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Play it Again

by Steve Flink

Tennis players and fans are, by and large, a band of traditionalists. They like to leave things the way they are. They become apprehensive about any suggestion of change. They are old fashioned and obstinate, steeped in the rich history of the game, enamored of the notion that the sport should essentially remain frozen in time.

Is instant replay here to stay? Steve Flink thinks so.
To some extent, I understand that philosophy. But I believe we owe it to ourselves to honor history without impeding progress. It took the players and the public a while to embrace the tie-break after it was introduced in 1970, but now that crucial innovation has become a fundamental part of the scoring system. To me, the tie-break has been the single most important advancement of modern times. But the next best thing to happen has been the recent emergence of the Hawk-Eye instant replay system, a technology that has made the professional game a more exhilarating place to be over these last two seasons.

Hawk-Eye made its debut at the majors during the 2006 U.S. Open. Now every Grand Slam event with the exception of Roland Garros has showcased Hawk-Eye. The fans can't help but like this system because it builds drama all through long and tense matches. It forces the competitors to be strategic in their challenges. When players are allowed only two incorrect challenges a set prior to a tie-break --- or three as was the case at Wimbledon--- they want to be reasonably sure that they are going to be vindicated by the replay system. Otherwise, they can be subjected to embarrassment. Until Hawk-Eye came along, the players always held the psychological upper hand over linesmen and umpires because aficionados in the arena seemed almost inalterably to side with them over the officials.

That is no longer the case. Now the fans reserve judgment and wait for the big image to come up on the screen when a challenge is made. And the people in the stands have seen that players can be wrong more often than they are right. A big strength in the Hawk-Eye system is that the replay is put up so quickly after a point. The flow of the match is not disrupted. In the past, before the advent of Hawk-Eye, player altercations with umpires were more numerous and disputes would last longer. These days, umpires overrule less frequently when Hawk-Eye is in operation because they realize the players can use the replays to overrule a linesman.

Umpires are instructed to keep doing their jobs. They are still supposed to overrule when they see fit. But I am convinced that they hold back. That is one reason why I am in favor of unlimited challenges for the players. No one wants to see players go overboard and question calls incessantly, but in the Davis Cup Final last December between Russia and Argentina, high strung competitors like Marat Safin and David Nalbandian were given the opportunity to make unlimited challenges and they did not abuse that privilege in the least.

Watching that Davis Cup Final on television and recognizing that the players handled the situation admirably, I became convinced that unlimited challenges are the way to go. As Mary Carillo told me last year in making an eloquent case for unlimited challenges, "The technology is there. We are not properly using the technology. That is all there is to it." I have given this issue a lot of thought, and I agree with Carillo that the players should be free to use Hawk-Eye as many times as they want. The bottom line is that they would still restrain themselves since they don't want to be ridiculed by the spectators for constant erroneous protests over line calls. In any case, we can't allow a bad call to stand late in a match simply because both players are out of challenges.

What surprises me the most is how much Roger Federer is opposed to the whole concept of an instant replay system--- limited or unlimited. I have seen him win his share of challenges, but to him that is not the point. The world No. 1 is turned off by the innovation and would prefer retreating to the old system of umpires, linesmen and no replays. He made his feelings on the subject abundantly clear during the Wimbledon final in July when he faced his foremost rival Rafael Nadal.

Leading two sets to one but behind 0-2, 30-30 in the fourth set, Federer was astonished when a Nadal challenge was vindicated by Hawk-Eye. The Spaniard had hit a forehand which was called long, but Hawk-Eye's replay showed the ball clipping the edge of the line. Federer went on to lose his serve and then vented with umpire Carlos Ramos at the changeover. "How in the world was that ball in," said an uncharacteristically rattled Federer. He followed up by saying, "Hawk-Eye is killing me today."

After recouping to win that match in five sets, Federer addressed the incident and Hawk-Eye's presence in the game, conceding, "It doesn't matter what I think anymore. It's in place. It's the way it is."

The hope here is that Federer--- who is taking a principled stand-- will alter his outlook over the next few years and come to the realization that the players are surely better off taking advantage of technology rather than hoping umpires can save them at critical moments with overrules. I am not saying that the Hawk-Eye system or any other potential rival systems in the field are or will be absolutely perfect. But surely Hawk-Eye is far superior to the human eye and, therefore, of immense benefit to those who play the game for a living.

I see myself as a progressive traditionalist, and that is why I am overwhelmingly in favor of Hawk-Eye. Five years from now, Instant Replay will be firmly established. Unlimited challenges will be widely accepted. The players will be more comfortable with the technology. At that point, everyone will be reflecting on the whole venture and wondering, "What in the world was all that uproar about?"

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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