Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Leaving It All On the Court
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Leaving It All On the Court 05/24/2010 - 7:11 AM

Lj There was a lot to like at Roland Garros on Sunday, a lot of great shots, a lot of sun, a lot of color, a lot of superb sunglasses, a lot of thin women with dark hair and white jeans passing in the other direction. But the highlight of the day for me didn’t involve any players or fans. It involved a chair umpire.

I don’t know her name, but she was working the match between Ernests Gulbis and Julien Benneteau on Court Suzanne Lenglen. You don’t often see women working men’s matches, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. There were no arguments between her and either of the players. But that doesn’t mean there was no reaction to her presence at all—she was young and not unattractive, and this was a French crowd. In the middle of the first set, she was called down to the court to inspect a mark on Benneteau’s side of the court. She clambered down, smiling slightly, with her index finger already pointing in the air to indicate that the ball was out. That pose, which was more cheerful than authoritative, combined with her pinned-back long brown hair and casual pants-and-shirt umpire's uniform, seemed to provoke the crowd’s interest. When she bent down to point at the mark, whistles went up all over the arena. She kept smiling, and the whistles in the crowd turned to giggles.

What did this moment prove? That the French are sexist? That they have a sense of humor? In its cheeky way, it also showed the appeal of getting the chair umpire involved in checking ball marks, a tradition that's unique to clay. There are some ditch-the-past types, most prominently Brad Gilbert, who want the Hawk-Eye line-calling system to be used at clay events. Yes, a computer would presumably do the job a tiny bit more reliably, and it does defuse arguments more efficiently. Yes, there are times when there’s no mark at all. And yes, the ball-mark system does give a slight advantage to the player on the same side of the court as the mark; he or she can circle what he thinks is the correct spot and possibly influence the chair umpire into choosing the wrong one. But we’ve also seen occasions when the umpire ends up studying the mark and ruling against the circler. It's also not impossible for a player to disagree with a Hawk-Eye call and believe the mark they see on a hard court instead, as Roger Federer did in last year’s U.S. Open final. Plus, there are no limits to their challenges; every player is free to inspect any mark he wishes.

I would hate to see a French Open final turn on a botched mark check, but my argument in favor of keeping the system isn’t about fairness as much as it about honor. It’s a word that used to be deeply embedded in tennis, and in theory it still is at the recreational level, where players must call their own lines. In an ideal tennis world, you’re supposed to make calls against yourself—say, if you get to the ball on two bounces or see that you’ve hit it wide—even if your opponent has called it in your favor. To do otherwise is the equivalent of cheating. There was an unwritten code of sportsmanship in the amateur game, most famously and beautifully articulated by 1930s champion Gottfried von Cramm, who insisted that players not argue calls because it would mean showing up the line judges (wow, the world has changed, hasn’t it?).

The generally accepted concept of honor in the pro game now is much like that of other sports: The umpires are paid to make the calls—see the words of Fernando Gonzalez after his match against James Blake at the 2008 Olympics, or Thierry Henry after his hand ball last year. But clay offers the players a chance to get involved the same way rec players must, and to change calls in their opponents' favor that their opponents might not even have challenged. I saw Novak Djokovic do this, much to his detriment, against Rafael Nadal four years ago at this tournament; Djokovic reversed a line judges' out call even though Nadal was ready to accept it and move on to the next point. In Madrid we saw Nadal immediately give Roger Federer two calls based on ball marks. This shift has come at the same time that the umpires themselves have become more willing to get out of their chairs. I was shocked to see, in a replay of the 1984 French Open men’s final, that the umpire huffily refused, on more than one occasion, to check a mark that Lendl or McEnroe wanted checked. Instead, he looked at his watch and told them to get back to the baseline and play before he gave them a time violation. Whatever appeal that stern old-school approach might have to us today, this is one case where a relaxation of authority has been a positive development. The old authoritarian style was the equivalent of having Hawk-Eye available and not being allowed to use it.

