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Hawkeye: clay court tennis needs to get with the times

Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic reacts after defeating Alize Cornet of France in the Woman's singles final match at the Brisbane International Tennis Tournament in Brisbane, Saturday, Jan. 07, 2017. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Roar Rookie
26th May, 2018
9

There’s a good chance you’ve seen it already.

In the second round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia last week, a normally mild-mannered Karolina Pliskova brutalised an umpire’s chair with her racquet, causing the kind of damage you’d expect from the player to serve up the most aces on the WTA tour for three seasons running.

She’s since been handed an undisclosed fine and, in a much more Pliskova-esque twist, voluntarily donated the same amount to a charity of her choosing.

Lo and behold, the claycourt season is officially upon us. We’re on the cusp of the French Open and the floodgates are drawn for controversy stemming from contentious line calls and blatantly bungled rulings from on-court officials.

The instigator for all this furniture abuse came about as Pliskova was fighting for her tournament life against the free-swinging Maria Sakkari of Greece. It was a dogged, bludgeoning affair, and as the match hung in the balance at deuce and 5-5 in the deciding set, Pliskova had what appeared to be a routine aerial putaway.

She struck the ball sharply into the Ad Court and the ball landed close to the line. As Pliskova turned away, the line umpire gingerly raised her left arm to indicate the ball had gone wide and after a substantial pause, chair umpire Marta Mrozinksa announced advantage for Sakkari.

Pliskova swung around in disbelief and challenged the call, and, in accordance with clay court tradition, Mrozinska climbed down from the chair to check the mark in the clay.

Here lies the great point of contention with the way we officiate clay court tennis: to date, those who sanction the clay court legs of the ATP and WTA tours have flouted modern technology and refused to bring in a modern review system (like Hawkeye) to settle line call disputes, preferring the old world method of checking the mark in the dirt.

Replays showed the ball landing well within the Ad Court line. Not on the outside edge of the line, nor flush on the line or even on the inside edge, but completely inside the line.

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So it should come as little surprise that the line judge in question could not locate a mark that would indicate Pliskova’s shot had gone wide, which in turn rendered the challenge null and void.

Take a moment to think about that. Pliskova hit an overhead winner. The line judge erroneously called the shot out. Pliskova challenged. The chair umpire asked the line judge to locate a mark in order to verify the call. The line judge could not locate a mark. The incorrect call stood.

If you think that seems like an ineffective method of resolving a line call dispute, you’re not wrong.

Pliskova fervently pled her case, going so far as to cross to her opponent’s side of the net in the process. Mrozinska calmly denied her pleas and informed her that the point would stand and that she would face break point.

There is no sugarcoating it; this was an unmitigated stinker of a call. It was so bad, one couldn’t help but wonder how two different on-court officials could both make such an egregious blunder.

On the following point, Pliskova would lose her serve, and in the following game, she would lose the match. At the net, she offered the most cursory of handshakes to her opponent before declining a handshake with the chair umpire, only to (now infamously) fashion a rather large hole in the side of her chair.

Sakkari flinched in shock and the video quickly went viral. An outburst worthy of MacEnroe himself.

Karolina Pliskova Tennis US Open 2016

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

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This may have been the first story you’ve seen about a butchered call in a clay court tournament this season. It might even be the first you’ve ever seen. But this was not an isolated incident. Every year, from the moment the players first set foot onto the red dirt until Rafa invariably hoists the trophy at Roland Garros, the season is utterly littered with controversial line calls.

Last year in Monte Carlo, David Goffin cited one such call as the catalyst for his mental unravelling against the great Rafa Nadal, as, upon chair umpire review, a ball that had Rafa clearly sent long was ruled to have caught the line.

At Roland Garros in 2013, Ukranian professional Sergiy Stakhovsky was so incredulous with a ruling handed down by the chair he went as far as to take a photo of the mark with his smartphone.

And in 1999, in perhaps one of the most infamous incidents the French Open has ever seen, Martina Hingis all but imploded after a chair umpire failed to correct an errant call in the women’s final. Leading a set and 2-0 against the great Steffi Graf, Hingis was in complete control of the match when a line judge called a routine forehand service return long.

When Hingis challenged, the line judge (possibly influenced by her own interpretation of the shot) directed the chair umpire to the wrong mark.

