As the Miami tournament is being played this week, this 2016 edition marks the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the Hawk-Eye computer system used to help the umpires. A good opportunity to look back, through five anecdotes, on the recent history of this small revolution in the world of tennis. Which didn’t please everyone…
1/ « That ball was so in »
« In all the sports we've done, there's been one major catalyzing incident to make the governing body react. », explained it’s founder, Paul Hawkins, at the start. In tennis, this incident occurred in 2004, during a match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati at the US Open. On that occasion, Williams was confronted to numerous questionable decisions from the umpire. An example : As the score is one set all, a point is given to Capriati after a valid down-the-line backhand from Williams. Who rushes towards the umpire and starts the conversation. « What's going on? Excuse me? That ball was so in. What the heck is this? That ball was not out. Are you kidding me? I'm trying to tell you: The ball was not out. » The umpire Mariana Alves doesn’t flinch. The only problem ? The slow-motion of the shot is shown on TV, thanks to the high-speed cameras nicknamed the Mac Cams, in hommage of John McEnroe, and proves the American to be right. This decision and this match will go on to have a huge impact on the governing body’s decision to adopt the electronic umpiring device, to assist the traditional umpire. A need is born.
2/ « I saw the same mark as everyone else »
Quarter final of the Dubaï tournament, in 2007. Title-holder, Rafael Nadal faces Mikhail Youzhny. During the tie-break of the first set, the score is 6-5 in favor of the Russian. One of his forehand strokes flirts with the line. The umpire calls it out. Without much hope, Youzhny asks for a Hawk-Eye verification. The ball is announced in. Rafael Nadal sees red. « I said 'look the ball is out’ and the umpire said ‘I know’, the Spaniard would explain after the match. The mark was clearly still there. » Same surprise on Youzhny’s side : « I saw the same mark as everyone else…I was a bit surprised when the Hawk Eye showed the ball to be good. » As a result : the latter wins the first set, the second one, and qualifies for the semi-finals, leaving his opponent in doubt : « One day, we’ll have to question the Hawk-Eye’s true reliability », Nadal concluded during the press conference. The sore point ?
3/ The Haw-Eye, truly reliable ?
According to the Hawk-Eye’s creators, the margin of error exists, and is between 3 and 4 millimeters. Minimal, of course, but it’s not rare to see some impacts hit or miss the line for a single millimeter. In 2013, an article published in the Guardian showed the few faults of the method used. The first flaw mentioned is that the Hawk-Eye system works through cameras which capture the successive locations of the ball whose trajectory is estimated with a statistic model between two recording points. But when a ball crosses the court at a speed which is too high, the estimation of it’s « true » speed is difficult. For instance, if a ball is excessively fast and the Hawk-Eye records two successive images, one before, and one after the rebound, the margin of error can become important. Which could answer Nadal’s question…
4/ « Everyone should be in the same boat »
Things are starting to get clear : The Hawk-Eye doesn’t make everyone happy. The technology has many detractors. Just like Arnaud Clément, who, in 2016, reckoned that the use of the technology favored the top players to the detriment of the worst-seeded ones. Indeed, in the major tournaments, the Hawk-Eye is only set up on the principal courts, and not the secondary ones. « I don’t see why the system is used on the Central court and not on the other ones. I understand the technical reasons. But fundamentally, everyone should be in the same boat. », he rose up alongside other lower-ranked players. So, why not install the Hawk-Eye on all the courts ? The organizers’ answer : the price, simply, as the system requires the installation of a big screen for everyone to verify the decision. Irrefutable ?
5/ « Can you be that stupid ? »
« It's ridiculous playing this kind of tournament with this kind of umpire. ». At the press conference, David Nalbandian seems to be having a bad day. He has just lost in the second round of the Australian Open 2012 against John Isner. The reason behind his anger ? As the score is 8 games all in the last set, the French umpire Kader Nouni calls one of John Isner’s winning serves valid, going back on one of his assistant’s initial decision. To no one’s surprise, Nalbandian throws his racquet and walks towards the net to verify the mark. Sure of his piece of evidence, he then asks for the Hawk-Eye’s verdict. Request denied. Kader Nouni reckons that Nalbandian, by walking towards the mark, has taken to much time before saying « challenge ». An obscure decision ? « How many times do we check the mark and ask for Hawk-Eye ? So somebody from the umpires or ATP can explain this situation. I mean, what is this ? This is a grand slam. », fumes Nalbandian. Before putting the boot in : « It's ridiculous playing this kind of tournament with this kind of umpire. Eight-all, break point. Can you be that stupid to do that in that moment? What does the umpire need? Press, the name, his picture in the paper tomorrow? Incredible. »