MELBOURNE, Australia — From warming up with your opponent before a match to the mandatory all-white Wimbledon outfits and strawberries and cream at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, tennis purists are proud of the sport’s rich history of tradition, and have always grappled with the idea of having it altered too much.
But recent technological advancements have changed sports. Plays can now be reviewed to the nth degree and challenge just about any call by an umpire or referee. It has allowed for greater accuracy with decision-making while removing those controversial “bad calls,” which can haunt players, teams and fans for decades. No longer do we have to accept a Diego Maradona “Hand of God” moment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all sorts of changes to the way Grand Slam tennis is played throughout 2021, and perhaps beyond. Face masks and hand sanitizer stations are the norm around the grounds at the Australian Open this year, as is the significant reduction in spectators, which is capped at 30,000 per day. But perhaps the most noticeable and widely discussed change at Melbourne Park has been the absence of linespeople.
The 2021 Australian Open is the first major to be played entirely without line judges, although it is something which has been tested at various events since the 2017 Next Gen ATP in Milan. Instead, the tournament is relying solely on Hawk-Eye Live — a complex vision system where computer-linked cameras are used to track the trajectory of a ball to determine whether it was in or out, as well as catching foot faults.
There’s no one to argue with — voices of some of Australia’s frontline medical workers are being used for the “out” and “fault” calls, which can be heard within venues and on the broadcast — so players can no longer challenge calls. They can still request to view Hawk-Eye evidence of a call.
“I don’t mind it at all,” three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said after her first-round win against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. “It saves me the trouble of attempting to challenge or thinking about ‘Did they call it correctly or not?’ It actually gets me really focused. If they do want to continue this way, I have no complaints about it because I think there’s a lot of arguments that aren’t going to happen because of this technology.”
Men’s world No. 3 Dominic Thiem said he believes it’s “a step in the right direction” for the sport and something that must be explored further.
“No offense at all, but there are just no mistakes happening, and that’s really good in my opinion,” said Thiem, the reigning US Open champion. “If the electronic call is out, the ball is out, so there’s no room for mistakes. I like it.”
On several occasions, the naked eye has still left spectators wondering if what we now have is truly 100% accurate. At one stage during the second-round match between world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and American Frances Tiafoe on Rod Laver Arena, a Djokovic forehand appeared to land several inches past the baseline, but wasn’t called out. Great Britain’s Francesca Jones believed she was on the receiving end of an incorrect decision in her first-round match against Shelby Rogers. On-screen replays of Rogers’ shot showed Jones had every reason to be upset, as the ball appeared to land long.
Still, errors are occurring at a significantly lower rate now than in previous years with linespeople, and even former players are supportive of the shift toward technology. Seven-time Slam champion and ESPN television analyst John McEnroe, who was famous for his frequent arguments with linespeople during his playing career, joked on a recent broadcast during the first round that he “could have focused” and “would have won more” had the technology been in play a few decades earlier. “Pop the champagne,” McEnroe said. “No linesmen; get used to it. This is the wave of the future.”
Rod Laver Arena would have typically had nine linespeople crowding around the court at any one time — three behind each baseline, two eyeing the baselines from the side and another rotating between service boxes. The outside courts, meanwhile, usually field six linespeople for a match.
Even after the pandemic is completely in check, the ATP, WTA and other tournament officials will likely ask: Do we really need all of these extra bodies on a tennis court?
“I understand that there is tradition with line umpires being there, and it’s nice that there is a lot of people and volunteers that love tennis and love to have an opportunity to be out on the court and be close to the players, but I don’t see a reason why we need the line umpires if we have the technology,” eight-time Australian Open champion Djokovic said earlier this week. “I support technology. It’s inevitable for the future of tennis.”
Fully abandoning linespeople wouldn’t be the first change of its kind.
Hawk-Eye Live technology was first introduced at the Grand Slam level in 2006 at the US Open, following a successful trial at the Miami Open, and player challenges quickly followed. We’ve seen rule alterations to third- and fifth-set tiebreakers, in a bid to determine a winner faster and remove the marathon match which can throw a whole tournament out of sync. Wimbledon first enforced this change after John Isner and Nicolas Mahut famously played out a 138-game fifth set that spanned three days. Both Wimbledon and Roland Garros also ended their persistence with open-air courts by investing in roofs for their respective center courts.
There were plenty of skeptics for all of these changes to the game, but now it’s just part of the fabric of tennis. Would permanently removing linespeople be any different? Some still aren’t convinced.
“I don’t understand if it is necessarily sustainable because a lot of those line judges use the bigger events as a platform,” Milos Raonic said during the first round. “You need [linespeople] for lower levels of tennis, at junior events. You need people that can organize the events, supervise the events, make sure they’re going the right way. I think a lot of people pick up that experience.
“If you take out that grassroots aspect of it, how do you train those people? How do you put people in those situations so they really understand the way things go on at the top level of tennis and how to carry that to make better events for juniors, senior events, club events, whatever it may be?”
The employment opportunity is certainly something that shouldn’t be overlooked, but the cost of installing Hawk-Eye’s infrastructure is what will hold tournaments, the ATP and WTA, back in the short-term.
The price tag to fit just one court with Hawk-Eye Live is reportedly between $60,000 and $70,000. Multiply that figure by the 12, 14 or sometimes 18 courts at a major and it’s easy to see why it’s difficult for this technology to make its way onto every court at every tournament around the world.
But what if the tournaments themselves didn’t have to fully foot the bill?
Hawk-Eye’s director of tennis Ben Figueiredo told the Sydney Morning Herald that the company has been in discussions about the possibility of replacing the “out” and “fault” calls with “shouts of sponsor names.”
“Rather than the ‘out’ call, you could have ‘Ralph Lauren’ being shouted,” he said, adding that it’s unlikely to happen at the Slam level and more likely at the smaller tournaments.
It’s something with which the ATP and WTA must tread carefully. The reliance on technology over linespeople should be viewed as a no-brainer, but the sport wouldn’t want to essentially sell out in order to facilitate it. Instead, it’s likely to be a case of continuing with linespeople at the lower levels until there is a more affordable proposition on a grander scale.
“The impact on the product for fans on site and on television is one of a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration when we assess the future of officiating in the sport,” an ATP spokesperson told ESPN.
But the 2021 Australian Open has showed that linespeople are no longer required in professional tennis, certainly not at the Grand Slam level. And going forward, the reliance on technology could be a winning formula for the sport.