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Steve Flink: The Missing Hawk-Eye

5/2/2008 7:29:00 PM

By Steve Flink

Tennis is a game steeped deeply in tradition. Since the game was invented back in 1874, the sport has fundamentally remained the same. Aside from the inevitable advances in racket technology, the most significant change that has occurred has been the crucial innovation of the tie-break. The tie-break has been with us since 1970, and it has been embraced by the fans and accepted by the players.

The primary reason why the tie-break has been such a great thing for the game is because it prevents needlessly long sets, builds drama, forces the players to confront pressure of a high degree. Most importantly, that sequence makes the sport more enticing for the fans. But now, since 2006, tennis has been exposed to another alteration which has been of similar value for the spectators and is equally advantageous to the players. I am referring to the emergence of the Hawk-Eye instant replay system.

As close followers of the game are well aware, the Hawk-Eye system has allowed players to challenge calls they believe linesmen have missed. The players were originally allowed two incorrect challenges in each set prior to a tie-break, but since Miami last month the competitors have been permitted three wrong challenges. In fact, Wimbledon went with the three challenge format last year. That system of challenges works well because the computerized image of a shot landing near or on a line is produced so swiftly that a dispute can be settled clearly and promptly.

But as I have watched the clay court tournaments these past few weeks in Monte Carlo and Barcelona on television, I have been struck by the absence of Hawk-Eye as at those events. Why would Hawk-Eye not be used at clay court events, just as it is on every other surface? Gayle Bradshaw - Executive Vice President of Rules & Competition for the ATP Tour - has the answer. As he explained to me, "Clay court events do not have the option to use Hawk-Eye for officiating purposes; Hawk-Eye is used at our Masters Series clay events and the French Open for television only. The procedures for ball mark inspections (BMI) on clay have been successful and are accepted by the players. The clay court protocol was the model used for electronic review on other surfaces - at this time it is universally accepted that there is no need to expand the use of Hawk-Eye to clay court tennis."

I have known Bradshaw for a long while, and have the utmost respect for his unimpeachable integrity, his common sense, and his immense knowledge of the game. No one has spent more time across the years thinking and considering how rules should be applied, or addressing how the sport can best be officiated. This is a man who knows what he is talking about. I have no doubt that there is indeed a strong consensus among players and officials for players not to challenge calls on clay since the ball marks are often so clear. We have all seen players walk over to lines between points so they can check the ball marks. We have witnessed umpires getting down from their chairs several times during a match to check those marks themselves. Perhaps the umpires and players are satisfied that Hawk-Eye is not necessary on clay.

With all due respect to Bradshaw and everyone else, I am not in accord. To be sure, ball marks on clay are easier to identify than those on hard courts. But when an umpire or player examines one of those marks, can they be absolutely certain the right call has been made in every case? Isn’t it possible that sometimes a shot has hit the outer edge of a line, leaving a distinct ball mark that would indicate the ball was out when perhaps it was in? I wish both the ATP Tour and the WTA Tour would at least consider a trial run at a clay court event to determine whether or not Hawk-Eye would prove once more that it is more accurate than the human eye. I may well be wrong, but I would be surprised if Hawk-Eye did not demonstrate that clay court tennis could use its services.

The other question I had for the esteemed Gayle Bradshaw was this: has there been any more talk in the officiating community about allowing the players unlimited challenges? He responded, "Data shows that three incorrect challenges is more than sufficient. There is no movement for unlimited challenges. All of tennis worked together to unify protocol at three, so I do not see any proposals for change in the near future. We do monitor, though, and if the data would suggest something else it could be looked at. But I don’t see this happening, as what we have now seems to be working."

According to many authorities, Bradshaw is right on target with that assessment. Irrefutably, the challenge system has been met with widespread approval by players and officials, and by and large it does seem to be working. Nevertheless, I still favor an unlimited challenge system. Many in the know worry that giving the competitors unlimited challenges would lead to a serious abuse of the system. I don’t believe that would be the case at all. Any player who kept erroneously challenging calls would be thoroughly embarrassed by spectators; these fans would undoubtedly make their displeasure known in no uncertain terms. Any attempts at gamesmanship would backfire. But the single most important reason to permit unlimited challenges would be to make certain a bad call at match point, or at another critical juncture of a match when a player has run out of challenges, would not stand.

I happen to believe that the professional game of tennis is far better off than it was before the arrival of Instant Replay. But, if I had my way, the clay court events would not be left out, and the players would not be restricted in the number of protests they could wage. We have made substantial progress, but there is room for improvement.

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