For the most part, we watch tennis to see athletic plays, to root for people we like, to get caught up in a drama. But to see a small honorable act from someone who is otherwise fighting to destroy his opponent elicits another sensation, one generally lacking from sports: It makes us, for lack of a better term, feel good. I got to experience this from the player’s standpoint a few years ago in an adult tournament. On a crucial point, I called one of my opponent's serves wide. He got ready to hit his second serve, but I checked the mark to be sure. To my shock, the ball had caught the line. I gave him the ace, but losing the point that way somehow made me feel good—better, even, than if I had won it. Clay-court tennis is one place that still teaches you that acting honorably has personal rewards.

We hear that Hawk-Eye adds entertainment for fans. But is it as dramatic as seeing the umpire—whatever he or she looks like—come down off the chair, dance around the mark, point at it with his pen in hand, and then, finally, end the suspense and let us all in on his decision? Hawk-Eye, the word from on high, has none of the democratic appeal of seeing two players get involved in the process. We know that the replay system takes everything out of the umpires’ hands; but it takes it out of the players' hands as well. It removes a link between them, a sense that they’re in a match together, that still exists on clay.

Is there anything analogous to a ball mark in other sports? A football field won't tell you whether a wide receiver has landed out of bounds. You can’t see where a foul ball in baseball has landed. But even if it isn’t unique, there’s something cool—and honorable—about a system that polices itself. There’s no need for technology to find the evidence on clay. As the saying goes, you leave it all on the court.


Posted by MZK 05/24/2010 at 07:25 AM

There doesn't seem to be any serious consideration of or movement towards the use of Hawk-Eye on clay (and if the likes of Gilbert is its most prominent advocate, then it's even more likely it will stay that way), even after the technology has proved itself over the last four years, so we're going to have mark-checking for the foreseeable future. It has its flaws, for all the reasons you described, and even record Slam-winning champions can fall prey to the potential pitfall (or temptation?) of pointing out the wrong mark, as with Graf in the 1999 French Open final, or Federer in the Rome 2006 final.

I do think that as long as we're stuck with it, I like that it adds one thing more that is special and unique about clay court tennis, and as you say, it adds an extra dynamic to the game itself.

Posted by ata08 05/24/2010 at 10:44 AM

well-considered, as usual.
nice opening...

Posted by athan 05/24/2010 at 10:47 AM

I agree with MZK, if not for that 1999 French Open I would have utmost respect for Graf as a champion and a legend. Interesting how one mark-pointing incident can change one's perspective of a superstar's career. I have always believed that beyond the Martina Hingis hissy fit that is used to describe the 1999 French Open, it is also a lot about how Graf really wanted the title and cheated just to win it. Hingis was robbed of a career slam. By Graf, by the process that need to be changed NOW.

Posted by JollyJohn 05/24/2010 at 11:20 AM

It seems so strange to me that when we have the technology available which ensures 100% accuracy that we dont use it...
with so much on the line, ranking points, money, life defining moments, why do we risk human error? And only for a quaint notion of honour?

Posted by Michele 05/24/2010 at 11:36 AM

I think hawk-eye is more dramatic and it's something that everyone in the stadium gets to experience at once. I love the concept of honor in tennis (which is why, I think, it's so sickening to witness dishonorable behavior (Justin Henin comes to mind).

However, while watching the opening matches at Roland Garros, there have been wrong calls by the umps. They check the mark, make the call and then we see the truth on TV with hawk-eye.

In the end, accuracy trumps all.

Posted by karin1492 05/24/2010 at 12:02 PM

You have to be kidding yourself if you think Hawk-Eye is 100% accurate. Nothing is that accurate, it's going to have a margin plus or minus a couple of millimeters or so. It can also be totally wrong on occasions as well. The ability to check ball marks is one of the great things about clay. That doesn't need to change.

Posted by weak4.0player 05/24/2010 at 12:26 PM

Personally, I say ditch Hawkeye. What the hey, let's get rid of the instant replay in football too. They completely spoil the momentum of the game. Refs and umps are human, as are players. Let's be happy with that.

Posted by FourOhOrangeSpud 05/24/2010 at 01:21 PM

Well-put article. And for the record, I like the drama of Hawk-Eye... but I have no problem with imperfection with line-calling in tennis. Even in USTA leagues, unless it's match point, I'm not too concerned when a player makes a call I disagree with. And I get a little insulted when people question my calls, because if by chance I called a ball out that maybe wasn't, I probably played five that were out. Unless someone is blatantly cheating, calls balance out.

