Calling the Lines in Tennis – “You Cannot Be Serious”

hawk-eyeIf you’re a long-time tennis fan like me, John McEnroe’s yells of “You cannot be serious” may still echo when you watch one of the Major tournaments. If Mac still played today in the main draw, resolving player “challenges” electronically through a terrific product called Hawk-Eye, would no doubt have quieted the irascible one. But not silenced him. And it shouldn’t.

While using technology to call the lines is a big improvement, it’s not perfect. Hawk-Eye’s advertised accuracy has been reported as somewhere between 2.2 – 3.6 mm. So, when Hawk-Eye calls a ball in or out within that distance – or whatever the actual tolerance is today – there’s a 50/50 chance that it got the call wrong.

So, here’s a suggestion: When a player “Challenges” a call, and Hawk-Eye determines that the ball is out or in by less than the systems’ resolution – for example, out by one millimeter, when Hawk-Eye may be off by over two millimeters – why not report the challenge as “too close to call,” and revert to the line judge’s original call? The NFL’s and MLB’s replay policies provide a precedent: when there isn’t incontrovertible evidence to overturn, the call on the field (or diamond) stands. The difference with Hawk-Eye is that lack of incontrovertible evidence is based statistically on technology. And let’s face it, the major tournaments aren’t quite the same without the occasional “you cannot be serious.”

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