Calls for the use of Hawk-Eye technology have grown louder at the ongoing French Open tournament. The likes of World No. 3 Dominic Thiem, No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and No. 11 Denis Shapovalov have joined the chorus.
But World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has gone further, calling for line-umpires to be removed altogether, to be replaced by the technology available to determine calls on courts to eliminate human error.
The Hawk-Eye Live system was first used at the senior tour level just a week before the US Open, at the relocated Cincinnati ATP 1000 Masters event in New York, which Djokovic won. But it was put in place solely for the purpose of reducing the number of people on court in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and not for the reason the 33-year-old Serb stated.
And before tennis organisers can think of making this drastic change, there is a lot that will need to be considered – regardless of the fact that the technology is available.
What did Djokovic say?
After his third-round match against Daniel Elahi Galan, Djokovic said in his post-match press conference on October 3 that “with all my respect for the tradition and the culture we have in this sport, when it comes to people present on the court during a match, including line (judges), I really don’t see a reason why every single tournament in this world, in this technological(ly) advanced era, would not have what we had during the Cincinnati/New York tournaments.
“Of course, I understand technology is expensive, so it’s an economic issue and a question mark. But I feel like we are all moving towards that, and sooner or later there is no reason to keep line-umpires. Yes, ball kids, of course, ball person, yes, but line-umpires, I don’t see why anymore, to be honest.”
What is the process to become a line-umpire?
Being a tennis umpire is a proper profession and requires years of training. According to the Joint Certification Programme for Officials – formed in 1999 by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and International Tennis Federation (ITF) to standardise the training process for umpires – there are four levels to becoming a top-notch umpire at the Grand Slam level. The committee meets at the end of every year to evaluate and promote umpires based on their performances.
The first stage is the national level, in which one is essentially starting off as a line-judge in domestic events. This is followed by Level 1, or the Green Badge, which allows one to serve as a chair umpire for events within their respective countries.
The next level is the White Badge, which allows one to officiate at bigger events but only in their own countries.
The final stage is Level 3, which certifies one as an international umpire. This level is divided into bronze, silver and gold badges – the gold badge meaning one can be a chair umpire for important Grand Slam matches.
At the Grand Slams, line-umpires are usually a mixture of bronze, silver and white badge holders – highly qualified officials.
How much are line umpires paid?
Most of the gold badge holders have contracts with the ATP and/or WTA tours.
According to website Perfect Tennis, in 2018, chair umpires at the Australian Open were paid around $546 per day, approximately $443 at the French Open, around $495 at Wimbledon, and $450 at the US Open.
On the ITF website’s FAQs page, the governing body has set a ‘minimum recommended fee’ for umpires at the lowest Futures event (M15, W15, M25), with White badge holders earning $550 for the entire event and international chair umpires earning $750.
What will happen if line-umpires are removed from all events?
Apart from taking away a livelihood, the conveyor belt of top-level chair umpires will also run dry. Like a high-ranked tennis player starts at the lowest level, a Gold badge umpire starts as a line-umpire at small events and then works his or her way up the ladder. Essentially, if there are no line-umpires, there will be nobody to become a chair umpire.
If line-umpires are removed from all Grand Slam events, it may deter individuals from wanting to become umpires as officiating at the majors is the final goal for them as well. It’s similar to the hypothetical situation if doubles is removed from the Grand Slam schedule. Then players will not want to play doubles at all.
Why has there been a call to use Hawk-Eye?
All tour-level tournaments, apart from clay-court events, use the technology. During a rally, if there is a call made by an umpire that the player feels is incorrect, he or she can call for a review which determines if the ball was in or out.
“On hard courts, the mark is always 5 to 10 mm further than where the ball actually landed. But clay courts leave a mark that is quite accurate. Which is why tournaments like the French Open prefer to use traditional methods by having the chair umpire go down to check where the ball landed,” a Hawk-Eye engineer had told The Indian Express in 2016. “The only trouble is that (on clay) there may be confusion on which shot the player has challenged.”
The Hawk-Eye Live system, which was used in place of line-umpires at the Cincinnati Masters, and first at the ATP Next Gen Finals in 2018, makes calls instantly.
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Is Hawk-Eye used at all levels of tournaments?
Installing the system is expensive, and out of budget for all lower-level events, including the Challenger circuit.
According to The New York Times, it costs over $25,000 per court to install the Hawk-Eye Live system.
Is the technology flawless?
No. According to the ITF guidelines, the technology can have an error margin no greater than five millimetres.
“Now it is 3.6 mm,” the Hawk-Eye engineer said to this newspaper in 2016. “That means that whatever mark we have, the ball could have actually landed 3.6 mm on either side.”
In the first week of the US Open, according to The NYT, Hawk-Eye Live made 225,000 calls, of which 14 were errors. Despite the low number, the system is also open to human error.
“(James) Japhet (managing director of Hawk-Eye North America) said the Hawk-Eye operator in the control room had sometimes selected the wrong service box, which meant that a few balls that landed in the correct service box were wrongly called out. Other errors occurred when the review official, who is responsible for determining foot faults with the aid of the Hawk-Eye cameras, failed to trigger the system,” The NYT reported.
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Do players take their anger out on umpires after a bad call?
Yes, sometimes even after a good call, sometimes even when the umpire isn’t involved.
At the 2009 US Open, a line-umpire called a foot-fault on Serena Williams, who then angrily gestured at her, allegedly yelling profanities and threatening to “shove a tennis ball” down the line-umpire’s throat. Later on, cameras picked up Williams saying “I didn’t say I will kill you! Are you serious?” in a conversation with officials.
John McEnroe, at Wimbledon 1981, disputed a line call by shouting “you cannot be serious,” in what has become the sport’s most famous quote.
More recently, at the US Open, Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round after he inadvertently hit a line-umpire in the throat with a ball. The Grand Slam was using the Hawk-Eye Live on all the outer courts but not the show courts. So if the Serb had been playing outside, his frustrated hit of the ball toward the backboard would not have hit anybody.
In his press conference in Paris, arguing for the use of technology instead of line-umpires, he concluded: “I would also probably then have less chances to do what I did in New York.”
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