Who is squeezing the balls?

What do I know about playing professional tennis? Nothing, except what I see as a spectator.

The professional tennis circuit has moved to reduce the impact of possibly wrong calls by officials on matches by having official reviews (affectionately, known as Hawkeye). We know that officials are fallible in terms of what they think they see. So, are players. We spectators, too, also do not see it all correctly.

Some major professional sports have turned to visual technology to help officials make the right calls, and reduce the frustration of players and fans who often see, or believe they see, things better than the game officials. Now, such technology is part of the regular landscape, even in sports where the vagaries of officials’ decisions are well-understood as part of the sport’s intrigue, such as cricket. Some sports–such as soccer–have, however, turned their faces against such ‘artificial intelligence’, and prefer to see bad decisions as part of the very fabric of the sport.

Hawkeye and its type have satisfied many, and they frustrate many, but they are there and clear. American football goes a little further in their use by having official review available at the choice of teams (players), but also there as something that officials can use for key plays. So, routinely, there is official review of scoring plays. Why does tennis not do the same? Too afraid to show that officials are human? Come on!

We have the latest controversy in a key match today between David Nalbandian and John Isner. This need not have occurred. During a 5th set tie-break in this year’s Australian Open, Isner served. A linesperson called ‘out’; the chair umpire (Kader Nouni) overruled and called ‘in’. There was a lot of crowd noise, and the players were confused. Nalbandian appeared to crane his ear to hear what the umpire was saying, went to check the mark, then, eventually, Nalbandian asked for a review. The referee denied his request, arguing the player had run out of time (for which there is no rule specifying how long to take–and we’ve all seen that time violations are observed in a very elastic manner in tennis matches). Why not simplify things and impose official review automatically when two officials disagree? They clearly did not see the same thing! Too simple. The bad thing for the officials is that TV broadcasters can and did show a replay and it clearly showed that the umpire was WRONG!

Top professional players are obliged to attend press conferences after matches to discuss how the match went. How about the same for the chair umpire? Too likely to cause controversy? It would do a lot of good to hear the officials explain and admit what they did well and acknowledge what they did wrongly. Come on, you’re grown-up and can handle a bit of embarrassment. I say, “Make them sit under the glare of the lights and justify themselves.”

To me, this is another example of how something technological and already accepted as a good goes unused because humans and their arbitrariness decide to not use it. Bound by rules? Only to a degree. Alright, tennis rules may not yet include the official review of officials. (It also does not have official reviews for all games, so we are well into the world of inconsistent rules.) Players should and will protest the officiating injustices, but so too should spectators. Fans and viewers (less so) pay good money to see the professionals play their best and expect the best of them. They expect the best officiating, too, so, why live with more mediocrity in that role?

I was always advised when training as a referee that my decision should not determine a match’s outcome. I’m not sure if tennis has the same advice for its officials.


About The Grasshopper

Professional international economist, recently retired from an international organization. I use blogging as a way of organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, and spent many years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for a few decades, and worked and travelled abroad extensively. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of girls. Also, married to an economist.
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