Could tennis' Hawk-Eye help the NFL?

September, 25, 2012
9/25/12
10:47
AM ET
If the National Football League doesn't want to pay up and bring back its experienced referees, maybe it should invest the money it's saving in Hawk-Eye. After all, tennis' instant-replay system is the ultimate arbiter; it's always right, even if it overrules an official on an incorrect call. I bet something like that sounds pretty appealing to Roger Goodell right now, in the wake of the harebrained and uber-controversial ending to "Monday Night Football."

Tennis is fortunate in that there is nothing for Hawk-Eye to ascertain besides whether a ball touched a line. There are no subjective decisions -- for example, in determining whether there was dual possession or if a player "completed a catch," whatever that truly means. The evidence stands alone. In short, the human element is removed once a player tells the chair umpire he or she would like to challenge a call.

But there are still instances in tennis in which Hawk-Eye simply will not do. And if tennis hopes to avoid the negative publicity the NFL is currently receiving because of poor officiating, it needs to address a few potential flash points. One area of concern is directly correlated to Hawk-Eye: whether to replay or award a point after a call is upheld or overturned.

Let's say a player was sprinting toward a well-struck ball, and the shot was called out before he arrived at it. That slight easement, a natural reaction to a linesman's call, made the shot look like a winner on the surface. If the ball was found to land in, should the defender lose the point, if only because he relaxed, ever so slightly? In some cases, I've seen the chair umpire give the point to the player who originally hit the well-struck ball and challenged the call. But in other instances, the point is replayed. In both scenarios, one player is unhappy with the ruling.

Such calls likely will always be left for the umpire to decide based on the situation. There are some points that should clearly be replayed, and some that should clearly be decided right then and there -- like when a returner barely moves and is aced, only to be (temporarily) saved by an "out" call. But one present-day judgment call can be eliminated if a by-the-book approach is adhered to: the amount of time taken between points.

Some prominent matches have put this rule in the spotlight recently. The rule reads that a player cannot take more than 25 seconds to start the next point after one has ended, and no more than 20 seconds at Grand Slam tournaments. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, two players widely criticized for their slow pace of play, have given umpires pause -- literally -- when deciding whether to assess a time-violation warning for a first offense, or a point penalty in the event of multiple offenses. Whenever an umpire actually does this, even when justified, the backlash is swift -- and often delivered by John McEnroe in the commentary booth: "How can you make that call at this point of the match?"

I don't believe tennis needs a physical shot clock on the court that counts down 20 or 25 seconds; that's a distraction as much as it's a solution. But chair umpires should keep their own clock and set a tone early on that going over the time limit won't be tolerated -- whether you're an 11-time Grand Slam champion or a tour newbie. We're currently asking officials to become police officers, letting minor slowing transgressions go without incident. But that sets a dangerous precedent, and before you know it, players are taking 45 seconds between points. Time isn't like grunting -- the clock shows whether a player has exceeded a certain threshold. For the integrity of the rulebook and the sake of timeliness, I'm hoping the pace-of-play rule is followed.

The rule I take the greatest offense to, though, is not exactly a rule, per se, but a limit. In tournaments in which calls can be challenged, players are given only three incorrect challenges per set (another is given if a tiebreaker is needed). At some point, tennis' doomsday scenario will occur: A call will be made on match point that ends a match but is shown by television replay to have clearly been incorrect -- and the player on the receiving end of the bad call will be out of challenges. Can you imagine if such a situation decided a tournament, or worse yet, a Grand Slam title?

To avoid this, tennis should allow its officials to summon Hawk-Eye on all match points, regardless of the amount of challenges a player has remaining. That way, there will be no worry of a missed call determining the outcome of a match. Unless, of course, you're the NFL.

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