Views From the Sparrow's Nest: Are Line Judges Going Extinct?

 First, there was the bridge toll collector. Then, there was the check-out cashier. Now, you can add tennis line judge to the growing list of jobs that are being replaced by technology. The ongoing Australian Open, in an effort to reduce the number of people on court at a time due to the pandemic, is the first Grand Slam where there are no linespeople calling whether balls are in or out. Instead, a complex system of powerful cameras that carefully track the path of the ball, named Hawk-Eye Live, is deciding every point. What this means for the future of how tennis matches are arbitrated isn’t clear, but one thing is certain: While this is the first major tournament to fully buy into the new automation, it certainly won’t be the last.

In amateur and friendly tennis matches, each player is expected to abide by the honor code and make their own calls. That changes upon entering the professional ranks, as professional athletes can’t be trusted with money on the line. That’s where line judges come in. Line judges have been around just about as long as the game of tennis itself. They are silent until a shot flies outside the court, at which point they yell “Out!” Their intentions are to stay in the background, and they’re doing a good job if they remain anonymous. Of course, that isn’t always the case, and some of the most famous moments in tennis history have occurred when a linesperson is thrust into the spotlight with what’s perceived as a wrong call.

There have been numerous controversial tennis players over the years, but none more prominent than John McEnroe. Regarded as one of the best of his generation, “Johnny Mac” had a knack for getting into arguments with line judges over what he thought were bad calls. His most famous tantrum happened during the first round of the 1981 Wimbledon Championships. McEnroe hit what appeared to be an ace as some chalk dust flew up off the line. The back line judge, however, ruled that the ball had gone wide, much to McEnroe’s dismay. He approached the chair umpire and infamously shouted, “You cannot be serious! That ball was on the line.” McEnroe, perhaps unsurprisingly, is in favor of the shift to automated line judging, saying that he believes he would have won more often and not lost his focus if he had played with the new technology. “Pop the champagne. No linesmen, get used to it. This is the wave of the future,” he declared on a recent broadcast.

            Preventing players from losing their cool is one main reason for the switch, but this past year’s U.S. Open provided another. In the first set of his fourth-round match against Pablo Carreño Busta, world number one Novak Djokovic had his serve broken to go down 6-5. Unhappy with the way he was playing and wanting to relieve some anger, he smacked a ball without looking as he walked back to his chair. Unfortunately for him, it struck a lineswoman in the neck, causing her to collapse and medical staff to rush onto the court. He quickly apologized, but the damage was done. Djokovic was defaulted from the tournament and fined all the prize money that he was set to earn. Ironically, the U.S. Open had chosen to use Hawk-Eye Live on every court except for the two biggest show courts, Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium. As such, Djokovic’s status as one of the sport’s best had hurt him in the end because he was playing on one of the two courts with linespeople. Although Djokovic is undoubtedly the one to blame, the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association will want to avoid future controversies of that kind.

Last year’s U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open aren’t the only two instances of tournaments using Hawk-Eye Live. In fact, the technology made its debut at the 2006 U.S. Open and rapidly spread to almost every tournament. The old system was very limited, though, compared to the new one. It was only put into action when a player wanted to “challenge” a call that a linesperson made. The trajectory of the ball was shown to either be on the line or just missing. The players received three challenges per set, but they only lost a challenge if the call stayed the same. Now, the machine makes every call so there’s no need for challenges. Players can request to view where the ball landed, but it won’t change the outcome. 

After some initial doubts, many players have adjusted to the new arrangement. “I don’t mind it at all. It saves me the trouble of attempting to challenge or thinking about ‘Did they call it correctly or not?’” said three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka. Last year’s winner on the men’s side, Dominic Thiem, echoed the same sentiment. “No offense at all, but there are just no mistakes happening, and that’s really good in my opinion. If the electronic call is out, the ball is out, so there’s no room for mistakes. I like it.”

Nonetheless, there are skeptics. The high price tag means that some of the smaller tournaments won’t be able to afford it. Milos Raonic, the highest-ranked Canadian, is concerned that a lack of line judges at the important tournaments will leave them unprepared. “If you take out that grassroots aspect of it, how do you train those people? How do you put people in those situations so they really understand the way things go on at the top level of tennis and how to carry that to make better events for juniors, senior events, club events, whatever it may be?” Daniil Medvedev, seeded fourth at the Australian Open, commented, “Some people are probably losing their jobs because of this.” Frenchman Gilles Simon blasted the technology, saying “The main problem is that it’s not at all accurate … You can see that the call that’s been made is not where the mark is. So it’s a problem.”

Despite the concerns, Hawk-Eye Live is here to stay. While there have been some issues regarding its accuracy, I can speak firsthand that the technology works. As a former ballperson at the U.S. Open, I’ve seen a line judge make a blatantly wrong call with my own two eyes only to have the decision get overturned after a challenge far too many times. Machine error exists, but, I promise you, it’s much smaller than human error. Additionally, I understand that it will put many line judges out of work, but this is the direction that tennis has been heading towards for some time. There was plenty of hesitation when Hawk-Eye was first introduced 15 years ago. Today, most would agree that the challenge system is a vital part of the game. Some “traditionalists” will whine and complain that the very soul of tennis is being threatened; I find that ridiculous. It is in the best interest of the players and fans alike for the matches to be played as fairly as possible. Hawk-Eye Live allows players to focus on how they’re playing instead of obsessing over a call. There’s no reason to think that a human can tell if a ball traveling more than 100 miles per hour just barely glimpses the line better than the strongest cameras can. Since we have the capability to use the technology for the entire match, we absolutely should. As for all of the linespeople out there, I guess the good news is that you won’t have to worry about being pelted in the neck with a tennis ball by the best player in the world.