Hawkeye technology turns tennis into a cartoon

Reality hardware needed

In those archaic days before tennis adopted the Hawkeye ball tracking system, the TV audience could have some fun with close line calls. Following a controversial shot, we'd receive a number of slow-motion replays from various angles and get to make up our own minds as to whether or not the lines person was a dolt. But, in the US at least, NBC has sucked away that precious privilege.

Throughout its Wimbledon coverage, NBC relied solely on the animated Hawkeye replays when going over close calls. It refused to show the real-life slow-motion replay alongside the Hawkeye replay, giving TV spectators a chance to judge how good the technology really is.

The argument against showing the slow-motion replays is that they're crap.

"You can't really see if the ball is in or out on a video replay," NBC communications director Adam Freifeld tells me. "It always looks a little blurry and you have to guess if its in or out. If a player went crazy over a Hawkeye call, we would use a replay but that didn't happen. Hawkeye is actually better than the human eye."

'Went crazy' is a rather loose term. During the astounding men's final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Federer showed repeated surprise at some of the Hawkeye decisions. He's been displeased with the Hawkeye concept overall, and in both of the last two finals, he's complained about specific calls.

During the 2008 final, I saw at least two instances where Federer grumbled after a Hawkeye replay, but NBC - perhaps the BBC does the same - declined to show the real life replay of the ball hitting near the line. So, we're meant to have the animated, computer-generated reality and nothing else.

I'm told that NBC does not maintain a set policy on the replay decision. It's made on a producer-by-producer basis.

It may be the case that neither the human eye nor the regular TV cameras can pick up the ball with any reliable accuracy. But shouldn't we be afforded a gander anyway?

After all, Hawkeye isn't perfect either. It has a margin of error of about a quarter inch. Plenty of shots fall within that margin of error, and the players must simply accept their fate with the machine.

"The governing bodies have determined that a system that meets the accuracy criteria established for the testing of such systems is regarded as being definitive," said Stuart Miller from the International Tennis Federation. "The maximum tolerance on in/out decisions is 5 mm, which is a known value and is accepted by players, officials and administrators."

But I am not even convinced Hawkeye is always that accurate. During Marat Safin's semi-final match against Federer, the Russian asked for a replay on a Federer serve that appeared pretty close to the line. The Hawkeye replay showed the ball landing more than a foot inside in the line, leaving Safin angrier than usual. Again, we were denied an actual, real-life replay of the shot, which seemed more than curious. The human eye and TV cameras should have been able to figure that one out in slow-motion.

With more and more sports moving to adopt Hawkeye and similar technology, I hope we resist some of the urge to turn over all close calls to cartoons. I would at least like a chance at gauging the full extent of my inadequacies. ®

Tennis Bootnote

A couple more thoughts from Wimbledon.

Thanks heavens Nadal beat Federer. It made Wimbledon mean something again.

Before this year's final, we'd been through about 15 years of Wimbledon being more or less an anomalous joke. The players head to grass for one month a year and get trounced by the guy with the best game. Sampras and Federer were able to inflate their grand slam records by mastering what has become a sideshow surface. This makes comparing their records against past generations even more difficult, as the old blokes played on grass all the time.

Also, are Federer and Nadal making each other better or worse? Their rivalry has resulted in some fantastic matches, but it's hurt their places in history.

Without Nadal around, Federer would easily be considered the best player of all time, as he'd likely have three French Open crowns. Without Federer around, Nadal would likely have three Wimbledon crowns to go with the four French Open wins. That's seven grand slams at the age of 22.

Would have, could have, should have. I know. But still.

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