Posted by Kate 05/24/2010 at 01:23 PM

Steve: watching the Gasquet-Murray match. Commentators have just discussed how Murray will play to his opponent's injury. "If you're bleeding, he'll make you bleed more."


Posted by Sunny nine 05/24/2010 at 01:37 PM

This is Sunny MS-There is a another Sunny on here. Michele, you mentioned Justine Henin. The problem with this is this is something we saw. You don't know how many times, ANY of the top players DID NOT give a line call to a player. I have never seen Serena give a call away like Rafa did. So the problem with this system is that you don't know when people get by with it i.e. they see their opponents ball hit the line but they did not give the point to them. You only see certain places where what you call honor is obvious. Again, I think Tignor said that this more among amateur players. There are not to many professional players do more than let the ump make the call.

Posted by Puffin 05/24/2010 at 01:43 PM

Well, Hawkeye is hardly 100% accurate! Something like +/- 3 mm, isn't it? I read something somewhere, a couple of years ago, that Hawkeye was tested on clay but it was apparently so patently wrong most of the time, that they decided not to use it on clay at all, I presume to save embarrassment! And personally, I don't think it's required. It makes clay matches much more fun. Agree, too, about the honour thing - I've seen Roger give points to his opponent lots of times, if the call is not correct - as do other players, of course.

Posted by zolarafa 05/24/2010 at 01:56 PM

I think the next best thing to being in RG is to read well-written, refreshing reports on RG everyday.

I will wait to read your report on Gasquet-Murray match. Although I like both guys, Gasquet playes so well for the first two sets that I thought a win over Murray would reste Gasquet's mind after those allegations and suspension time. Unfortunately for him, he just got too tires and gave away the match. Fortunately for Murray, his fitness training paid off and he can now go back and study his game and hoefully can take this momemntum deep in the tournament.

btw, Steve, do you know why Rafa played last ( of the top 4) and why is he not playing on the center court?

Posted by Ro'ee 05/24/2010 at 02:13 PM

A few years back in Rome A-Rod overruled a call of double fault on Verdasco's serve which would have given him the match, and ended up losing it

Posted by Better At Singles 05/24/2010 at 02:47 PM

Is there anything analogous to a ball mark in other sports?

...Track & Field. Javelin and Long Jump to name a couple.

Posted by JimF 05/24/2010 at 03:34 PM

I hate to, but since someone brought up Williams' smear of Henin yet again, I have to respond.

Williams served. I believe if she had hit an ace and Henin had complained to the ump that she wasn't ready, Williams would insisted on her right to serve.

In the recent match where Williams lost to Jankovich, Williams had three (3) opportunities to give back or concede points -- the way she says Henin should have, or be a "cheater". Not one, not two, but three. And every time, Williams took the point or replay to her advantage. {An ace with an over-ruled call AFTER the ball passed Williams. An ace when Jankovich wasn't set up. Then in the final points, Williams held up her hand to stop play -- after Jankovich had already started her service motion. }

So, Williams only consistent belief is that it is "cheating" if she loses the point.

Posted by fedfan88 05/24/2010 at 03:34 PM

JollyJohn said:
It seems so strange to me that when we have the technology available which ensures 100% accuracy that we dont use it...
with so much on the line, ranking points, money, life defining moments, why do we risk human error? And only for a quaint notion of honour?

could not agree more. Steve, look, I agree with your argument, I really do understand your point. But I mean, come on, history is on the line! Its simply too important for this old school human error stuff, its silly not to use Hawk Eye

Posted by Airborne101 05/24/2010 at 04:25 PM

I've seen several "marks" that didn't agree with hawkeye that the umpires wrongly called in or out on important points when the TV replay has the hawkeye which is not being used to make calls. It's not a matter of honor -- it's a matter of getting the call right. It's absolutely ridiculous to waste time calling the umpire out of the chair to check the wrong mark or one that doesn't exist (which happens occasionally)when the technology now exists to make a call almost immediately. The clay court mark system is quaint but outdated and just plain wrong to continue using. If the players want to concede and rub out the mark that's fine but if they don't or can't agree which is the correct mark hawkeye can settle the argument honestly and fairly.

