EXCLUSIVE: Wimbledon Says No To Replacing Line Umpires With Hawk-Eye, But Others Say Yes - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Wimbledon Says No To Replacing Line Umpires With Hawk-Eye, But Others Say Yes

Electronic line calling has become a regular feature in the world of tennis and is set to expand over the coming years. However, such a development will have big implications on the sports tradition, as well as on those working in it.

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Court 10 in front of the Centre Court with the Hawk-Eye testing markers laid out on court as they set up ahead of The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Monday 14th June 2021. Credit: AELTC/Thomas Lovelock

Wimbledon has always taken pride in its ability to combine tradition with modern technology. Players are required to wear all white, those invited to sit in the Royal Box must dress smartly, and hundreds of people congregate on the ‘Henman Hill’ to watch the play unfold every year. These traditions have made the tournament unique in the sporting world. However, given the growing presence of technology, one of said traditions is under threat.

 

The use of computer vision systems such as Hawk-Eye has revolutionised the sport in recent years, with more tournaments than ever turning to the technology. Using automated player tracking cameras and intelligent production software, officials can establish whether a ball is in or out with the use of a computer. Its margin of error is claimed to be in the region of 2.2mm but one study argues that the difference could be up to 10mm.

“Hawk-Eye’s goal is to implement our software wherever it is desired or required to ensure that sports are made fairer, safer and better informed by whatever means we can. In tennis, we develop our technologies to meet the needs of the likes of the ATP and WTA for them to use to serve their objectives, if that means we’re at every event, it means that we’re one-step closer to our goal,” a Hawk-Eye spokesperson told UbiTennis.

Ironically the COVID-19 pandemic has been an advantage for those working on such technology. With organisers eager to limit the number of people on court due to the virus, many have gone down this avenue. One of the most notable is the US Open, which used the software on the majority of their courts last year and will use it to replace line umpires in 2021. Meanwhile, this year’s Australian Open was the first major to be played without lines judges.

However, such technology doesn’t come cheap. The exact price is unclear with Hawk-Eye telling UbiTennis they are ‘unable to provide such information at this time.’ One academic paper by Dr Yu-Po Wong from Stanford University estimates the cost of a ‘professional system’ to be in the region of $60-$70,000.

We are always evolving and developing our technologies to be as accessible as possible, and work with event organisers to support them in making it affordable for their events,” Hawk-Eye states.
“Our Electronic Line Calling System in tennis is a combination of robust software and hardware, and requires highly trained operators. As an example, we often generate revenue for events by opening up opportunities for sponsorship and fan engagement. Hawk-Eye is focused on making our technologies as efficient and streamlined as possible, while we continually work on pushing the boundaries of sports technology.”

The disappearance of lines judges

Line Judge pictured working at the 2021 Wimbledon Championships – Credit: AELTC/Ian Walton

One of the biggest concerns some have about this technology is the risk it poses to those working at tournaments. Should more tournaments rely on Hawk-Eye or similar, it is inevitable that the traditional use of lines officials will disappear. The New York Times previously reported that the 2020 US Open slashed their number of judges from roughly 350 to less than 100 following a decision to use Hawk-Eye Live on 15 out of its 17 courts.

“Over the past 18 months, we’re proud to have contributed towards the safe and successful delivery of events which otherwise may not have gone ahead during the pandemic. As a technology provider it is never the intention that our creations “replace” or make anyone redundant- as a technology provider that isn’t within our power,” they outline.

Richard Ings was a top chair umpire from 1986 to 1993 before going on to become the director of officiating for the ATP Tour for four years (2001-2005). Like many others in the industry, his pathway into becoming a Tour umpire was via the experience of calling lines from the side of the court.

“I started out calling lines. First at smaller events and then in the finals of major events. I then started chair umpiring. First at smaller events then larger events and gaining my international qualification gold badge equivalent at 19. I was then hired by the MIPTC ad a professional salaried unite at 20,” he tells UbiTennis about his career. “Lines (calling) has been a critical and necessary step in an official’s career path. That’s gone now. Working up the tables to major pro events as a line umpire is now gone. All those major event line jobs have been taken away.”

