At this year’s Australian Open, the tennis world was able to enjoy another grand slam event that was able to go ahead, that, with the exception of 5 days of mandated shut down by the provincial government, enjoyed the presence of at least some fans.
This was a great and welcomed development, as the first grand slam event of the year is widely regarded as the funnest grand slam event, one that showcases the welcoming and beautiful cityscape of Melbourne in the Australian summer (the event usually takes place in January, but was postponed because of the pandemic). The fans, clad in their comfortable and laid-back summer attire, along with their enthusiasm for the sport, not just for Australian players, always add the feeling of excitement for those watching on TV.
If you were able to tune in and catch a match, you might have been hard pressed to put your finger on something that you sensed was different. For the first time on the world stage, there were no lines judges to yelp ‘out’ or ‘fault’ — instead, pre-recorded human voices of first responders were utilized to vocalize the calls that were decided in real time by the tournament’s automated system.
COVID-19 has expedited by perhaps a decade the adoption of processes and technologies, some for bad, some for good, and the adoption of real-time Hawk Eye-like line calls in actual tennis competition is definitely one of these things. Debuting at such a consequential event only adds to the impact this had for the tennis world, one I believe that has become the catalyst for every big event, and any event or facility that can afford it, to adopt this same model.
For years, players, commentators, and fans (both in the stadium and at home) alike have already accepted the accuracy and, dare one say, the authority of electronic lines calls, by way of player challenges. Similar to how other sports give one side a specific number of wrong challenges per game, players or doubles teams, when the technology was available, would be able to challenge lines calls, even those that were originally overruled by the chair umpire.
This definitely seemed to bring nothing but positives for the game of tennis; players would not have to ruminate or fume about a call that they believe was totally wrong, it is a moment of anticipation for the fans to see what the ‘truth’ of the matter was when a challenge was made, players and fans did not have to wonder ‘what if’ — as long as they accepted the accuracy and acumen of the system.
Ostensibly the first and foremost reason for the absence of the lines judges throughout the Australian Open this year was because of social distancing — it was a way to allow for players and ball kids (much harder to replace at the moment) to be able to be on the court with at least 6ft of distance between them much easier to obtain.
There still remain questions that, as the tennis world progresses in this new chapter, will need to be answered. What happens if the technology fails and is not available (which has happened for challenges before)? Can the chair umpire (who is, as of right now, still presiding over the match and keeping score and enforcing other rules) overrule the automated system if they were sure they saw the ball a certain way? Are foot faults still being looked for (by either human or machine)?
When all trust is put into one system, it presents not only a single source of failure, but a single insertion point or source for massive manipulation. What were to happen if a hacker purposefully alters the algorithm or internal processes that the system uses to make its calls, and no one in the world is aware of it besides them? What internal processes or audits are in place or can be put into place to ensure the integrity and instill trust for each and every call, beyond and independent of the system itself?
That being said, it should be pointed out that these automatic systems do have a margin of error (I have heard around 5mm for those at the Australian Open). Obviously, technology providers would want to best each other in getting this down, knowing that a tournament that would invest in such a system would want the provably lowest margin of error, in order to attract more and more players to choose to play their event. I believe that because this margin is shared throughout the whole tournament, it can be considered acceptable.
One of the reasons electronic challenges were not adopted in clay court tournaments was because the margin of error, presumably because of the uneven and grainy surface, was too high to be acceptable. On clay players and umpires have always had the ability to check the mark to see if the ball hit the line or not (but it is not unheard of that which mark was the actual mark in question is disputed).
In my opinion, a consistent margin of error is preferable to that of human error in this regard, sometimes human calls are off by quite a bit, and you never know when that type of error will be made. In baseball, when the home plate umpire is calling certain pitches that might technically be outside the strike zone box you see created on your TV screen strikes, pitchers, batters, and managers tend to accept that as long as the umpire is consistent throughout the game, regardless of which side is pitching or hitting — consistency allows the game to go on being played without either side feeling robbed. Who knows, perhaps baseball home plate umpires are next to be replaced or at least overruled by a technological balls and strikes calling system.
As we go further down this road, which in my view is already set on leaving lines judges a relic of the past, what will tennis look like because of it? At first exposure viewing a match with this technology, it seemed to me that the match took on a slight element of a video game environment, almost light augmented reality (AR), for tennis. It felt futuristic, and I rather liked it.
What could be the possible implications for wide adoption of this technology, even down to the public park and regional or junior tournaments? It may be that players will become even more satisfied with the experience of playing, because the element of human error or animosity that could mount against them is presumably taken away. Match times may go down (less complaining, the process of challenging is not as long or is non-existent.) On television, broadcast partners may actually have more time for commentating or advertisement, perhaps increasing interest and/or investment in the sport.
Tennis could be one of the first worldwide sports to adopt this technology in most or all of its professional events, which could actually become a point of curiosity and intrigue for the world and draw more people to take up the sport/ become fans. Because tennis is a sport where one can get exercise while maintaining social distancing, involvement seems to be rising. This new technology adoption that has coincided with, and at least in part because of, this unprecedented global pandemic and shared experience — looks to be a vignette of the bewilderment and change, but also the unanticipated opportunities, that the world of today’s tomorrow has presented us.