Many in the tennis world rejoiced in 2006 with the rollout of a new line-calling technology. Named the Hawk-Eye after its inventor, Paul Hawkins, it’s something you’ve probably seen before. When a player believes a call is wrong, he will request a review. On a screen, a digital rendition of a tennis ball lands on the court, leaving a round black dot that makes it quite clear how many of its fuzzy little hairs really did hit the line. Hawk-Eye kicks out the legs from under any argument otherwise, silencing the conflicts and screaming matches of yesteryear.
And therein lies the problem. Sure, a lot of people watching at the U.S. Open this week, fanning their Ray-Banned, heart-shaped faces with their programs between sips of mineral water, will be hoping to see a clean, proper and, for heaven’s sake, polite game. With Hawk-Eye, they get it. But then there are animals like me. If I’m going to tune in for a five-hour event, I want a show, a dramatic display of emotion and adrenaline and, for heaven’s sake, some shouting. Hawk-Eye takes all that away from me. It’s rendered the world’s politest sport simply too polite.
Consider the case of John McEnroe, the athlete whose tennis prowess was matched by his pugnacity. Viewers adored watching him bluster and cuss at the dainty umps in their whites beneath parasols, their faces reddening in the shade as he screamed. It added salt and lime to an otherwise normal match. And these days, tennis could use a bit of that jazz.
Hawk-Eye technicians check their systems in London in June 2011.
Source: Oli Scarff/Getty
Just look at the ratings: Tennis is in the dumps. Last year’s U.S. Open men’s final — one of the season’s premier matches — tallied the lowest ratings seen in years. And while some argue it was because the finalists lacked name recognition, the fact is that tennis viewership in recent years is down across the board. Even in the women’s final, where superstar Serena Williams battled it out, viewership had dropped more than a quarter from the year before. Some do blame Hawk-Eye for the ratings drop. As Andy Roddick told CNN after a match, “If someone is really having a go at the umpire, you are not going to change the channel.”
Of course, many tennis loyalists defend Hawk-Eye. “I think there’s a lot of drama in the sport and the storylines beyond the competition,” argues Chris Widmaier, representative of the United States Tennis Association. Tennis legend Cliff Drysdale told OZY that he believes Hawk-Eye has focused matches on “winning without the benefit of an excuse”; he suspects that viewers were actually turned off by “screaming matches.” Even Roger Federer, who is basically addicted to challenging calls, says Hawk-Eye has the benefit of having the players get involved and challenge the calls more often. And yes, their case is boosted by a recent study that found that line judges get close calls wrong nearly 10 percent of the time.
To which we say: It’s in that 10 percent window that tennis has a chance to regain its flair. Yes, Hawk-Eye brings a satisfying judicial element to the game. But that’s not what tennis needs most. What tennis needs most is to get its mojo back.
Do you prefer your matches accurate or loud? Let us know.
This OZY encore was originally published June 28, 2015.