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Friday, March 05, 2021

Explained: How Hawk-Eye Live is replacing line-officials and decongesting tennis courts in COVID times

The live-calling system – which makes instantaneous decisions on balls that are long or wide – will first feature this year at the tune-up events in Australia, along with the Australian Open that starts next week.

Written by Shahid Judge , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: February 3, 2021 10:23:10 am
Japan's Naomi Osaka makes a forehand return to France's Alize Cornet during a tuneup tournament ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has decided to do away with line-officials and bring in the Hawk-Eye Live system for all hardcourt Masters 1000 events that will take place this year. The live-calling system – which makes instantaneous decisions on balls that are long or wide – will first feature this year at the tune-up events in Australia, along with the Australian Open that starts next week. This will be the second Grand Slam – after US Open 2020 – to implement this feature.

The ATP Tour, which deals with men’s tennis, tournament structure is divided into four groups. The lowest-level is the Challenger Tour, followed by the ATP 250, ATP 500, and finally the ATP 1000 Masters. Similarly, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has the WTA 1000 at the highest rung, followed by the WTA 500, WTA 250 and WTA 125. The biggest stages however are the four Grand Slams.

This pandemic-time measure to introduce the Hawk-Eye Live system, according to Tennis Majors, is aimed to decongest the court during a tennis match.

Of the nine ATP 1000 events, six are played on hard courts – Indian Wells (called-off this year, but may be postponed to a later date) Miami, Canada (Montreal and Toronto on an alternate basis), Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris. A WTA 1000 takes place along with the Masters at three of these venues – Indian Wells, Miami and Cincinnati. Though the WTA has not made an announcement regarding the use of the technology at any of its events this year, it can be assumed that the system will be made available for women’s matches as the same courts are shared.

At the moment, the regular Hawk-Eye system (which does not involve instantaneous calls, and instead has a review when a player calls for it) is the least that is required for all hard and grass court events starting from the ATP 250 and WTA 250 levels. Clay court tournaments meanwhile are not required to have it and do not use any review technology.

Though the decision to introduce the Live system comes because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, players, including World No 1 Novak Djokovic, have in the past called for the change in order to remove the human error element in line-calls.

“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 advanced era, would not have what we had during the Cincinnati/New York tournaments,” Djokovic said about Hawk-Eye Live in October during the French Open.

“I feel like we are all moving towards that, and sooner or later there is no reason to keep line-umpires.”

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Australia’s Nick Kyrgios makes a forehand return to France’s Alexandre Muller during a tuneup tournament ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)

How will it reduce court-crowding?

At the moment, a tour-level match would have at least 14 people on court, excluding players – six ball kids, one chair umpire and seven line umpires. Bringing in Hawk-Eye Live will halve that number down to seven (just the ball kids and chair umpire).

Has the Live system been used before?

The regular Hawk-Eye was first introduced to the tour in 2006. How it worked was a review was made only once a player asked for it if there was a doubt about a line umpire’s call. The Hawk-Eye Live system, which makes all line calls immediately, was first used at the ATP Next Gen Finals in 2018, on an experimental basis. But it was only at the Cincinnati Masters in 2020 – which was shifted to New York – where the technology was used at the senior tour level for the first time.

Since then, it was used at the US Open and the ATP Tour Finals in November.

Why won’t it be used at all tournaments?

It is very expensive. The New York Times had reported that the Live system costs USD 25,000 (over INR 18 lakh) to install per court, per tournament. To put that into perspective, consider the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune – the venue that hosts India’s only ATP 250 event, the Tata Open Maharashtra, and an ATP Challenger.

Three courts are used for matches at the venue, which means a total of USD 75,000 (INR 55 lakh) would be required to install the system. Meanwhile the last edition of the Pune Challenger, in 2019, had a total prize purse of USD 54,160 (just under INR 40 lakh).

Therefore it is only the cash-rich events like the Masters and Grand Slams that can afford to use the technology.

How useful is it?

The system has been positively received by players in general.

“The system works really, really well. I think it completely takes out any of the guesswork,” former World No 5 Kevin Anderson told Tennis Majors. “That sort of automation is happening all across the world, in so many different industries. It does seem to make sense, especially during this time. I say probably (COVID-19 is) accelerating that, because it definitely reduces human interaction.”

The system however, is not flawless. The margin of error that Hawk-Eye has is around 3.6 mm, which is less than the minimum requirement of five mm put in place by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

“That means that whatever mark we have, the ball could have actually landed 3.6 mm on either side,” a Hawk-Eye engineer had told The Indian Express in 2016.

NYT had also reported that Hawk-Eye Live had made 225,000 calls in the first week of the US Open, of which 14 were errors (0.0062 percent).

Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen makes a backhand return to United States’ Sam Querrey during a tuneup tournament ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)

What impact will it have on line-umpires?

There’s a possibility that the conveyor belt of top-chair umpires will be affected by implementing the technology. To become a chair umpire, one has to start by officiating along the lines of the tennis court.

Removing line-umpires from events like the Masters and Grand Slams – where the best players in the world compete – may take away the experience an official may need to become a strong chair umpire. It also deprives those at the bottom of the chain of employment.

Why don’t clay court events use it?

Three Masters tournaments – in Madrid, Monte Carlo and Rome – are held on clay courts. Tournaments on the red-dirt, including the French Open do not use either the general Hawk-Eye or the Live system.

“Clay courts leave a mark (where the ball landed) which 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,” the Hawk-Eye engineer said.

“The only trouble is that there will be confusion on which shot the player has challenged.”

In his second round match at Roland Garros against Roberto Carballes Baena, World No 12 Denis Shapovalov was serving for the match when a shot by his opponent, that seemed to have been long, was called ‘in.’ Replays suggested the ball was indeed out, and should have given the Canadian a match-point. Had there been a review system, Shapovalov could have called for it. He later tweeted a screenshot of the replay, with the caption: “When will we have Hawkeye on Clay?”

He went on to lose the match.

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