Al Bello/Getty Images
At the 2022 US Open In the tennis tournament concluding this weekend in Flushing Meadows, NY, technology won: game, set, match.
The humanline judges at the tournament have been completely replaced with optical technology to determine whether balls are being locked in or out. Immediately after impact, a recorded voice calls out, “ERROR!” for a wayward serve; “OUT!” for a ball landing long or wide in a rally.
By replacing human linesmen with the so-called optical system Hawk Eye Live“We’re giving players a fairer playing field with a lot more integrity and a much more accurate call,” said Sean Cary, who oversees the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which hosts the US Open.
In the past, Cary says, when a player contested a linesman’s decision and it was verified by the Hawk eye-tracking system, the human was found to be right about 75% of the time.
Now, Cary told NPR, “The automated line calling system is correct almost 100% of the time.”
To put it another way, “We’re accurate to the millimeter with our line calls,” says Benjamin Figueiredo, director of tennis at Hawk-Eye Innovations.
Some players say Hawk-Eye isn’t foolproof and does it occasionally failed calls. But most seem to support the change.
“It’s pretty difficult to argue with a computer. You always lose that fight,” says a professional tennis player Noah Rubywho competed at the US Open at junior and men’s levels from 2013 to 2019 and was a Wimbledon junior in 2014 champion of the boys. Automated line calling, he says, “takes away that fear of, ‘I really hope the linesman or umpire doesn’t mess that up.’ “
Hawk-Eye Live uses 12 cameras to track the ball’s path through space.
“No sensors. No lasers,” says Figueiredo of the company. “All through optical tracking. … The entire system is calibrated to the pitch. And the cameras essentially identify the x, y, and z location at any given point.”
When the ball lands out-of-bounds, he says, “We automatically trigger the sounds you hear over the PA system on the pitch… to call out ‘Fault’ or ‘Out’ calls the same way you do linesmen are used to doing that.”
dpa/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
The US Open Pivot to Hawk-Eye Live came in 2020, at the early peak of the COVID pandemic. To minimize the risk of spreading infection, the tournament eliminated nearly all linesmen and instead used Hawk-Eye Live on all but the two main courts. Those responsible for the tournament liked the system so much that they now use it exclusively.
With the switch to automation, about 250 linesmen lost their jobs at the US Open. But some of their voices live on: recorded calls heard throughout the game include the voices of linesmen who went into a studio at Arthur Ashe Stadium and essentially recorded their swan songs.
There are a variety of official voices in the database, male and female, invoking games with a range of dynamics and urgencies.
“What I think is really cool,” says USTA’s Cary, “is that we were able to program the system to know that if the ball is wide out, it’s going to be a softer out call. But when it’s a very tight one, as would be the case with a live linesman, they generally yell at the top of their lungs to make sure everyone hears.
Just like a baseball umpire, they are sale the calling.
“Yes,” Cary agrees. “Selling the call is a great way to explain that.”
Fewer people means a “cleaner” dish
In addition to greater accuracy, Cary says there’s another benefit to replacing linesmen with automation. Now, with nine people fewer on the pitch, he says, “we’re offering our broadcast partners and our sponsorship partners a much cleaner pitch.”
In other words, the television networks and corporate sponsors are happier because there’s less clutter on the screen — although Cary balks at the word: “I mean,” he says, “clutter isn’t exactly a nice word to call people.”
The absence of linesmen, welcome as it is, still strikes player Noah Rubin as visually odd.
“I’m not usually a tennis traditionalist,” he says, “but there’s something about those linesmen in disguise making decisions at the back of the court. Something is definitely missing. It looks pretty empty in the squares.”
But he adds: “I think this is where the sport has to go. There is too much at stake to be decided by a missed call or human error.”
Other tournaments besides the US Open have turned exclusively to Hawk-Eye Live rather than human-line judges – including the Australian Open. It contains the pre-recorded voices when telephoning workers at the front who were responding to both the COVID pandemic and wildfires, and the Australian actress Rebel Wilsonwho is a passionate one tennis fan.
DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images
Hawk-Eye Innovation’s Figueiredo caused a stir last year he said the Sydney Morning Herald that his company had been in talks about replacing the “Fault” and “Out” calls with the names of sponsors that would be called out instead.
“It’s quite interesting,” he said at the time. “You could call out ‘Ralph Lauren.’ That might upset a few people after a while. It’s certainly a possibility, yes.”
Asked about the prospect by NPR, Figueiredo replies mischievously.
“Um…there were historical discussions that were going on,” he says. “It’s – um, it’s not something that I think anyone particularly – well, at the moment, has been following up on at the moment. … It has already been discussed. I think I’d rather not go into detail.”
As for the US Open, the USTA’s Sean Cary predicts the automated phone calls are here to stay: “Because we’re offering players a fairer and more even competition with a higher level of integrity,” he says, “it would be for us.” very difficult to walk backwards now.”