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In light of ongoing coronavirus concerns, Tennis Australia could opt to fully-automate its officiating system at this year’s Australian Open.

Rumours are circulating that line judges could be scrapped from this year’s Australian Open.

As a sign of the times and as a precautionary response to ongoing coronavirus concerns, Tennis Australia could use Hawk-Eye Live to fully automate decisions in next month’s grand slam.

Calls to replace line judges with automated technology provided for some controversial discussions in 2020. World No.1 Novak Djokovic was a player who voiced his support for removing line judges, claiming Hawk-Eye Live systems should be used instead. 

The technology is so advanced right now, there is absolutely no reason why you should keep line umpires on the court. That’s my opinion,” Djokovic said after the US Open, where he was disqualified after he hit a line umpire on the neck with a tennis ball. 

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Last year’s US Open was the first grand slam to remove the majority of its line judges in favour of the new Hawk-Eye Live technology. And it looks like this year’s Australian Open could follow suit. 

Hawk-Eye Live made approximately 225,000 calls during the first week at the US Open, with only 14 of those calls being errors. 

A wise move? 

The technology has all but killed the “tennis tantrum,” made famous by John McEnroe in the 70s.

Hawk-Eye was first used in the 2005 Hopman Cup and has provided clarification to contentious line calls ever since.

Evolving from a simple replay system to becoming a fully-automated line judge, the new Hawk-Eye Live system has cameras stationed around the court which can see exactly where every shot lands.

For Tennis Australia, opting to use Hawk-Eye Live instead of line judges will reduce the number of persons on court, lowering the risk of further COVID-19 transmission and in-keeping with the tournament’s efforts to become the ‘safe slam’.

Australian Open organisers are breaking the bank to take intensive measures to ensure the tournament is held in safe circumstances.

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ATP Player Council President, Kevin Anderson also inferred Hawk-Eye Live could be used more often in this year’s ATP Masters 1000 Series. 

I think it’s looking like it’s more prevalent. It certainly looks like things are heading in that direction. I think I saw Australia is going to do Hawk-Eye live. The system works really, really well. I think it completely takes out any of the guesswork,” Anderson said to Tennis Majors.

That sort of automation is happening all across the world, in so many different industries. It does seem to make sense, especially during this time.”

“I say probably Covid’s accelerating that, because it definitely reduces the human interaction.

As for the game itself, the technology makes officiating more accurate. It removes any doubt of human error by using objective technology to produce accurate decisions on court and could be beneficial as an option for tennis tournaments in the future.

For now, it is perhaps a wise decision to utilise the technology over line judges, to help suppress the transmission of the virus at this year’s tournament. 

But what about ball kids?

It was odd to see professional tennis players picking up their own tennis balls this week at the Australian Open Qualifiers.

As a precaution to help limit COVID-19 exposure, tournament operators chose not to have ball kids at this year’s qualifiers. 

And whether the Australian Open will have ball kids running the lines is yet to be confirmed. 

Although matches could suffer without them. Bernard Tomic took on fellow compatriot John-Patrick Smith in an All-Australian qualifying final, but the match took a whopping 2 hours and 48 minutes to complete because both players were having to retrieve their own tennis balls in between points.

Despite line judges potentially being omitted from the 2021 edition of the tournament, ball kids will likely be required to stay to help maintain a solid pace of play. 

As Roger Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic stated on Twitter last week, it makes us appreciate the excellent work the ball kids do.

A step into the future?

In the same vein, it would also be odd not seeing line judges at a grand slam championship. 

For many traditionalists, the removal of line judges would go against the spirit of the tennis and would also slow it down massively. 

And perhaps we need to be careful to ensure our reliance on Hawk-Eye in the years to come does not turn Tennis into a soulless robotic shootout.

Two-time grand slam winner Garbine Muguruza voiced her concern at the abolition of line judges from tennis stating, “I enjoy having, you know, line umpires and [a] chair umpire. And I just like things the old way.” 

“You can put Hawk-Eye [in] and make it more modern, but I appreciate not being a machine on the court. [It would be] even more lonely out there just with us and a speaker that says in or out.”

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Debates have been raging in football recently over the implementation of VAR and how players no longer celebrate a goal with any degree of certainty until some unseen official in a remote location has given their approval.

In the meantime, paying spectators are kept in the dark, waiting to see if their team has scored or conceded.

Decisions might be correct more often but this may come at the expense of the ‘excitement’ and ‘fun’ offered with the use of humans and the obvious potential for human error,” said tennis historian Dr Robert Lake. 

Although Hawk-Eye Live will operate a lot faster than VAR does in football, Dr Robert Lake’s point still stands, the excitement will be removed from the game, making tennis an almost automated affair. 

World No.2 Rafael Nadal has also supported the traditionalist approach, stating that tennis should stay grounded to its roots.  

If you ask me, towards the future I prefer line judges,” Nadal said.

“It’s true the sport has not changed a lot in the last 50 years, compared with the majority of sports, but I don’t think this is a way to improve the spectacle of our sport.

And where does this future leave tennis officials? 

Most tennis chair umpires start their careers as line officials, including experienced umpire, Alison Hughes.

Hughes has officiated 20 grand slam final matches in her career and started her journey to the umpire’s chair back in 1991 as a line umpire. She grew her officiating skills on the court and kick-started her career to becoming one of the best officials tennis has ever seen. 

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Even with Hawk-Eye in place, tennis still needs match referrees to sit in the chair and make the final call. If we are to do away with line judges in favour of Hawk-Eye, we’re going to inhibit the progression of talented officials working their way through the ranks, as Hughes did, to become the best and fairest in the sport. 

Ultimately that’s not a healthy look for tennis. 

The 2021 tennis season

For now, there is no question that removing line judges from officiating at the Australian Open, and perhaps other tournaments in 2021, would be a reasoned and holistic approach to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in order to protect those attending the event and the wider Victorian public. 

However, as we progress into the future, perhaps tennis needs to be cautious not to lose its traditions to video officiating.

Although Hawk-Eye can allow for accurate decisions to be made on court, it could remove a lot of the soul from the game. 

A hybrid system where players can challenge a line judge’s decision using a Hawk-Eye Live review system is perhaps the most appropriate option for the future of tennis. 


Featured Image: Australian Open 2020 by RobPJKeating // https://www.flickr.com/photos/14041643@N00/49837599182 // Licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Download permissions

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