Posted by Luca 05/24/2010 at 06:12 PM

to all people saying hawkeye is 100% accurate. It's not. This is why isn't used on clay.
Simply like this

Posted by zolarafa 05/24/2010 at 07:06 PM

I am now really curious to know why Rafa is scheduled on the smaller court and is the last of the top 4 to play the first round. He is number 2 and 4-times champion. Do the French really have something against him or is it pure accident?

Also I had heard that last year the balls had changed from Wilson to Penn. Do you know what balls they are using this year?

Posted by zolarafa 05/24/2010 at 07:09 PM

About Hawk-eye,
I am absolutely for having the Hawk-eye on clay. It would be the ultimate test and calibration of hte Hawk-eye system.
I can imagine how many disputes will rise when the mark shows something and the Hawk-eye something else, ...and maybe that's why they avoid it!

Posted by penguin 05/24/2010 at 07:58 PM

I think it is ridiculous to have Hawk-eye on clay. It's not necessary and so expensive. This way, EVERYBODY has a chance to check the mark, whereas at the other places, you have to be a top player everywhere else to be able to do that. The reason why Rafa is on Lenglen is because separate tickets are sold for Lenglen and Chatrier, and those who bought for Lenglen need some good tennis too (Matt Cronin). I think it's funny that only at the French Open will the organizers put Rafa and Roger on the second stadium. Neither of them ever complain. At the other 3 majors, the organizers ONLY put them on the main stadium.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 05/24/2010 at 08:21 PM

Thank you, Steve. I am forwarding the link to this post to Sam and Robin and Skip (you all now them well), as more evidence that clay court tennis possesses certain virtues that the other surfaces do not.

For the record, I also believe in playing by the Code of Conduct, and will give my opponent a point if I have found I missed the call, even if I returned the ball, because I also do not believe in "playing a let" unless there was a net cord on the serve.

Posted by Mr. and Mrs. D. 05/24/2010 at 08:25 PM

I also wouldn't want to see Hawk-eye on clay, then again, I'm not Zheng Jie at last year's FO trying to convince the chair umpire that he's pointing to the wrong mark...check out min 1:14

Posted by Josh181 05/24/2010 at 10:01 PM

JollyJohn: Are you serious? Honour is not JUST a "quaint notion". It is what tennis on the amateur level is based upon. And with so many of us watching these professionals it would be nice to see some act as leaders such as Djokovic and Nadal.

Posted by Vie 05/24/2010 at 10:22 PM

I appreciate those demonstration of honor from Rafa and Novak.

Posted by pov 05/24/2010 at 11:33 PM

Point #1 - Hawkeye does not guarantee 100% accuracy. Let me state that again . . Hawkeye does not guarantee 100% accuracy.

The idea that it does is based on what. You watch what Hawkeye shows you and that is verified by ?? That's right nothing. Hawkeye "works" because it's been set as the arbitrator. Players have to accept what it replays.

Point #2 - even if there were technology that provided 100% accuracy, I'd rather have the human element as described in the article. It's a sport, a game, it's all about people. It's great to have the umpire so involved. Plus it's just more interesting than some silly tech setup.

Posted by pov 05/24/2010 at 11:34 PM

Point #1 - Hawkeye does not guarantee 100% accuracy. Let me state that again . . Hawkeye does not guarantee 100% accuracy.

The idea that it does is based on what? You watch what Hawkeye shows you and that is verified by ?? That's right nothing. Hawkeye "works" because it's been set as the arbitrator. Players have to accept what it replays.

Point #2 - even if there were technology that provided 100% accuracy, I'd rather have the human element as described in the article. It's a sport, a game, it's all about people. It's great to have the umpire so involved. Plus it's just more interesting than some silly tech setup.

