Hawkeye on Clay Courts: The Great Debate

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It seems as if the age of power tennis has also created a long-standing cultural debate. For centuries, tennis was played without the technological ability to call the lines. This set up fierce debates and even outright arguments between players and umpires. John McEnroe was one player who was consistently incensed with bad calls. But, he had good reasons for his outrage. Humans make mistakes.

The Challenge System

Since the advent of the challenge system these arguments have been greatly reduced. The use of Hawkeye introduced a more congenial atmosphere on tennis courts. Except for clay courts. The tournament directors of clay courts refuse to utilize Hawkeye. Oddly enough, they installed it, but refuse to rely on it. They base their decision on the belief it can’t be fully calibrated all the time, within the proper margin of error. This may or may not be a valid argument. Players and tennis journalists disagree with this argument, and propose Hawkeye be utilized in all tournaments.

As someone who enjoys the sport of tennis I believe Hawkeye introduces a new level of professionalism. The players know the lines are being watched. They can play more freely and with added confidence. Hawkeye reduces the chances of bad calls by linespersons. Human error shouldn’t be a major factor in the outcome of a professional tennis match.

The Experts Weigh In

The Tennis Channel asked seven of its experts to proffer an opinion on the subject. Six out of seven agreed Hawkeye or some form of technology should be utilized on all surfaces.

How Players Are Affected

A famous mistake occurred during the 2009 match between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling. “[…] Soderling circled a mark several feet from the actual landing spot of the shot [by Nadal] in question then went ballistic when the chair umpire could not show him the correct mark and ruled Nadal’s shot to be good.”

More recently, Nikoloz Basilashvili served a double fault on match point. Still, the umpire gave him the match and over-ruled. Again, Hawkeye showed the call to be incorrect. So, Basilashvili got the match and Marton Fucsovics had to settle for being correct but taking the loss.

In a match between Karolina Pliskova against Maria Sakkari, Karolina became incensed with an unbelievably bad call. Pliskova hit an overhead which was shown on replay to be clearly inside the line. This time, the umpire, who couldn’t even find a mark, declared it out. That was yet another example in a long line of incidents when umpires on clay courts got it badly wrong.

In 2017, during a Goffin-Nadal semi-final match in Monte Carlo, umpire Cedric Mourier called one of Goffin’s shots out. Replay showed it to be in. Keshav Gopalan wrote: “It’s truly sad that such incidents are happening in a day and age when the technology is available to prevent it, only for it to not be used.”

Canadian Denis Shapovalov stated in a recent interview: “Of course, they’re (umpires) are allowed to make mistakes. They’re human just like us; we can make a mistake but I just feel like there’s got to be a better way to allow the players to kind of challenge the calls.” He is correct when he says there is no reason not to utilize Hawkeye, or similar technology on all surfaces.

Tennis and Tradition

This argument perhaps states it best:

“At the centre of this argument is an infatuation with one of the most powerful forces in sports: tradition. Any flippant arguments about Hawkeye not being 100% accurate (its manufacturers cite a 3.6mm margin for error) seem absurd…Hawkeye’s judgement is widely trusted and accepted on the tour, and since its induction at the Miami Open in 2006. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and it certainly has its place within sports. However, the refusal to use the technology is a hindrance to the sport, when it is adversely affecting the outcome of matches.”

We All Deserve Better

Tournaments earn their organizers and sponsors millions of dollars. They should invest the money necessary to ensure Hawkeye works perfectly on clay. The calling of lines in tennis is an issue of professionalism. Hawkeye, FoXTEN, or another technology should be implemented immediately. Unfortunately, the French Open‘s organizers already decided this will not happen.

Even after it entered the Open Era fifty-one years ago, tennis lagged behind. This is due to the constant battles which took place over bad calls. But Hawkeye has greatly reduced these instances. Still, clay court tournaments continue to exist as if they’re in the past. Everyone involved with the sport deserves better.

Main Photo from Getty