Watching like a hawk

Published February 29, 2016

It was nearly seven years ago I wrote up some thoughts about Hawkeye, the super-accurate camera tracking system that allows line calls in tennis to be queried and corrected. At the time, I spoke of its benefits and pondered whether we would ever get to a stage where there are no linesmen at all, instead umpires would rely on Hawkeye to make all the decisions.

This hasn’t happened, but more and more I’m starting to think it should. With the introduction of BT Sport came a wealth of WTA tennis into our lives. So much tennis has made me an armchair expert, and it’s come to the point where I really do wish it was down to Hawkeye to make the calls.

Aside from getting rid of the odd assortment of yelping noises linespeople make, it would also be a far more accurate process. Where these days, players rely on the line judges to make the right call, and are usually given three chances to overrule them and check with Hawkeye, how much better would it be for the system to be given the power in the first place?

Whenever there’s a call, play has to stop, we have to wait for the correct clip to be called up to the big screen, and then the audience can ooh and aah their way to seeing what the result is. The lines judge then has to put on a blinding poker face either way – they can’t look too smug if they were proved right because there’s always going to be that one occasion where they are proved wrong.

And it’s the ones where they’re wrong that are the issue. People are human beings, they blink, they misjudge things, they can never be as good as a combination of sensors and cameras at accurately placing a ball, especially with the rule that it only has to touch the white line by the thinnest of margins to still be called in. Whenever Hawkeye is used, there is no option for the line judge to overrule back at the computer – the system is trusted implicitly, which makes me wonder why it can’t be used from the outset.

I don’t know if the system can be used in real time yet, as we only ever see it in replay. I don’t know how they would make it signal that a ball is in or out – lights, a beep, the same as the net cord? I don’t know any of these things, but as they have the basis of a technology that can be relied upon to make the correct calls, it can’t be so much harder to implement it to deal with live situations.

There’s an element of losing the humanity of the sport to computers, but as players get better, faster and stronger, it’s only going to get harder for judges to make the calls. Give Hawkeye the power and hopefully the number of mid-match arguments might drop too!

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