Posted by Geellis 05/25/2010 at 04:06 AM

Hmmmmm, to the Hawkeye doubters. Not really sure what the deal is here. You all claim that Hawkeye technology is not 100% accurate and has, as some put it, a +/- rate of 3mm. Are you kidding. And exactly what do you presume is the era ratio of the human eye for a serve hit at 135mph viewed from a distance of 20 feet? I promise it's more than +/- 3mm. The point with Hawkeye is not about perfection, it's about improvement. And it's a huge improvement over the human eye, period. Now it is possible that because of the way the ball slides through clay that it's more difficult for the cameras to capture its position. However, I think the more likely explanation that Puffin either misread or is misrecalling the facts about Hawkeye failing on clay. We're talking some 10 cameras and I simply don't see why their failure rate would be any higher on clay as opposed to other surfaces. But, hey, I'm no engineer and am open to being convinced.

Posted by MZK 05/25/2010 at 06:00 AM

It's silly to claim Hawk-Eye is "100%" but as Geellis (are you Dutch btw?) aptly points out, it's still more accurate/verifiable than the human eye just about every time. To complain that it takes "the human element" out of the game is also a bit silly, because three (failed) challenges per set means the vast majority of line calls remain in the human domain; furthermore, the approximate 2/3 accuracy of the original call in these challenges is remarkable, given challenges tend to come at the toughest close calls, and backs up the excellent work that officials have been doing all along. You might have a crank like Mary Carillo, always eager to take the most outspoken, wrongheaded opinion, claim that there should be unlimited challenges across the board, but luckily that won't happen.

Furthermore, the players are by and large on record as appreciating the introduction of Hawk-Eye, and have definitely grown using to having it around. You even get them voicing their frustrations when an event that should seemingly have it available, such as the Tokyo fall event, does not have it. The only player I can think of who continually criticizes Hawk-Eye is Federer, who only seems to have an issue with the technology when he's struggling in a five-set Slam final, which probably explains a lot of the lip service around here in putting the challenge system down. There was another player who also aired some doubts about it whose name I can't remember, but it was one of the curmudgeonly ones (I'm pretty sure it was Ljubicic) who complain about everything out of habit.

Posted by zolarafa 05/25/2010 at 06:48 AM

***The reason why Rafa is on Lenglen is because separate tickets are sold for Lenglen and Chatrier, and those who bought for Lenglen need some good tennis too (Matt Cronin). ****

I don't think that is the reason. Then why Federer , the best player in the world did not play on Lenglen? It is very customary to put top-ranked players on the center court. Hopefully the reason is just TV/ticket/spectators and nothing more. we will see.

Posted by Puffin 05/25/2010 at 07:48 AM

"However, I think the more likely explanation that Puffin either misread or is misrecalling the facts about Hawkeye failing on clay."

Er, sorry, Geellis, but I'm extremely good at reading, and I also haven't misrecalled the facts of what I read. Unfortunately, I can't include any references to it, so you're at perfect liberty to not believe me. However, for your information, this topic was discussed at some length, a while ago, on the BBC Tennis discussion board, and it was stated (with links to some article) that Hawkeye had been tested on clay, but was found to be not accurate enough times to make it feasible to use on that surface.

Posted by Puffin 05/25/2010 at 08:13 AM

Geellis: Below is a quote from Michael Stich, from a Guardian article dated 11 July 2007 (admittedly 3 years ago now - Hawkeye has probably been improved over this time):

"I have spoken to chair umpires who say that the reason they don't use Hawk-Eye at the French Open is that when they tested the system on clay, the ball marks proved it wrong time and time again."

Cheers :)

Posted by asics tennis shoes 05/25/2010 at 09:35 PM

Nice post here Steve, i must say that when i play tennis on a clay court, i notice that i have much better control of the ball, and yes of course, you can much easily see where the tennis ball has landed, when for example it lands on the line or just outside of the line, however, on concrete, my tennis ball control is not as good, when it comes to concrete, then again, it is much harder to see where the ball lands, i mean, i do not play with umpires usually unless i am in a tournament hehehe Thanks for posting! :)

Posted by JimF 05/29/2010 at 11:38 PM

For the price of Hawk-Eye they could put LIGHTS on the courts.

by the way, Hawk-Eye doesn't work after the sun goes down.

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