HawkEye On Clay?

Words by Richard Evans, 月曜日 05. 6月 2017

Remove the electronics and the players get something to complain about; the umpires get some exercise and the crowd gets a chance to voice its opinion.

In one early round match at Roland Garros even John Isner, the amiable American giant, was getting quite demonstrative over a ball he thought had landed in. The umpire, leaping down from his chair, disagreed and a polite argument ensued, accompanied by much booing and whistling. “But the mark was here – not there!” And so on…

This kind of scene has been happening quite frequently at the French Open because, on clay, there is no HawkEye. The electronic line calling device is used at all ATP and WTA tournaments on the pro tours when they are played on hard courts or grass. But not clay. The reason is simple: on clay the ball leaves a mark which is usually quite clear. Allowing the human eye to determine where the ball landed saves tournaments a lot of money because HawkEye is expensive.

At the moment only the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, has HawkEye on every court, but at Grand Slam level, is expense a good enough excuse? What about those windy days when the clay is being disturbed by gusts which can partially cover marks in a matter of seconds? And does the spread of the ball’s impact cover the same amount of ground on damp clay as it does in dry conditions? Are there too many variables?

But if it is precision everyone wants, would HawkEye be as accurate when the ball lands on a line which is not always even, as is sometimes the case on clay? These are the ponderables and there is no decisive answer. Roger Federer was not a fan of HawkEye when it was introduced and still struggles to use it to his advantage. But you almost never see a player question HawkEye’s verdict. Totally accurate or not, the players accept it.

I asked Daniel Nestor, the Canadian doubles expert who joined the tour when mobile phones were in their infancy, whether he felt the majority of players would favour using HawkEye on clay.

“Of course,” Nestor replied. “We always want things to be as accurate as possible. It costs money but you cannot stop technology’s advance. It will take over sport.”

Eventually, that may be true but I would suggest the game’s administrators think long and hard before taking the next logical step which would be eliminate line judges altogether. Just stop and think how many thousands of people world wide are offered a direct, intimate link to the game through sitting on court with Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic.

Every evening line judges take their stories home to wide eyed children and help create the next generation of players or fans. Would any business be stupid enough to disenfranchise thousands of its most dedicated customers? But that is exactly what tennis would do if it cut off such a huge constituency.

In the meantime, the human factor is very much alive and well on the clay court circuit and, for better or worse, we will continue to hear those heated discussions only the umpire can resolve. “That isn’t the mark! The ball landed here!” Did it? Maybe.

Words by Richard Evans, 月曜日 05. 6月 2017