Hawk-Eye: The challenge within the challenge

At last year’s U.S Open final, Andy Murray, when serving for the match against Novak Djokovic, hit a clean ace but the linesperson called it wide. Murray challenged the call, and the decision was overturned. Two points later the Scot clinched his first Grand Slam title partly thanks to Hawk-Eye. The Hawk-Eye has proven to be a wonderful innovation for tennis but along the way its had its fair share of scrutiny as well.

But first let’s look at what Hawk-Eye really is? Developed in Romsey, England in the early 2000’s by Dr. Paul Hawkins, the system tracks a tennis ball’s path by compiling images provided by 11 high-speed video cameras. These images are then combined to create a three-dimensional representation of the trajectory of the ball, which fans and players all over the world can see on the big screens. Pretty high-tech stuff and expensive too. To install the infrastructure and use Hawk-Eye on a single court can go on to cost around $60,000-$70,000, which is why it is only used on the big show courts at Grand Slams and other higher tier tournaments around the globe, such as the Masters 1000 and Davis Cup.

Hawk-Eye made its first appearance on a tennis court in 2006 at the Hopman Cup in Perth and, later that year, made its Grand Slam debut at the U.S Open. It also replaced the previously long used Cyclops from the 1980’s, which would beep every time a serve went long or wide. In a sport that has long upheld its traditions (players still wear whites at Wimbledon) and which has regarded the umpire’s decision to be final, this new piece of technology has been a welcome change.

For one, it eliminates the doubt in the player’s mind that he/she is being robbed at the hands of the umpire. Remember those never-ending McEnroe rants at Wimbledon and shouts of “You cannot be serious”? That phrase would not have seen the light of day if Hawk-Eye was around in the good old days. But that doesn’t mean the players don’t argue and complain anymore, they just choose to berate this new piece of technology now, instead of the person on the chair.

Hawk-Eye brings with it an element of entertainment. It engages the fans in the stands and the people watching at home. The build-up to the challenge and display on the screen followed by an overturned call almost always gets the crowd excited. “It’s been great, because the fans have liked it. As long as the fans like it, it’s good. I mean we’ve dealt with human error for many years so I don’t see a problem with that. But if we can do away with it and have Hawk-Eye and have the crowd like it, then I say keep going with it” said the now retired American tennis player James Blake when asked about the Hawk-Eye back in 2008.

The players have generally welcomed the electronic line-calling system. “In my 20 years in professional tennis, “Andre Agassi said, “this is one of the most exciting things to happen for players, fans and television viewers.” Even the notorious Johnny Mac had a few nice words to say about the Hawk-Eye. “This is great. I hate to be in the position of defending umpires, but not having to worry about calls is a pretty big thing for us. I wish we’d had this when I was playing. I would have saved a lot of energy.”

Despite its obvious benefits, there has been some debate regarding the accuracy of the review system. In 2008, a paper published by two British scientists guessed at how many millimeters off a Hawk-Eye call could be. In its debut at Wimbledon in 2007, the Hawk-Eye caused much frustration to Federer in the final. Firmly believing a shot by Rafael Nadal was out, only to be called in by Hawk-Eye, Federer insisted that the system be switched off. Federer has despised the new technology from the beginning, saying, “I don’t see the point of it” and dismissing it as “nonsense.” At Dubai in 2007, Nadal slammed Hawk-Eye following his loss to Mikhail Youzhny. “The mark of the ball was still on court and it was outside. But in the challenge it was in, so that’s unbelievable. The Hawk-Eye system is not perfect,” fumed Nadal.

The limitation of three incorrect challenges per set also handicaps the players in a way that they have to be extra cautious when asking for the review. It becomes a tactical decision rather than a need-based one since they don’t want to run out of challenges at important points. Former player and sportscaster Mary Carillo is irritated that such a wondrous technology cannot be used at a crucial time. “Players having to decide when to make a call? That’s insane. You’re on the run 80 feet away and you have to decide if it could cost you the set. Early in a set, you might waste three ridiculous, vanity challenges, and guess what? Bad judgment, and you’re out of challenges at crunch time.”

But then again, with unlimited challenges, there will be the temptation to keep relying on Hawk-Eye for every point, which will only disrupt the natural flow of the game.

In its eighth year on tour, Hawk-Eye is being introduced at more and more tournaments and at a hefty cost. Despite its love-hate relationship with players, Hawk-Eye has indeed aided the human eye and is here to stay, unless some other space-age technology replaces it in the near future.

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