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Comment: Tennis technology takes away John McEnroe fun

You saw the television commercial.

An old John McEnroe spills red sauce from his cafeteria tray onto his white tennis shorts, as Serena Williams destroys the attacking ball machines with deadly forehands and backhands.

“You can’t be serious,” McEnroe moaned, repeating an act that once put him in hot water with a tennis chair umpire and turned into a multi-million dollar brand.

Well, nothing more, John. The possibility for tennis players to argue over calls has ended. Now they have to take on machines, which means there is no element of controversy now. There will be no controversy, said tennis.

The electronic line calling system called Hawk-Eye is now Hawk-Eye Live. He not only calls out all the lines, but has a strong female voice confirming what the camera has seen and said. The ball is missing a line and a voice coming from the sky somewhere – we’ll call it the Tennis Wizard of Odd – is barking that the ball is OUT. It gets a little strange when the player hits a serve into the net. “Out,” the Wizard of Odd barks, even though the blow wasn’t really out, just short.

In the recent past, the scoreboard listed a number of challenges for each player. This meant that if they questioned a line judge appeal, the chair umpire would request an electronic review, Hawk-Eye would replay the shot on the big screen, and the crowd would either cheer or moan, depending on their allegiance, for they saw electronic evidence of the firing point of landing.

Not anymore. Players do not receive challenges. There are no more people in the line, only a chair umpire who will most likely never reverse a call. No future to take a machine. This makes the ump chair work mainly by pressing buttons. Players can request a “close” review. But damn it, do you think the machine that called is going to show it made a mistake? To anyone’s surprise, no correction has taken place. The players quietly watch the close-up review, shrug their shoulders, and continue. Pretty exciting stuff.

There are still children of bullets, but how long do you think this will last? Surely a geek is sitting somewhere in a filthy basement, inventing an app that will allow the chair umpire to activate a vacuum cleaner on the field that will pick up all the balls and bounce them smoothly towards the serving player. It’s going to be a huge saving for tournaments, which is the genesis of all of these things. This way, they will no longer have to buy the kids’ burgers from the ball.

The direction of tennis is zero controversy. The competitive cock for so many of these hard-charging, adrenaline-filled, world-class athletes has been turned off before they even stepped onto the field. Why argue with a machine?

McEnroe was embarrassing at times, but also a lot of fun at times. Spectators can now expect robotic and emotionless matches. Tennis has always had this vanilla image of white clothing. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh? Be nice. McEnroe stomped on that for a while and his only result was, say, 5 million more people paying attention to the sport. Now the most controversial thing that remains could be the loud growls of some of the players. They will soon find a machine to filter this as well.

Speaking of noise and controversy, there was actually some here on Thursday night, and it brought back memories of the tall and semi-wacko Goran Ivanisevic, the delicious Croatian, who always said it the way he thought – especially to referees, linesmen and sports writers – and survived it all to win a Wimbledon title in 2001 after being a three-time finalist.

More than his huge serve and good forehands, backhands and volleys, Ivanisevic possessed the best racquet throw in the history of the game. He did so with pride, with classic follow-through, with not only intention but certainty that the frame would break and that he would lose a point and several thousand dollars.

Once here in Indian Wells he saw another player try to break his racquet and fail. Only a nice notch had been made. The next day, clearly concerned about this violation of a tennis skill, Ivanisevic conducted a verbal clinic during his post-match press conference on the skills and technique needed to ensure the racquet would break. It was clinical.

So if Ivanisevic had been here watching when veteran Vasek Pospisil of Canada lost his serve to fall behind in the third set, 3-1, and quickly demolished his racquet, he would have been proud. It took four giant hits on the hard court before the shaft separated from the rest of the racquet, but Pospisil pulled it off.

Pospisil actually rallied, after a discussion with the chair umpire that implied the word “fines,” and won the match. And he ended up not getting a fine.

This meant that two good things had happened. A contribution to tennis by legendary Goran Ivanisevic was honored. And a chair umpire actually had something to do besides the push buttons.

Consider this a beacon of hope for the sport.


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Mildred Lasky

The author Mildred Lasky