At that point in the match, it probably wasn’t worth bothering with. But Hingis, ever talented and brash to a fault, had the bit between her teeth. She crossed all the way to the baseline on Graf’s side of the net to show the actual mark, but in doing so only succeeded in turning the famously vocal and unforgiving Roland Garros crowd against her.

She played the remainder of the match to a nearly constant cascade of jeers, ultimately losing and seeing Graf claim her historic 21st grand slam singles title.

Some of these matches have delivered high drama and memorable moments. Others have simply been lost in the passage of time. But the common denominator in all of them is a bog-standard line call dispute, a player with no recourse and a chair umpire trying hopelessly to pacify the situation.

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So why has Hawkeye not been adopted at clay court tournaments? After such great success at basically every other tour event on all other surfaces, why hasn’t it been standardised tour-wide?

Some say the old method of judging the mark in the clay is more accurate, as a physical mark does not lie. Others say it’s a charming custom that sets claycourt tennis apart. And more still claim the drama and spectacle that tends to arise in these situations are a part of what makes tennis great.

But make no mistake, at the centre of this argument is an infatuation with one of the most powerful forces in sports: tradition.

Tennis is rife with it. As fans, we’ve grown attachments to some very strange aspects of the game, regarding things that really should irk us with fondness and warmth purely because they are tradition. And surely we can’t just go and change tradition, can we?

Actually, we can.

Any Australian tennis fan over the age of 30 will remember, at least once, setting their alarm for some time around 3 am to catch a feature evening match at Wimbledon. You’d open your groggy eyes, mute the infernal blare of the alarm, grope around in the dark for the remote and squint as you flipped on the TV.

At first, everything seemed fine; you’d see those pristine green lawns, hear the subdued applause of the centre court crowd and you’d faintly make out two figures darting around the screen, dressed immaculately in their Wimbledon whites.

But as your eyes adjusted to the light, a horrible realisation came crashing down on you; you’d seen this match. They were screening a repeat, with some agonising variant of “play delayed due to rain” imprinted in the corner of the screen.

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Centre court rain delays were always an inevitability of those hallowed Championships. A point of irritation for the viewing audiences around the world, and one worse so for those who’d bought tickets, booked the day off work and taken the time to make their way to the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

And for decades, there was simply nothing anyone could do about it. Despite the mass frustration it caused fans, organisers and players alike, everyone just got on with it. Being at the whim of the tennis gods was just part of the magic and mystery of those iconic lawns.

At least it was until 1988, when the Australian Open was given a complete overhaul following several years of steady growth, tradition be damned. It was moved from its home in Kooyong to a state-of-the-art tennis facility in central Melbourne, the traditional grass courts were abandoned in favour of a synthetic hard court surface known as rebound ace, and feature matches would now be played in a new, ultra-modern 15,000 seat stadium…complete with a retractable roof.

Eyes immediately spun to the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

The traditionalists wanted none of it. Technological fancies had no place at the Championships, where words like “sleek” and “modern” were akin to blasphemy. But, after years of pressure from the public and considerable scrutiny from the media, the All England Club finally gave over.

Construction began in ’06 and from 2009 onward, the Championships have been played with a retractable roof over Centre Court.

All debate seemingly ceased once the decision had been made. The matter was settled and Wimbledon, in all its grand, glorious pomp and pageantry, was most certainly still Wimbledon.

Andy Murray yells in excitement

(Photo: AAP)

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One would be apt to think that if the proudest and most prestigious tournament of all could introduce a slice of the modern in order to make a smoother and more streamlined event, so too can the minds behind the various clay court events on the tour.

Any flippant arguments about Hawkeye not being 100% accurate (its manufacturers cite a 3.6mm margin for error) seem absurd beside the examples listed above, in which the system in place categorically failed to correct calls that were blown by much greater margins.

Furthermore, Hawkeye’s judgement is widely trusted and accepted on the tour, and since its induction at the Miami Open in 2006, it has saved players and officials countless hours of futile arguments as disputes are settled quickly and play resumes almost immediately.

Tradition is a wonderful thing, and it certainly has its place within sports. But clinging stubbornly to an outdated method of officiating isn’t tradition, nor is it improving the quality of tennis we’re watching. It is a hindrance to the sport, plain and simple, particularly when it is adversely affecting the outcome of matches.

It’s been twelve seasons, but it’s time to stop holding out.

Tennis has moved forward, and the clay court tournaments need to get with the times.