It’s a sight as emblematic of the French Open as white socks deeply stained by red clay dust: The chair umpire climbs down from the lofty perch and jogs over to inspect a skid mark in the clay near a white line. He or she inspects the mark, sometimes bending to peer closely and pointing to it, while an anxious player hovers alongside, awaiting a decision.
In or out? Did the ball touch the line or not? The umpire is the ultimate arbiter. Still, heated conversations might ensue.
Fans of this entertaining ritual have reason to fear that it will be overtaken by electronic line-calling. The 2020 US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to feature an electronic line-calling system (Hawk-Eye Live), doing away entirely with line umpires on all but the two main stadium courts (although every match was monitored by a chair umpire). A number of recent non-tour events have also experimented with electronic line-calling, with uniformly outstanding results. But don’t expect to see electronic line-calling at the French Open.
“There will be no change on the court this year,” French Tennis Federation press officer Emmanuelle Leonetti told ESPN in an email. “Only [there will be] less staff, in general, due to the health protocol.”
Most French tennis officials and legions of fans enjoy the interactions that have always been a part — if not always an agreeable part — of the pageantry at Roland Garros. They believe that eliminating the “human factor” would hurt tennis. But an even larger obstacle exists. None of the three systems approved by the ITF for reviewing official decisions has been approved for “live” use (eliminating line umpires) at clay events.
That’s just fine with ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who is no fan of using Hawk-Eye technology on clay. “Hawkeye has a margin of error and so does reading a disputed mark, but the clay-court system has worked well for an eternity and I see no reason to change it,” Cahill said. “Plus, clay is a moving changing surface so I’m not even sure of the exact logistics surrounding how accurate Hawkeye is on clay. They might say it is, but is it really, and where is the data to back that up?”
Industry leader Hawk-Eye Live has been approved as an electronic line-calling system for hard and grass courts, but the ITF’s “joint certification” committee has not finished testing on clay. A source who has worked closely with the body, which consists of representatives from the ATP, WTA, ITF, the Grand Slams and technical experts, told ESPN:
“The mark you see [from a ball] on a clay court is not the mark Hawk-Eye or Foxtenn [a competing, approved electronic review system] sees. That has to do with speed of the ball and how the clay moves. So players will have to understand that what they see on the court is not what the camera shows.”
People are accustomed to believing what they see with their very own eyes, which makes the introduction of electronic line-calling on clay a sensitive subject. The pros had little advance notice that Hawk-Eye Live would be used so extensively at the recent “double in the bubble” tournaments, but those were on hard courts. Players embraced it — or in some cases would have if they realized it was in use.
“I didn’t even notice it until you mentioned it, literally, just now,” Hailey Baptiste, a promising 18-year-old American told ESPN after her first-round match at the US Open. “The calls were quick and easy to hear. They showed most of the close calls on the [scoreboard] so all I had to do was look up. I mean, you can’t challenge the Hawk-Eye, right?”
The accuracy as well as the reliability of the Hawk-Eye Live system in the bubble events was impressive. The system issued 314,000 “in/out” calls during the four weeks of play. James Japhet, the managing director of Hawk-Eye North America, told the New York Times that of the 225,000 calls Hawk-Eye Live made during the first week of the US Open, only 14 were erroneous — and those were caused by human error in the control room (where operators have to manually alternate the target service box after each point and signal when dedicated cameras detect a foot fault).
Those off-court human errors are one reason why every match still has a chair umpire, if no line judges.
“We’ve had four weeks of the experiment of Hawk-Eye Live. It’s been a terrific success. There’s no debate,” tournament director Stacey Allaster said on the final day of the US Open. “This was a great effort. … We couldn’t be more pleased with how it has been executed.”
Novak Djokovic, the US Open top seed, must wish he had been on one of the line umpire-free perimeter courts instead of Arthur Ashe after he was defaulted from the US Open during his fourth-round match with Pablo Carreno Busta for inadvertently hitting a line umpire with a ball hit in frustration after he lost a point. For a number of reasons leading with fear that if the Hawk-Eye Live system crashed the tournament would grind to a halt, the USTA decided to use a full complement of officials and the familiar Hawk-Eye Live challenge system on Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums.
While many voices have called for tennis to develop and adopt some sort of electronic line-calling system, the speed at which it happened was surprising. Bob Moran, the general manager of the popular WTA tournament played in April on green Har-Tru clay in Charleston, South Carolina, was excited to announce in January that his upcoming event would be the first WTA clay-court tournament to feature all-electronic line-calling, employing the Foxtenn electronic line-calling apparatus.
