Controversial calls have been part of sports for many years. There was no real way to correct these calls for the longest time, even if it was clearly wrong. In tennis, that has changed a bit in recent memory, and it continues to get better and better.
This solution is known as the challenge system in tennis. At its core, it’s a series of cameras that use Hawk-Eye technology to see exactly where a ball has landed on the court.
They can be used to review calls, but also to make all calls on the court. In fact, the US Open has used Hawk-Eye to make calls instead of actual umpires for the last two tournaments. This trend might only take off more and more as it gets better.
How Do The Challenge System Work In Tennis? At any event with Hawk-Eye on the court, players have three challenges per set to utilize. The player does not lose one of their challenges if they are correct, so theoretically, there could be endless reviews if the calls are consistently overturned.
What Inspired The Challenge System In Tennis?
There have been a number of controversial calls in tennis history, but many look at the quarterfinal matchup between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati in the 2004 US Open as the inspiration for a computerized system.
Three line calls were missed during the final set, hurting Williams and contributing to the loss. During that tournament, there was an auto-ref system being tested out, but not officially used.
With the technology getting better and better, fans were demanding better calls in general. This led to a pretty quick turnaround, as by 2006, it was being used for the first time at the US Open. Players received two challenges per set, and it inspired many other tournaments to use the same type of technology.
Do Any Tournaments Not Use The Challenge System?
Clay court tournaments have mostly stayed away from using any challenge system such as Hawk-Eye technology. This is because the ball will leave marks on the clay when it bounces, leaving evidence for any type of disputed line call.
Technically speaking, a player can decide to challenge a call or have a chair umpire look at it more closely, and they will do so by getting out of the seat and taking a look.
The first major clay tournament to actually use an electronic system to challenge calls came in 2021 at the Madrid Open.
Most people had no problem with the new technology, although some wondered if it was worth the price. Previously on clay court, the challenge systems in place only showed replays to viewers, but never to actually change calls.
Can The Challenge System Ever Be Wrong?
Hawk-Eye is advertised as being accurate to within 3.6 mm, which means that there is some room for error. With that being said, what the technology sees is usually what the umpire goes with to make the final decision.
There have been players on occasion who have been upset with the technology, or feel like the wrong ball mark is being looked at. It’s an improvement over any type of human error, but it shows that no system is perfect.
Currently, there’s nothing in place for a player to challenge a call made by Hawk-Eye. The only time that the opinion of Hawk-Eye might be thrown out completely is if it is currently malfunctioning. Sometimes the system will not load at all, while other times it may act extremely slow.
Will Umpires Ever Be Completely Replaced by the Challenge System & Cameras In General?
There’s been speculation that at some point in time, tennis will make the transition to go completely with cameras to make every single call out on the court.
It’s a change that some people would love to see, as it would give the most accurate calls as possible so that everyone feels like they are getting a fair shake out on the court. With that being said, some people feel like there would still be some elements of the game that are missed.
In fact, for the last two years, the US Open has switched to this. In 2021, they used electronic line-calling technology on all the courts. This meant that only a chair umpire was present for each match, overseeing all the calls made. Once again, the US Open was a leader in line-calling technology, and other tournaments are likely to follow at some point.
As for existing umpires, there would be a need for people running the computer so that everything goes as smoothly as possible. There will also need to be some level of communication with players in case there are any discrepancies. Their job would evolve, but not go away completely.
The jobs that would be in jeopardy are all the people in charge of calling lines on the court. Computers have already replaced them at some events, and those jobs could be on the chopping block sooner rather than later.
For computers to fully take over, they need to be a little more consistent and more widespread as well. It’s only going to be at the professional level, as we are still very far away from ever having the technology on a local court in a town. Umpire will still exist to some extent, but things are evolving.
What Does The Future of the Challenge System Look Like?
It’s not hard to see that the future of the challenge system is probably not that good. It’s not that people are going to start ignoring the challenge system.
It’s just that it won’t be needed because lines will be called correctly in the first place. As technology gets better, it will become more and more automated. That means that challenging calls will be a waste of time, slowing down the games.
Ultimately, tennis is a sport that is perfect for getting automated calls right. The courts are all the same dimensions. It’s a simple in-or-out call. With the proper cameras set up, the accuracy will only improve.