Ings believes that, as the technology gets cheaper over time, these roles will even start to go at lower-level tournaments at some stage, something he describes as ‘sad’ and an ‘end of an era.’ However, he believes there are positives too.

“The game will still need chair umpires. They won’t need the core skills of calling lines. So line calling experience is not required in this new world. It’s sad, sure, and good people will lose their link with the game as officials. But the quality of line calling will go up. Accuracy and consistency will go up. And that’s what officiating is all about,” he points out.

The future

Photo credit: AELTC/Bob Martin

So is it only a matter of time before every tournament will be switching to electronic line calling?

Wimbledon first tested Hawk-Eye back in 2004 before implementing it on their two premier courts three years later. Now it is currently used on Centre Court, as well as Courts 1, 2, 3, 12 and 18. Ten cameras are built around each of those courts: they capture 60 high-resolution images per second. At least five of those cameras cover every ball bounce. It is said that the Hawk-Eye Live team is made up of less than 30 people.

Whilst there is high praise, The All England Club tells UbiTennis they don’t intend to solely rely on the system just yet.

“Line umpires remain an important element of our officiating set-up at The Championships, and there are no plans to switch to electronic line-calling,” they said in a statement.

Wimbledon’s view is one which is also echoed by the WTA when it comes to the running of their tournaments, although they are monitoring the impact of electronic line calling on what they describe as the ‘tennis community.’

“The WTA supports the use of automated line calling in order to limit the number of personnel at tournaments that are operating during COVID-19, creating a safer landscape for players, staff and officials themselves to work in. The WTA will continue to support live electronic line calling where appropriate for the remainder of the 2021 season while monitoring its impact closely on the tennis community. Line officials are and continue to be an important and highly valued part of the WTA Tour,” the WTA outlined.

Hawk-Eye Live will be used throughout the upcoming US Open series. In May, the USTA, ATP and WTA confirmed the use of electronic line calling at the US Open, ATP Atlanta Open , ATP Citi Open, National Bank Open (ATP Toronto and WTA Montreal), ATP Western & Southern Open, WTA Cincinnati, ATP Winston-Salem Open and WTA Tennis in the Land.

As for the Lines Judges who will be affected, there appears to be no program in motion aimed at redeploying them to another area of the sport. Hawk-Eye says they have no comment on this matter because it is “not an element within our control.”

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Maria Sakkari Powers Past Swiatek, Badosa Stuns Sabalenka At WTA Finals

There was a lot of emotion displayed during the second day of the season-ending event.

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Maria Sakkari (image via https://twitter.com/WTA_insider)

Maria Sakkari registered her first win at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico by beating the Pole Iga Swiatek 6-2, 6-4 in one hour and 26 minutes.

 

Sakkari, who is the first player from her country to participate in the event, fired 15 winners while the world number nine hit 29 unforced errors in the loss during their latest clash. It is the third time this season the 26-year-old has beaten Swiatek in straight sets after the French Open and Ostrava.

“I think it was a very solid match from my side,” wtatennis.com quoted Sakkari as saying during her press conference. “Obviously my serve really helped my game. I felt quite good with the altitude. I could control my shots pretty well. I think every day I’ll feel even better.
“I actually have a good game to play against [Swiatek]. All three times I played her, I played one of the best matches of the season. Like even today, I think I was very solid in these conditions.”

The first set stayed on serve for the first two games and then it was the world number six who started to put the pressure and managed to get the first break of serve to take an early 2-1 lead. The set continued on serve with the Greek able to consolidate the break and at 4-2 managed to go up a double break and that was enough for her to serve it out.

During the second frame the match stayed on serve until 3-3 when again it was the Athens native who had two chances to break. On the the second time of asking she managed once again to get the crucial break and serve out the match. Towards the end a frustrated Swiatek started to cry on court.

“I’m very proud that I can be the first woman, Greek woman, to actually represent my country into the Top 10 and of course in this tournament. It feels amazing to be able to travel around the world playing these tournaments, being one of the best players, and being from my country. I’m very, very proud of that.” Sakkari commented.

