MELBOURNE, Australia – From the warm-ups before matches to the obligatory white Wimbledon with strawberries and whipped cream at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, tennis purists are proud of the sport’s rich history and have always tried to change too much about it.
But recent technological advances have changed the sport. Matches can now be reviewed to the nth degree, and people can appeal almost any decision made by a referee or umpire. This has allowed for more accurate decision-making while eliminating the controversial “bad decisions” that can haunt players, teams and fans for decades. The “hand of God” Diego Maradona no longer needs to be accepted.
The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed all sorts of changes in the way Grand Slam tennis is played for 2021 and possibly beyond. Face masks and hand washing stations are the norm at this year’s Australian Open, as is a significant limitation on spectator numbers to a maximum of 30,000 people per day. But perhaps the most striking and high-profile change at Melbourne Park was the absence of linear spectators.
The 2021 Australian Open will be the first major tournament to be completely without linesmen, although this has been tested at several events since the 2017 ATP Next Gen in Milan. Instead, the tournament will rely solely on Hawk-Eye Live, an advanced imaging system that uses computer cameras to track the ball’s trajectory and determine whether it has entered or exited the court, as well as detect foot faults.
No one to talk to – the voices of some of Australia’s leading medical professionals are used for “out and out” calls heard in various places and on the air – so players can no longer challenge the calls. They can still demand to see evidence of the Hawkeye call.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said three-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka after her first-round victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. “It saves me wondering or thinking about whether they said it was right or wrong. In fact, it keeps me focused. If they want to keep it, I’m not complaining, because I think there will be many matches that won’t happen because of this technology.
Dominic Thiem, No. 3 in the world rankings, said he thought it was a step in the right direction for the sport and that it should be investigated further.
“No offense, but there’s no room for error, and I think that’s great,” said Thiem, the defending champion of the US Open. “If it’s an electronic call, the ball is out, so there’s no room for error. I like that.”
On several occasions, the naked eye has once again left viewers in doubt as to whether what we have now is truly 100% accurate. At one point in the second round match between Novak Djokovic and American Francis Tiafoe at the Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic appeared to land a few inches over the line, but was not exposed. England’s Francesca Jones felt she made the wrong decision in her first-round match against Shelby Rogers. An on-screen replay of Rogers’ shot showed that Jones had every reason to be upset when the ball appeared to land next to her.
Misunderstanding. specified.Naomi Osaka‘s specified.film specified.has no problem with the entry of technology into modern tennis. JAMES ROSS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Still, lineup errors are far fewer than in the past, and even former players support the move to technology. John McEnroe, seven-time Slam champion and ESPN television analyst known for his frequent confrontations with linebackers during his playing career, recently joked during a first-round show that he “could have focused” and “would have won more” if technology had been in play decades ago. “The champagne is flowing,” McEnroe said. “No construction workers, get used to it. It’s the wave of the future.”
In the Rod Laver Arena, there are usually nine line judges on the court – three behind each back line, two watching from the side to the back line and one rotating between the service boxes. In the outdoor courts, there are usually six linesmen.
Even if the pandemic is completely halted, officials at the ATP, WTA and other tournaments will likely ask: do we really need all those extra bodies on the tennis court?
“I understand that there is a tradition of linesmen and it’s good that there are a lot of people and volunteers who love tennis and love to be on the court and be close to the players, but I don’t see why we need linesmen when we have the technology,” Jokovic, an eight-time Australian Open winner, said earlier this week. “I support technology. For the future of tennis, it’s inevitable.
The complete elimination of human line workers would not be the first such change.
Hawk-Eye Live technology was first introduced at the Grand Slam level in 2006 at the US Open after being successfully tested at the Miami Open, and players soon ran into problems. Changes were made to the tie-breaking rules for the third and fifth levels to designate a quicker winner and avoid a marathon match that could put an entire tournament out of reach. Wimbledon first implemented this change after John Isner and Nicholas Mahut played a famous fifth set of 138 games over three days. Wimbledon and Roland Garros ended their persistence with open courts by investing in canopies for their central courts.
There were many detractors for all these changes in the game, but now it is part of the fabric of tennis. Will the eventual elimination of people with water pipes be different? Some people are still not convinced.
“I don’t understand if this is necessarily sustainable, because a lot of these line judges use bigger events as a platform,” Milos Raonic said in the first round. “You need [linesmen] for low-level tennis, for junior tournaments. You need people who can organize events, observe them and make sure they are going in the right direction. I think a lot of people have that experience.
Error. Movie not specified.Novak Djokovic agrees with the switch to technology in tennis. EPA/JASON O’BRIEN
“If you take that away, how do you train these people? How do you put people in these situations so that they really understand how tennis works at the highest level and how do you do that so that the best events are organized for juniors, seniors, clubs, whatever that might be?
Daniel Medvedev, Melbourne’s No. 4, was also torn, saying, “Some people will probably lose their jobs because of this.”
Employment is certainly not negligible, but the cost of installing the Hawkeye infrastructure is something that will slow down the tournaments, ATP and WTA, even in the short term.
The cost of a courtroom with Hawk-Eye Live would be between $60,000 and $70,000. Multiply that number by 12, 14, and sometimes even 18 courts on a major court, and it’s easy to see why this technology doesn’t work on every court in every tournament in the world.
But what would happen if the tournaments themselves did not have to foot the entire bill?
Hawkeye tennis director Ben Figueiredo told the Sydney Morning Herald that the company is in talks about replacing “out” and “debt” calls with “sponsor name calls.”
Instead of an “out call,” you might call “Ralph Lauren,” he said, adding that this probably won’t happen in slam and will more likely happen in smaller tournaments.
The ATP and the ATA need to pay attention to this. Relying on technology rather than online people should go without saying, but the sport will not want to sell itself to achieve this. Instead, they will likely continue at a lower level until a more affordable offering is more widely available.
“The impact on the product for local fans and on television is one of many factors to consider when assessing the future of officials in the sport,” an ATP spokesperson told ESPN.
But the 2021 Australian Open has shown that professional tennis is no longer necessary, especially at the Grand Slam level. And in the future, using technology could be a winning formula for the sport.
Frequently asked questions
Who are the main sponsors of the Australian Open?
Among the associate partners, Rolex is a sponsor of the Australian Open and will continue to do so until 2027. Luzhou Laojiao, a spirits company, is also an associate partner from 2019. In addition to them, Emirates Airlines has also sponsored the event since 2015.
Why doesn’t the roof close at the Australian Open?
The decision to close the roof of an arena is made solely by the tournament official. The roofs of the Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and Melbourne Arena may be closed in the event of rain or extreme heat prior to the scheduled start of competition.
Will the Australian Open be cancelled?
Thursday’s matches at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park have been canceled after a quarantine worker at the hotel tested positive for VIDOC-19.
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