Why Player Challenges Are a Bad Call
Paul Hawkins, the British inventor of the revolutionary Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling technology, was speaking from his experience with other sports when he advised the ATP and WTA tours: “You’ve chosen this route, now just be careful how you use it.”
Hawk-Eye made its eagerly awaited debut at the Nasdaq-100 Open on March 22. While some fiercely opposed the innovation, Hawk-Eye’s precision, reliability, and speed generally drew rave reviews. Most of the controversy, however, is not about Hawk-Eye, but about a new set of rules for using Hawk-Eye, jointly proposed by the USTA, ATP, and WTA, and innocuously called the “player challenge system.” According to this system, player challenges must follow six rules:
- Each player receives two challenges per set to review line calls.
- If the player is correct with a challenge, then the player retains the same number of challenges.
- If the player is incorrect with a challenge, then one of the challenges is lost.
- During a tie-break game in any set, each player will receive one additional challenge.
- Challenges may not be carried over from one set to another.
- Challenges can be made only on the last shot of a rally.
How do these player challenges measure up?
- FAIRNESS: Pro tennis is blessed (and burdened) with an abundance of close and often controversial calls. Who can forget distraught Serena Williams being victimized by egregious human errors and ultimately beaten by Jennifer Capriati in the 2004 US Open quarters? In the officiating of tennis line calls, fairness indisputably means getting them right as often as possible. With Hawk-Eye, that can now happen a near-perfect 99.9 percent of the time. Adding a player challenge element only improves fairness if the players are less fallible than the Hawk-Eye system itself.
- PLAYER FALLABILITY: Ironically, just when instant replay ensures that players won’t have to worry about bad line calls, player challenges involve them more, not less, in calling the lines. Imagine if 100-meter sprinters were instructed before the race: “OK guys, good luck. But do us a favor. If it’s really close, why don’t you guys figure out which one of you beat the others.” Similarly, professional tennis players in world-class tournaments should not be responsible for calling the lines. High-speed photography analysis conducted separately by Vic Braden and John Van Auken revealed that players call the shot correctly much less often than experienced linespeople, and for a host of physiological reasons: position on the court, the player’s movement, following the flight of the ball rather than looking at the line.
- NO PLACE FOR GIMMICKS: Even if players should call lines, which they shouldn’t, and even if they could call lines accurately, which they can’t, player challenges are game-show gimmicks that don’t exist in any other pro sport and don’t belong in pro tennis, either. “What happens if it’s the US Open final,” TV analyst Mary Carillo wonders, “and there’s an incorrect call, and you have no more challenges. What do you mean you can’t correct the call? What do you mean the wrong guy wins? If you so believe in the need for electronic line calls, extend that logic and use it all the time.”
- THE HUMAN ELEMENT: The end of line-calling rhubarbs won’t result in the death of the human element in tennis by any means. Disputes will always arise over rule infractions, such as foot-faults, double bounces, touching and crossing over the net, illegal coaching, etc. And wherever fiercely competitive players give their all for fame, fortune, titles, and pride, they’ll glare, swear, trash talk, stall, fake injuries, and bend or break rules. Tennis rules and umpires should deal with this normal behavior to ensure that players focus on playing great tennis, not on making line calls.
- THE SOLUTION: Keep Hawk-Eye, instant replay, and the indispensable linespeople. Get rid of unfair and gimmicky player challenges. Armed with a court-side computer monitor displaying Hawk-Eye’s results, the chair umpire can immediately overrule errors by linespeople and click a button that instantly puts Hawk-Eye’s image of the correct call on the stadium video board. If tennis fans yearn for even more Hawk-Eye, tournaments could display it whenever balls land within 3 (or 4 or 5) inches of the outer edge of the lines.
Used smartly as a means for accurate line-calling, Hawk-Eye will improve our sport for players and fans alike. Don’t hold it hostage to a system of game-show player challenges.
About the authors
Award-winning tennis writer Paul Fein is the author of Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies (tennisconfidential.com) and You can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers (tennisquotes.com), which was published in February 2005 by Potomac Books Inc. Christopher Noble is a founder and the CEO of Ultimate Balance Inc. (ultimatebalance.com), a technology company that is applying electronic motion sensing and audio feedback to athlete training in tennis and other sports.