In October, Novak Djokovic said: “The technology is so advanced right now, there is absolutely no reason why you should keep line umpires on the court.”
This bold claim followed two incidents where the world number one hit line umpires.
Tournament officials disqualified Djokovic from the US Open after inadvertently hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball after losing his temper. And the second came at the French Open when he hit another line judge when returning his opponent’s serve.
Since the pandemic began, electronic line-calling has become more popular as it helps reduce the number of people at tournaments. Last year’s US Open used Hawk-Eye Live on outside courts, but there were still line judges on the main show courts, where Djokovic’s incident occurred.
December’s ATP Finals then adopted electronic line-calling and video review for the first time. And in February, the Australian Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to feature the technology on all courts.
Djokovic said: “Sooner or later, there is no reason to keep line umpires.
“Yes, ball kids, of course, ball person, yes, but line umpires, I don’t see why anymore, to be honest. I would also probably then have less chances to do what I did in New York.”
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Electronic Line-Calling?
Former Head of Officiating at the International Tennis Federation and Gold Badge Chair Umpire and Referee Steve Winyard provided insight on Djokovic’s encounters with line umpires.
Winyard said: “I think these incidents happen very, very rarely. And I don’t think if you interviewed line umpires, they would tell you that they feel in any sense concerned to be out there. I don’t think that’s a factor that really enters into the equation in terms of whether or not there should be a further move in the direction of electronic line-calling.”
While disagreeing with Djokovic on the issue of safety, he recognised that cost is a crucial factor.
“I think so much will depend upon the economics, the cost of providing a line crew of at least six line umpires per court compared with setting up electronic line-calling on each court and the people to staff it,” said Winyard.
He acknowledged the cost is high but added: “Presumably in time, the cost of electronic line-calling will come down. But setting the whole system up on court takes a lot of time, a lot of testing, a lot of work goes on before the tournament starts to get all that right.”
The Grand Slam tournaments can spend more on electronic line-calling but thrive on tradition and may be reluctant to get rid of line umpires.
“If you go down that road, and the economics is right, then you end up with just players, ball kids and a chair umpire. So, it does look and feel different,” said Winyard.
Winyard first officiated at Wimbledon in 1974 and umpired the 1986 women’s and 1987 men’s singles finals at the 158-year-old venue. Ironically, he believes the officiating standards have significantly improved during that time, but with more at stake in prize money, accuracy is pivotal.
Winyard said: “It’s something that the game wants. You want accuracy. And I think it’s worked out well, in tennis. The introduction of electronic line-calling has been very positive. We haven’t had the same controversies that it’s having in football. It’s all been part of moving towards improved officiating: the combination of very well trained and experienced chair umpires combined with accurate electronic line-calling. It’s a good package.”
Introducing Electronic Line-Calling on Clay Courts
One element that is proving slightly controversial amongst players is whether clay-court tournaments should use electronic line-calling.
Winyard said: “I think umpiring on clay is a real art and science. It is an enormous challenge for chair umpires, maybe who aren’t brought up on clay, to really stick with a mark. So, at the end of the point, you absolutely must keep your eyes on the mark. And as soon as you look away, coming back to the correct mark is enormously difficult.”
Players and umpires often disagree on the correct mark, but Winyard believes top officials have a very high accuracy rate on clay.
Clay court tournaments have not accepted traditional line-calling systems like Hawkeye-Live due to the irregularity of the surface. But last year, The Rio Open trialled a new system of electronic review developed by FoxTenn.
The system uses more than 40 synchronised cameras and ten lasers that scan every court, gathering more than 100,000 images per second in total.
Unlike other review systems, FoxTenn generates its results using the actual trajectory of the ball rather than estimates. Therefore, the accuracy levels are very high.
However, the trial at The Rio Open proved controversial in the second-round clash between Federico Coria and Carlos Alcaraz.
Coria thought he had won the match and progressed to the quarter-finals when Alcaraz challenged that his ball was out.
16-year-old Coria was shocked when FoxTenn’s technology showed the ball was in, and players may struggle to trust the technology when their eyes deceive them.
Winyard believes players would quickly adjust in the same way they have on other surfaces.
He added: “Players certainly don’t keep their eyes on the mark after a ball has landed. They’re either following the ball onto their racket or, they’re turning to the chair umpire to ask for a full mark inspection. And then they have the same challenge. Just getting back to the correct mark is hard. It is a real challenge because there are a lot of marks.”
Thankfully for up-and-coming star Coria, Winyard said: “I get the impression that the French Federation and Roland Garros won’t be keen to lose the whole approach of checking a mark. I don’t see them introducing electronic line-calling on all courts.”
How Does This Impact the Umpires?
Replacing line umpires with electronic line-calling reduces the risk of disputes and therefore changes the responsibilities of the chair umpire as there are no challenges.
However, Winyard said: “You’ll never get rid of a chair umpire, because there are certain calls like not ups, for example, touches and so on that electronic line-calling won’t, and doesn’t attempt to capture. Also, you can have incidents where the chair umpire will need to intervene and may need to use the code of conduct. So, I don’t think in any way there will be a future where there are no chair umpires. But I think the question is, to what extent do tournaments move over to no longer using line umpires and just having electronic line-calling?”
Replacing line umpires with technology can lead to job losses and impacts the natural progression for someone to become a chair umpire.
Winyard said people typically start as line umpires before chair umpiring at very local events.
Then those who do well move up the ranks to umpire bigger and tougher events while also attending officiating schools.
To work internationally, you must go to a level three school, at which point Winyard said: “Your future will be secure, as I say, I don’t think there’ll ever be a prospect of chair umpires not being used.”
The independent chair umpire evaluator acknowledged some people travel the world as line umpires but have already been impacted by the pandemic accelerating electronic line-calling.
He said: “You don’t want to lose trained committed people from your sports, so over time, if that number does decrease, the number who are doing it full time, then that will be a disappointment. My hunch is, it will happen just because people feel the opportunities to make that living, and it’s a pretty precarious living as a line umpire. I think that looks more and more precarious. So fewer people decide to go down that road.”
Winyard grew up playing tennis and remained undefeated, partnering with John Lloyd in doubles for two years at Southend High School for Boys.
The former Davis Cup and Fed Cup referee began officiating in his early twenties alongside current Wimbledon referee Gerry Armstrong. Tennis was looking for younger officials, and Winyard progressed quickly.
He umpired John McEnroe on multiple occasions, a player renowned for his disputes with umpires.
“We didn’t have any significant disputes; I’m pleased to say. But you know, it was very much a different era, and I’d be interested to hear his views on electronic line-calling,” said Winyard.
The seven-time Grand Slam singles winner recently voiced his support for the technology and said: “With Hawk-Eye Live, I would have been a better player.”