It is the visual of the whole thing that stays with you – but not for good reasons.
A player groggily peers at a spot on the court as though looking for signs of water on Mars, then gestures towards the chair umpire. The umpire climbs down from his seat and jogs across the court, before staring at the same spot that has the player transfixed. The decision is made, the hand signal given out: the player is wrong, and the call stands. And that predictably causes the player to pull out every outraged gesture out of the bag – he angrily points at the mark on the court, then pleads with the umpire to reconsider the decision, and eventually clasps his head in despair.
From the context of slapstick entertainment, that makes for a quality piece of theatre. But in a professional tennis match, the entire chain of events — from the umpire clumsily hurrying towards the ball mark to the final look of indignation on the player's face — looks regressive in the extreme.
And yet we've been seeing this visual every year, in almost every match of the clay swing. Hawkeye is not used at any official claycourt tournament right now, even though it is used at all high-profile events elsewhere. That means umpires have to resort to an objectively rudimentary way of reviewing line calls on clay: checking the mark left by the ball on the court.
In some cases, that proves to be spot on: you get 100% accuracy if you physically examine the correct ball mark, while Hawkeye has an error margin of 3.6 millimetres. But the key phrase here is 'correct ball mark'. We've seen too many instances, this year as well as in years past, where the player and the umpire have disagreed on which of the hundreds of ball marks is the correct one. And in several cases, the umpire categorically gets it wrong.
At the 2018 Italian Open, Karolina Pliskova was locked in a tense third-set battle with Maria Sakkari and a smash she hit while serving at 5-5, 40-40 was called out. Replays showed the ball was well in, but the umpire claimed she couldn't locate the ball mark and so had to stick with the original call. Pliskova went on to lose the match and later, in a rare show of emotion, rammed her racquet repeatedly against the umpire's chair. Many thought she was justified in her reaction.
Pliskova got her revenge at the same venue this year, defeating Sakkari in last week's Italian Open semi-finals. But the fact remains that she shouldn't have had to take revenge in the first place; she deserved a fairer chance of winning the match last year itself.
There have been numerous other blatantly wrong calls that have materially altered the results of matches. At the 2017 Monte Carlo Masters, for instance, David Goffin was wronged by the highly respected umpire Cedric Mourier in his semi-final against Rafael Nadal. Goffin was up a break in the first set when Mourier made a shockingly bad overrule to hand a point to Nadal, which sent the Belgian into an epic meltdown from which he never recovered.
And since this has become such an everyday occurrence, we have an example from last week too. At the just-concluded Rome Masters, Marton Fucsovics bore the brunt of a bad call in his first-round loss to Nikoloz Basilashvili. With Basilashvili serving at 2-6 in the second set tiebreaker, the linesman initially called a double fault; the umpire then climbed down from his chair and overruled, insisting that the mark indicated the ball had slid across the court after bouncing (replays showed the ball had landed out). Fucsovics lost the match, but before leaving the court, he comically took a picture of the mark on his phone camera, for subsequent discussion and teeth-gnashing analysis on social media.
This has clearly become a problem and it is a bit startling that none of the officials seem to be acknowledging it. The commonly parroted excuse is that Hawkeye is less accurate and more expensive/complicated than mark-checking. The people in power don't seem willing to budge from that stance, with the French Open CEO Jeremy Botton even going as far as saying that eschewing Hawkeye makes his tournament unique and therefore more appealing.
"On clay, it's easy, there is the mark and it's easy to see if the ball is in or out," Botton said a couple of years ago. "It's also a point of difference, which we like. I don't see why we'd change it."
The French are notorious for their stubborn and at times stupid adherence to tradition (remember that disturbingly archaic comment by the French Tennis Federation President last year banning Serena Williams' health-mandated outfit?). But their insistence on sticking to the primitive method of mark-checking at a tournament as big as Roland Garros smacks of complete dissociation from reality.
It's not just small points that are being affected by unscientific call-reviewing; we've actually had matches going in diametrically opposite directions because of the errors. When a player is deprived of a win purely because of a line-calling howler, it reduces the sport to a farce.
Some argue that the cost involved in setting up Hawkeye is not justified, considering it is a system that is less than 100% foolproof. It's true that Hawkeye is expensive, requiring an initial investment of around US$40,000 per court, but that argument falls flat in the specific context of Roland Garros and also the claycourt Masters. These tournaments already have Hawkeye installed on their main courts, which is used as an entertainment tool for TV spectators but never for actual decisions made during the matches.
In effect, the TV viewers and commentators are better-placed to judge the correctness of a call than the players and umpires. That's just absurd at a whole different level.
There's another argument against Hawkeye at the French Open: the court surface on clay changes considerably during play, which would necessitate a recalibration of the system (a process that takes around 30 minutes) several times every day. That's sure to wreak havoc with the scheduling, but if they can make it work at Wimbledon – the court surface on grass also changes every match – there's little to suggest they can't find a way at Roland Garros too.
Many players have been vocal about the need for Hawkeye on clay. Maria Sakkari cited her own good fortune from that erroneous call against Pliskova as "another reason for introducing Hawkeye on clay". Maria Sharapova was campaigning for Hawkeye on clay as far back as 2013, saying that she didn't understand why it wasn't already in place. Mike Bryan reinforced the idea that Hawkeye is accepted and loved by the players, so there was no reason not to use it on clay.
More recently, Denis Shapovalov has been actively pushing for the introduction of something, even if not necessarily Hawkeye, to eliminate the confusion. "I feel like there are way too many controversial calls; there are so many close calls from day to day from every match…I just feel like there's got to be a better way to allow the players to kind of challenge the calls," he said.
Tennis writer Jon Wertheim echoed Shapovalov's thoughts, saying last week that "if one technology can't provide replay for clay within the accuracy threshold, open the bidding." Other experts including Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker are also in favour of implementing Hawkeye on clay, with some even saying they "simply don't understand the argument against it."
The players want it, the experts seem to think it's a good idea and the fans would definitely welcome the excitement of electronic replays in place of the cringe-worthy arguments between players and umpires they are currently subjected to. So when will the officials wake up and do what needs to be done?
It will probably take a while, considering the tendency of the French (and the sport of tennis in general) to cling to age-old traditions just for the sake of it. But it would be in the interests of everyone involved if more players came forward with demands for change. There needs to be significant pressure on the officials and a big star calling for the introduction of technology might help speed up the process.
This might sound selfish, but I hope that a match featuring Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic at the upcoming French Open sees an umpiring howler on a big point. If it takes the sport's biggest stars to suffer for the officials to see the light, then so be it.
No cost is too high to save us from the embarrassing and retrograde visual of umpires and players fighting like children over ball marks on the court.
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Updated Date: May 22, 2019 09:08:59 IST