In? Out? Beyond A Doubt?

In? Out? Beyond A Doubt? By Steve Flink, 10/20/2006

As the 2006 season in professional tennis swiftly approaches a conclusion, this much seems certain: Instant Replay is here to stay. After an official tournament introduction at the Nasdaq-100 Open at Miami in March, the Hawk-Eye replay system — long a fixture on telecasts — was unveiled all across the U.S. Open Series for use on showcase courts. It stirred intrigue among fans, gave players the chance to selectively challenge calls, and measured officials’ ability to do their jobs exceedingly well.  It brought to the game a rare innovation. And it made all of us think about how such a system could best contribute to a higher standard of officiating for the sport.

By and large, all constituencies of the sport have embraced the “limited challenge” system which has been employed this year, and will be displayed prominently at both the ATP Tour’s Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships in Madrid. As Gayle Bradshaw — ATP Administrator of Rules & Competition — points out, “One of the things that detractors of using review [instant replay] were saying was that it would slow the game down, but it has been just the opposite. It has speeded the game up. We took away some entertainment value for the fans, who are not seeing the arguments that much anymore [between players and officials]. But we have replaced it with another entertainment tool.”

Bradshaw’s view is shared by a considerable number of players, who feel that two incorrect challenges a set plus another in a tie-break is sufficient. As the 29-year-old American Justin Gimelstob puts it, “The limited system is a good blend where players have to hold value to the amount of times that they do challenge, but when there is a definite mistake made they can challenge and make sure the call is right. …. You don’t want to alleviate all room for error but just enough where the outcomes of matches won’t be decided by it and just enough interaction where fans feel they are getting their money’s worth. That is where we are at.”

“This is adding an element of strategy to tennis that we have never had before,” says Paul Goldstein, another veteran American. “It is enticing for the fans. The fans might be standing around the water cooler the day after, saying, ‘Can you believe Ginepri used his challenge at 1-0 in the first set? He should have saved it!’”

Adds Anna-Lena Groenefeld — the 21-year-old German ranked in the world’s Top 20 — “I really like this and I played in a lot of matches all summer with the replays being used. It is really exciting when a player is thinking about challenging and the fans are screaming and then we see what happens. Two challenges a set is very good. Maybe we could have a third, but I am not sure about that.”

The strategizing aspect of instant replay as it stands now may be widely accepted and even lauded by players and officials, but the view here is that Hawk-Eye — and other aspiring competitors in the replay business like Auto-Ref — must be utilized much more than was the case in 2006. Bradshaw believes the game will surely benefit if companies like Auto-Ref step up to seriously challenge the authority of Hawk-Eye. As he explains, “Auto-Ref has been trying to improve their system to pass the ITF test after doing some things that took them in the wrong direction. They are very close to getting approval and the competition would be good not only financially, but technically. Several other companies are out there but they haven’t quite gotten all the documentation to be ready for a complete test.”

No matter which company is responsible for the replays, shouldn’t the priority be accurate line calls for players rather than entertainment for the fans? Isn’t there a way to use these computerized replays on a more regular basis without diminishing the excitement of the venture for the fans? Finally, why not get the umpires more involved when they are in doubt about calls, and allow them to use the replay as an alternative to the traditional overrule?

Commentator Mary Carillo has been baffled from the outset by the notion of restricting the replays. As she says, “The technology is terrific and I love the big scoreboards which are very fan friendly. So I don’t see it taking away from the fan’s enjoyment if the challenge system went away and it became unlimited. A player shouldn’t have to be worrying about when to use his or her challenges in the middle of a match. All they should worry about is playing tennis. If we are going to do something like this, it has to be accurate, and it has to be advancement in a very important way. It can’t just be entertaining. I don’t want to be entertained if I think somebody is winning or losing a match for the wrong reasons. We are not properly using this technology and that is all there is to it.”

Whether or not there is widespread support for an unlimited number of challenges remains to be seen. The 2007 Australian Open will definitely become the second Grand Slam event to use instant replay, but Tennis Australia has not yet decided on the question of limited versus unlimited. For the sake of comparison, it would be a significant step for tennis to test the unlimited system and weigh it against the current restrictions. But no matter how that issue is resolved, umpires need to be taken out of their passivity and become more willing to act decisively. Since the inception of instant replay, the reluctance of many umpires to overrule has been painfully apparent. Player challenges have allowed the chair umpires to back away from the overrule.

Rich Kaufman, one of the world’s best umpires in the 1980’s and 1990’s and currently chief of officials for the USTA, says, “The one thing we wanted to be careful with chair umpires is not putting the onus on the player. In other words, don’t see a mistake and do nothing and say, ‘Well, gee, the player can challenge if he or she wants.’ That is not fair to the player because the player has limited challenges. We have instilled in the umpires as best we could to call it like you would in any other match and if you see a clear mistake you should overrule.”

Asked if the umpires are shying away more from the overrule on Hawk-Eye matches, Bradshaw says, “I will give you that. It is something we have been aware of from the start. It is going to take some time for the chairs to get more comfortable with the system. The chairs who worked all summer for the ATP or WTA had an advantage over those who just showed up for the U.S. Open.”