Badosa Smokes Sabalenka

image via twitter.com/WTA_insider

In the other group match of the day, Spain’s Paula Badosa pulled off a shock win by upsetting top seed two Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 6-0 in one hour and 16 minutes. She was initially down 2-4 in the first set before going on to win 10 straight games to claim the victory.

“I think I played pretty good,” Badosa said. “The conditions are tough here to play, but I think I played an amazing match. She’s an amazing player. I knew I had to play like this. I’m really happy with my match.”

The world number 10 hit 14 winners and served five aces in the win while Belorussian looked rusty hitting 31 unforced errors in the loss.

Badosa now goes to the top her group as she has lost the fewest games so far in the tournament. As for Sabalenka, she admits that a breakdown in her mental game hampered her latest performance.

“After I lost the serve, I was really disappointed in myself and emotionally I was, like, really crazy,” Sabalenka said after the match. “I couldn’t just stop myself and kind of put myself back in the match.”

Badosa will next play Sakkari in the round-robin competition with the winner likely to secure their place in the last four of the tournament. It will be the first Tour meeting between the two players.

“I think she played a very good match today,” Badosa said. “I think the conditions were OK for her, as well. She felt quite good on court. I expect a tough match.”

Sabalenka will next play Swiatek.

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“We Hope to Convince Federer to Play”: the Presentation of the 2022 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters

Director Zeljko Franulovic talked about next year’s tournament, scheduled from April 9-17

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Stefanos Tsitsipas - ATP Montecarlo 2021 (ph. Agence Carte Blanche / Réalis)

The 2022 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters will take place from April 9-17, so it’s difficult to guess what the pandemic situation will be in six months. At the moment, however, the prevalent hypothesis is that all spectators will need a Covid Pass or to bring proof of a negative test before being allowed in the Montecarlo Country Club at Roquebrune, France. If some players will refuse the vaccine, then they will need to be tested regularly in accordance to the rules devised by the French government.

 

Other than that, there will be no surprises when it comes to the event’s logistics, since the Country Club has already added a new players lounge and a new press room in the past few years. In 2020 the tournament was cancelled, while in 2021 it took place behind closed doors (while still being televised in 113 countries); the last edition staged with a crowd, in 2019, sold 130,000 tickets, constituting 30% of the total revenue – another 30% came from the sponsors, 30% from media rights (a number that tournament director Zeljko Franulovic hopes to see increase) and 10% from merchandising.

While it’s early days to know whether the tournament will operate at full capacity, Franulovic has made it clear that the organisers are already planning to provide a better covering for the No.2 Court, whose roof has not been at all effective in the past in the event of rain.

The tournament’s tickets can be bought on the official website of the event, but Franulovic has already vowed to reimburse immediately every ticket “if the government and the health authorities should decide to reduce the tournament’s capacity.”

Ticket prices have increased by 2 to 3 percent as compared to 2019, ranging from £25-50 for the qualifiers weekend, £32-75 for the opening rounds, £…-130 for the quarterfinals and semifinals, £65-150 for the final, £360-1250 for a nine-day tickets. Franulovic claims that the prices are in line with those of the other Masters 1000 tournaments.

Finally, Franulovic supports Andrea Gaudenzi’s decision to create a fixed prize money for the next decade. While tournaments like Madrid and Rome are trying to increase their duration from 8 to 12 days, the Monte-Carlo director has claimed that he prefers to remain a week-long event, especially because his is not a combined tournament. As for the players who will feature, Franulovic hopes to convince Roger Federer to participate: “I’m certain that he will give everything he has to be able to stage another comeback on the tour, ma no one knows where he’ll play. However, I think that on the clay he should opt for best-of-three events like Monte-Carlo and Rome rather than the French Open.”

For this and more information, you can watch the video above.

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Editorial

EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players

The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.

 

The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.

“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.

“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”

In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.  

The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.

“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.

“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”

Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.  

“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.

“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”

The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready. 

Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.

There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”

The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013. 

“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue.  I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis. 

The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.

Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.

More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.

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