Sports

Automated Judging Has Changed the U.S. Open. Except in a Crucial Moment

An experiment in automation that could change tennis has been well received at this year’s United States Open, but it might have been a bigger hit if Novak Djokovic had lost his cool on a court that was included in the trial run.

The experiment is Hawk-Eye Live, a fully electronic line-calling system that was used for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament. It eliminates the need for line umpires, leaving only a chair umpire on court, and makes the machine the final and only word.

“Most of the players really liked it. You never have to question one single call,” said Thomas Johansson, a former top-10 player who is now coaching a current top-10 player, David Goffin.

Johansson and some others in the tennis community are convinced that if not for a sponsorship agreement with the fashion company Ralph Lauren, which supplies the uniforms for the line umpires, there would also have been all-electronic line-calling on the two main show courts, at Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium.

“The players were really upset that they didn’t have it on all the courts, but there was a reason,” Johansson said. “Ralph Lauren.”

But Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, said that sponsorship agreements — JPMorgan Chase Bank also sponsors the electronic review system — were just one factor in the decision to remain old school at Ashe and Armstrong.

More important, Allaster said, was wanting Hawk-Eye Live to be foolproof and needing to decide several months ago whether to use it.

“We weren’t sure if it was going to work, so what we wanted to make sure of was that we had this balance that never would Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong go down,” she said. “We always knew if the system failed on the outside courts, we would always have tennis.”

The twist is that staying traditional on the main courts also played a role in the tournament’s losing Djokovic, the No. 1 men’s player, much sooner than expected.

He was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct in the first set of his fourth-round match at Ashe Stadium against Pablo Carreño Busta on Sunday, after inadvertently hitting a line umpire in the throat when smacking a ball toward the back wall after losing his serve.

If Djokovic had struck the same ball on a court with Hawk-Eye Live, no line umpire would have been in the line of fire.

“Novak would have been fine, everything would have been good,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a veteran American player. “So it was kind of ironic.”

Djokovic has apologized for hitting the judge and for the outburst, saying it would prompt him to “go back within and work on my disappointment.” But he has not spoken in detail about the incident, and it is not clear whether he failed to recall, in a flash of frustration, that line judges were on the court.

The week before the Open, Djokovic played (and won) an entire tournament that used only the automated system. That was the Western & Southern Open, which was played at the U.S. Open site, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and became the first regular men’s and women’s tour event to go fully electronic.

At this point in the U.S. Open, most of the matches have moved to Ashe and Armstrong stadiums, where judges are used. Wheelchair tournaments will still be played on the outside courts this week.

“We know if players are unhappy with something, and I haven’t had one player come to me with any issues,” Allaster said.

The system had made 225,000 calls with 14 errors during the first week of the tournament, said James Japhet, the managing director of Hawk-Eye North America, who has been in New York overseeing the system’s use.

“Fourteen is a larger number than we hoped for,” he said. “But all things considered, 14 out of 225,000 isn’t too bad.”

It turns out that even electronic line-calling is subject to human error.

Japhet said the Hawk-Eye operator in the control room had sometimes selected the wrong service box, which meant that a few balls that landed in the correct service box were wrongly called out. Other errors occurred when the review official, who is responsible for determining foot faults with the aid of the Hawk-Eye cameras, failed to trigger the system, Japhet said.

Introducing the system in New York without spectators presented other challenges. For outside courts that are close together, there was concern that, without crowd noise, players might mistake a call from another court as applying to their own. To avoid confusion, a prerecorded man’s voice was used on one court, and a woman’s voice on the adjacent court.

Japhet sees another potential moneymaker here. “A tournament could use a sponsor’s name instead of ‘out,’” he said.

That, of course, could risk a backlash if players and fans were subjected to hearing, say, “Ralph Lauren” 225,000 times.

For now, the only debate that matters is whether the system should become part of the regular tour. It was used this time because tournament organizers wanted to keep the number of people on site to a minimum. Instead of the usual 350 line umpires, the U.S. Open made do with 74 this year.

Hawk-Eye Live is clearly useful in speeding up play and providing greater accuracy. But it also eliminates the human element on two levels — by making line umpires obsolete and ending the suspense over player challenges.

When tennis instituted electronic line-calling and video replay in 2006, Arlen Kantarian, then the chief executive of the United States Association, successfully pushed for players to have a limited number of challenges. Kantarian, a former N.F.L. executive, believed a system similar to professional football’s would create entertainment value.

That has proved true. But has the time come to eliminate all doubt?

In a quarterfinal on Wednesday, first Serena Williams and then her opponent, Tsvetana Pironkova, failed to challenge line calls that were incorrect and would have been overturned. Pironkova’s non-challenge was particularly important, coming at 3-3, 30-30 in the second set on a Williams second serve that should have been called a double fault, giving Pironkova a break point at a key stage of the match.

“It would be one thing if we didn’t have the technology to get the call right all the time, but we do,” Mattek-Sands said. “Tennis literally has one million other stories that can make tennis exciting and entertaining.”

Replays of close calls are still seen. “Any point-ending rally shot within 150 millimeters of the line goes up” on a screen, said Sean Cary, the senior director for officiating at the United States Tennis Association.

But the call remains the call. There is no method for a player to contest it.

As for line umpires, who are also often fans and ambassadors of the game, Allaster maintains that they can be converted to other positions.

“We need to keep them engaged, because they are part of our mission to help us promote and grow the game,” Allaster said. “We can see it evolving with different roles.”

For now, of course, the status quo still has status. The French Open, the Grand Slam tournament that starts later this month, will not use electronic line-judging. It is played on clay, where chair umpires still check the ball marks manually.

The ATP Tour is expected to make wider use of Hawk-Eye Live in tournaments later this year. Carlos Silva, chief executive of World Team Tennis, an American league that has used the system for the last three years, believes the rate of adoption will increase even after the pandemic.

“It’s time,” he said. “They will bring prices in line, because they will have more customers. Everyone hits the ball so hard. There’s no way for human eyes to see it better than a computer.”

It also speeds up play and could decrease expenses. Though the system costs more than $25,000 per court, a tournament could save on wages, food and lodging for line umpires.

But ultimately it will be up to the leaders of the U.S. Open and the other major tournaments to weigh the pros and cons and decide.

“Right now our focus is to get to Sept. 13,” Allaster said of this particularly challenging edition of the Open. “This obviously will be a significant part of our debrief going forward.”

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