Saturday, 27 November 2010

Hawk-eye for all?

When you're watching football on Dec. 12—the first Sunday of 2010 without tennis—something will make you pine for your beloved game. No, it's not that dreadful Bills-Browns contest—it's replay. The NFL is an exciting league, but its replay system is an excruciating buzz kill. Clock how long it takes an official to render a decision after a challenge, especially when they're examining the minutiae of whether the ball should be spotted at the 30-and-a-quarter yard line or the 30-and-a-half. There are inevitably three or four such stoppages per game. It could drive someone to decorating.

In tennis, however, replay has painlessly been integrated. One reason for its success is because each point has only two possible outcomes: The ball is in or the ball is out. It's simple to understand; there aren't hundreds of possible scenarios (and rule interpretations), like in football. And with Hawkeye, a computer can do the job of a human in substantially less time. That's a good thing for tennis, a sport that can sometimes move like molasses.

The players also have done their part. Hawkeye is not perfect—the company's managing director has said that its average margin of error is 3.6 millimeters—but players almost universally accept whatever call it spits out, then promptly get on with the match. Hey, it's tough to argue against 99.9 percent accuracy.

At Indian Wells, players can challenge calls on any of the venue's courts. (AP Photo)
There is a cost that comes with this technology, of course, and as such not every tennis court on tour has Hawkeye capability. But at next year's BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, even players banished to the most remote side court will be able to challenge calls. It was recently announced that Indian Wells will become the first tournament to have replay available site-wide. That's important, because all competitors should have the right to the right call, not just those on the show courts.

The best should be yet to come. If Indian Wells, a Masters 1000 tournament, can implement Hawkeye across the board, surely the Grand Slams can. Hopefully, this bit of news hastens the process. The technology exists, players agree with it, and let's be honest: The Grand Slams are doing quite well for themselves financially. The most important events of the year should be decided by the players' shots, not an official's mishap.

In time, expect to see this feat replicated in Melbourne, London and New York. But in the meantime, there is something regarding replay that tennis should work on. When an "out" call is reversed, it's up to the chair umpire to determine whether the point should be replayed. Unfortunately, these decisions aren't as consistent as Hawkeye. Players often contend that they could have (or their opponent couldn't have) gotten a racket on the ball when the umpire says otherwise. The on-court arguments are now shifting here—not about the actual call, but the call after the call. These decisions will always be judgment calls, but firmer guidelines should be set by the ruling bodies.

After Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the best thing that's happened to tennis over the last decade has been replay. At some point, a Grand Slam title celebration will be awkwardly delayed until Hawkeye confirms championship point, but that uncomfortable moment is a small price to pay for so many avoided tirades and correct calls. Indian Wells met the challenge; it's time for other major events to do the same.


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