Next Gen Finals in Milan, but it took the pandemic to bring it to Broadway. The USTA needed to reduce the number of people inside its bubble at Flushing Meadows, and electronic line-calling was one brutally quick way to do it. Only during the US Open, and only in Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, will either tournament employ real, live linespeople. By then, many may wonder if they’re still necessary.
Hawk-Eye Live—whose back end is seen here—debuted at the 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals. (Getty Images)
Visually, the difference between the human system and the inhuman one is obvious. With no linespeople stationed around the court’s perimeter, the playing area is much more sparsely populated. A designer would say the new look is “cleaner,” without all of the extra humans around, and the sport’s photographers will likely appreciate having fewer accidental photo-bombs in their action shots.
Aurally, though, there’s hardly any difference at all. Instead of emitting the expected beep when a player makes an error, the system issues a human-sounding “out” call. From what I’ve heard so far, most, but not all, of the simulated voices have been “male.” They’re loud enough to be heard, but they don’t pierce the air the way a human voice does. It’s like we’re all being watched over by an invisible, all-seeing, God-like line judge.
Hawk-Eye Live, in most ways, is a no-brainer. If we’re going to trust the company’s system to be rule on player challenges, why not trust it to make the calls in the first place? That way we can eliminate those challenges, saving time and reducing annoyance levels for everyone involved. (At the Western & Southern Open, chair umpires are not allowed to make overrules, which means that players can’t make appeals.) Hawk-Eye Live can also call foot faults—accurately, in the case of one that Stefanos Tsitsipas committed this weekend.
Most important, the system has the power to eliminate a common, controversy-causing scenario: A line judge calls a ball out at the same time that the player on the same side of the court makes an error; replay then overrules the call, leaving it up to the chair umpire to decide whether or not the call affected the player’s swing. Since all calls should now be correct, that situation shouldn’t arise again.
A Hawk-Eye camera on court at this summer's Bett1Aces exhibition in Berlin, Germany. (Getty Images)
Will all calls be correct? Hawk-Eye’s replays have historically had a 3-mm margin of error, so no, it won’t be 100 percent accurate. But it’s still more accurate than the human eye and, just as important, we already trust it.
What about malfunctions? On Saturday, Venus Williams was dumbstruck when the system made a clear mistake on one of her serves in her first-round loss. In cases like that, the people manning the Hawk-Eye booth can overrule the machine, as they did with Venus’ serve. On Monday, during the night match between Ons Jabeur and Madison Keys, the audio version of Hawk-Eye Live incorrectly called a Jabeur serve out, only to be overruled by the video version.
That’s good news for tennis players and fans, but it may be an ominous development for technophobes. Are the machines learning…to correct themselves?
Some will be left cold by all of this futuristic electronic efficiency. In the past, Roger Federer, no fan of Hawk-Eye’s replay system, has expressed a wish to keep line judges on court, and not rob the sport of one of its human elements. Coach and commentator Darren Cahill tweeted similar sentiments this week. And earlier this month, U.S. player Jessica Pegula told Chris Clarey of the New York Times that she would miss the line judges if they were to disappear.
“It’s a fun part of our sport, and obviously adding the challenges in to kind of question them makes it exciting and more entertaining for fans,” Pegula said. “I don’t know if I would want to eliminate linesmen forever. It’s part of tennis, part of its culture. It’s more interactive that way.”
Will electronic line-calling usurp actual line judges for good? (Getty Images)
Which brings us to the biggest drawback of electronic line-calling: It would put a few hundred people out of work, in the middle of what could be a prolonged recession. Line judges are professionals who travel the tour—one group in the U.S., another in Europe—and do a highly pressurized and largely thankless job. Line officials and chair umpires are mostly walled off from the press, but we ride the same buses to and from hotels at tournaments, and I’ve been struck in the past by how closely knit the officials’ fraternity is; they look out for each other.
Pegula is right that linespeople are part of the sport’s culture, its combustible mix of human excellence and human error. Replacing them with an invisible, omnipotent machine would remove some drama from the game. On a more practical note, will clay-court events agree to use Hawk-Eye Live after years of avoiding the Hawk-Eye replay system? (Watch the video at the top of this page for more on this.)
Personally, while I wouldn’t want to be the person who decides to annihilate the line-judge profession, I think Hawk-Eye Live is an improvement, for all the reasons I mentioned above. Of course, what I think isn’t going to matter. What will matter is (1) whether installing Hawk-Eye Live on every court is cheaper than hiring and housing hundreds of officials; and (2) whether the game’s players and administrators feel like Hawk-Eye Live improves the accuracy of officiating, and thus improves tennis as a product. Over the next month, if everyone agrees that Hawk-Eye Live is a better way to call lines, it’s hard to imagine that the game would choose to return to a less-accurate and less-efficient system.
So technophobes beware: You may want to start preparing to welcome to your new robot overlords to the tennis court.