“We were eager,” Moran told ESPN recently. “We were absolutely looking forward to testing out the system on our five courts.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, closing down the game for what would be five months in mid-March. But even as it robbed Moran of a moment in the sun, the pandemic also triggered a rush to embrace electronic line-calling among the promoters of various exhibitions, the World Team Tennis league and, ultimately, sanctioned pro tour events.
“The realities of the world we’re living in at the moment, with COVID-19 and the logistical and cost implications of flying people around the world, testing them, made the technology more attractive,” Oliver Clough, tennis general manager at Hawk-Eye Innovations, told ESPN. “To some, it looked like either use the technology or struggle to be an event.”
The US Open, which customarily brought 350 line umpires to the tournament, was able to whittle it down to 74. That reduced the number of personnel USTA officials believed they needed on hand — a significant factor in earning approval from New York state and local health officials to hold the event.
Some might believe that officials fast-forwarded the evolution of tennis a little too quickly, but they haven’t gone all-in on electronic line-calling yet. It has nothing to do with cost, because the cost of the technology is not prohibitive.
Informal estimates peg the cost of Hawk-Eye Live at $50,000 per court, which includes everything from the basic video and computer hardware to travel and lodging for the Hawk-Eye technicians (each tournament court has a Hawk-Eye technician monitoring the course of a match and manually performing a few rudimentary tasks, as well as a tournament-appointed supervisor who oversees the tech). There is also the savings incurred by reducing the fleet of officials.
The reliability of Hawk-Eye Live no longer seems in question, either, although anything mechanical or electronic is subject to breakdown. In tests, players allowed to challenge the accuracy of Hawk-Eye Live calls soon gave up because the technology always confirmed the system made the right call. As well, close calls are automatically projected on the scoreboard for all to see.
But many observers really like the current challenge system, which allows players to challenge calls that are then reviewed by Hawk-Eye on the scoreboard as everyone looks on with bated breath — often accompanied by rhythmic clapping as the flight of the ball is telecast. It has become a fun part of every match, even though it doesn’t guarantee the absolute integrity of the score because a player might exhaust his three allotted challenges per set (a successful challenge doesn’t count against the three) and subsequently be unable to challenge a call that television replay shows was clearly wrong.
Hawk-Eye Live guarantees error-less officiating, but many still fear that the price, in terms of color and value-added elements — including human interaction — is too high.
Another concern, chiefly for the ITF, is that eliminating line judges will discourage people from becoming involved in officiating. The journey to the high chair begins with serving as a line judge.
“[Electronic line-calling] is a clear risk in those countries that have a Grand Slam event,” Grand Slam supervisor Stefan Fransson told ESPN. “That’s always been the carrot, to be selected as line umpire for one of the four Grand Slams, then move up to chair umpire.”
Financial considerations also enter this discussion from the debit end of the ledger. Tournaments that embrace electronic line-calling will miss out on revenue generated by contracts with clothing manufacturers who pay to clothe line umpires. That consideration played a part in the USTA’s decision to have line umpires (clothed by Ralph Lauren this year) on the two main courts.
Although electronic line-calling made an abrupt and dramatic appearance in New York this year, officials emphasize that we are not in the midst of a full-on embrace just yet. “Hawk-Eye Live was temporarily approved for use at regular ATP events this season based on COVID-19 limitations,” Simon Higson, a spokesperson for the ATP, wrote in an email to ESPN. “Tournaments that wish to use it are able to do so this year.”
Grand Slam events are not regulated by ATP Tour rules. Each of the four majors reserves the right to run their tournament the way it chooses. The long evolution of electronically enhanced officiating was jump-started in 2004 by a US Open quarterfinal in which Serena Williams was clearly denied an important point when chair umpire Maria Alves called an erroneous overrule. The very next year, the US Open, acting unilaterally, became the first major to introduce Hawk-Eye review.
“I think they [French officials] are open to it [Hawk-Eye Live],” Clough said. ” It will be interesting to see where all of them go with it. Usually, these conversions get going when there’s a catalyst — a big call missed, or some other situation.”
In this case, the coronavirus pandemic played a significant role in moving the technological ball forward. Grand Slam officials, including those in France, will certainly be examining the mark that live electronic line-calling left on tennis at the US Open.