Looking at the limited challenge system, why not give the chair umpire two opportunities a set to step in and check a call instead of trusting his or her own instincts by overruling conventionally? He or she would thus avoid making a human error with the conventional overrule and instead wait for the replay before overturning the judgment of a line umpire. Addressing that point, WTA Tour Supervisor Pam Whytcross says, “It could come to that. Tennis is a very traditional sport where change is not always accepted quickly but this innovation has been accepted by officials, fans and players. We need to take it one step at a time. But we do have all this technology so if we get to a pivotal moment in a match like 5-5, 30-40 in the final set and the players have used up their challenges, maybe then the chair umpire would get a freebee to make sure if the ball was in or out. That sort of thing will certainly be up for discussion.”

WTA President Stacey Allaster explains, “We spent 18 months debating amongst players, broadcasters and tournaments on what was the right system and we all agreed that we would start in Miami with the limited challenge, which has been a great success. We also said as a group that we would keep our minds open, that if we believed changes to the system were warranted we would review things. In the coming weeks we will do that.

”Bradshaw has serious qualms about the notion of giving the umpire two challenges that would not be prompted by either player. He contends, “I don’t think you could do that as long as you are in a limited challenge protocol because you would put the chair umpire in an even more difficult situation and open up the chair umpire to criticism. One player might say, ‘Hey, you checked that one for him but now I am out of challenges so check this call for me.’ You would put the umpire in an unfair position.”

Kaufman comments, “We don’t want to disrupt the match with endless appeals like having the umpire given two. I wouldn’t want to clutter the match. Certainly people argue for the unlimited because we have the technology, but I am not sure I agree a hundred percent with that because we don’t want to lose the tennis. Officials try to disappear and not be an influence on the match, by just doing their job and letting the tennis speak for itself.”

Carillo firmly believes that authorities like Kaufman and Bradshaw are simply making too many excuses for not allowing the technology to be used on an unlimited basis. “I don’t buy these arguments at all. I have seen enough of this to know that players don’t want to look like asses so they would not misuse an unlimited system. They don’t want to be embarrassed with bogus questioning of calls. And what has been proven more than anything else with this whole grand experiment this year is that the lines people see things better than the players who have been barking about them for 40 years.”

Statistics clearly back up Carillo’s claims. Among the men, from Miami through the U.S. Open Series and U.S. Open, the players were correct in their challenges only 39 percent of the time (244-386) while the women fared slightly worse 35 percent (169-316). Those numbers may be skewed somewhat by challenges made by players who, near the end of a set, realized they had nothing to lose by challenging so they did it knowing they were probably wrong. The bottom line is that players have discovered that officials are better than they realized.

As Whytcross has observed of the officials, “Everyone is on show here so there hasn’t been any slacking off. This trial with the replays has sparked up the officiating and everybody is on their toes. It all ends up in the wash pretty well.”

For the most part, that has been true. The way most players see it based on their experience this year, they are more than likely to want to stay with what they know and stick with a limited system. But Bradshaw recognizes that sentiments could rapidly change if something unfolded like the Serena Williams-Jennifer Capriati 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal when the match was marred considerably by some flagrantly bad calls. ”If something terrible like that happened,” says Bradshaw, ”then the players would be talking about maybe needing to switch to an unlimited but the feedback from all the players all summer was so positive that they liked the way it was working that I don’t think any tweaks would go to an unlimited system.” Carillo is in accord, saying, “If a player gets really screwed in a big match at an important time, believe me that player will change his mind about how many challenges he or she should be allowed to get. There is no doubt in my mind it should be unlimited.”

What worries those who oppose the unlimited system is that it might make linesmen and lineswomen superfluous. These critics are concerned that the human element of the game would be destroyed if it ever came down to a Hawk-Eye or any other system that called every line with some kind of beeping device similar to Cyclops, which was designed exclusively for use on the service lines. ”That would make the game too sterile,” says Bradshaw. ”Is that the direction we want to go?” Adds Kaufman, “This is my opinion and I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think people are looking for Nintendo out there on the tennis court. We have found a nice balance here with the limited challenge and I would want to be careful not to disrupt that balance and flow of the match too much. We will never see lasers calling balls and strikes in baseball. When you get the novelty out of the technology and it stars wearing off, suddenly you are in danger.”

Asked about the potential for linesmen to become useless on courts that have Hawk-Eye, Carillo responds, “Hello. That was always the question. What are you trying to accomplish? Do we want a totally technological playing field? Having human beings call lines, flying them to tournaments, putting them up and feeding them, all of that is going to become more expensive as the years go on while the technology will become less and less expensive and it will become more profitable to wire up a court.”

Having said that, she does not — despite the fast moving evolution of the replay systems — envision people disappearing. “Right now the technology is barely used in matches. Even if there were unlimited challenges most calls would still be made by human beings who are making calls on every single point. In a long rally there are four to five people making judgment calls every few seconds. These people are making calls all the time so the calls in question are a very small percentage of the overall calls in a match. For the most part, people don’t even notice the human beings on the court because they are doing such a great job. Clearly human beings to my mind will still have a place in calling lines.”

Senior Correspondent Steve Flink’s previous report on emerging technology in tennis was ”Going Kicking and Screaming into the Future” (TW, Nov. 30, 2004).

Original article appeared in Tennis Week Magazine, Issue:  October 20, 2006.