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Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Updated: November 25, 3:45 PM ET
Unlimited Hawk-Eye a must

The U.S. hosts Russia in the Davis Cup final at Portland, Ore. next week, but as you watch, remember it might never have happened without some intense diplomatic negotiations. No, they weren't about having official food testers, or getting Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev into the country legally, or whether there's still time for Dmitry Tursunov to switch sides before the tie.

In fact, they were about Hawk-Eye. Under the normal rules, players can challenge two linecalls during a set through Hawk-Eye, with an extra challenge allowed in the tiebreak. Players only use up a challenge if they turn out to be wrong -- they can challenge as many times as they want as long as they're correct.

But the Davis Cup's governing body, the ITF, wanted the players to be able to challenge as many times as they want whether they're right or wrong. The USTA, which is hosting the tie, wanted the normal two-challenge system used.

When the dust settled, the ITF got its way, but many still have reservations. U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe has said he's "totally against it."

It may take a little getting used to now that we've become accustomed to the two-challenge rule, but despite the skeptics, it's still a worthy experiment. Don't forget that the challenge system was devised more for spectator entertainment than to improve competitive fairness. Unlimited challenges do more to ensure the fundamental reason for having Hawk-Eye -- getting rid of bad calls.

The obvious analogy is with checking marks on the clay. When that was introduced as a way of making sure the correct call had been made, there were no guys in suits sitting around wondering, "How can we utilize this to derive additional marginal utility and enhance consumer-based interactivity?"

No one said, let's only check marks twice because we wouldn't want to make it too useful -- where's the fun in that, after all? There were no suggestions that the players do a little war dance beforehand, or throw fake octopuses on court when they wanted to challenge. The idea of having a giant video screen showing dramatic close-ups of the line didn't even come up. The thinking was simply -- there's a mark, why not check it?

And guess what? Chaos didn't ensue. The players didn't run amok and demand that the umpire come down after every point to check the mark. Neither did they turn into automatons, operating in robotic glumness because there were no bad calls to get heated up about.

So when it was the turn of electronic replay, why the need to implement it with quotas and theme music? It's all about mindset.

Hawk-Eye first came along as a TV aid, and some infamously bad line calls during a 2004 U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati helped usher it in as an officiating aid. After some tests, it turned out that -- the blind faith of certain commentators not withstanding -- the system being used by TV wasn't quite accurate enough to be used to actually decide calls. After a few more cameras were added and a little more testing done, it was deemed ready for use in matches.

But this time, the attitude wasn't simply -- here's a linecalling device, let's use it. Implementing electronic replay -- sometimes at a six-figure cost -- had to be justified not only in terms of sporting value but also entertainment value. In addition, there was some concern that without some restrictions, players might abuse the innovation by demanding endless replays and holding up play. Finally, the move to institute electronic replay was spearheaded largely by American administrators, who were locked into the idea that this would be the equivalent of football's instant-replay system, which allows for only a limited number of replays.

But if they had resisted the reflexive tendency to try to ape the conventions of other sports and build the system around tennis' specific needs, it would have looked quite different.

The decision to go to the replay would ultimately be in the umpire's hands, not the players -- just like on clay, where the player requests a check but the umpire decides whether to actually get down off the chair and inspect the mark. But players would be able to request a replay whenever they think it's justified. And all the other normal rules around challenging calls would apply -- for example, if a player thinks a ball is out during a rally, he must stop immediately in order to request a replay.

By instituting unlimited challenges in Davis Cup, the ITF is going back to the sport's traditions and emphasizing justice over spectacle.

Is there more potential for disruption with unlimited challenges than limited challenges? Yes, but it's a manageable risk. A Davis Cup final is just about the most dangerous situation in which to have unlimited challenges -- a tense, patriotic atmosphere; players and captains both able to challenge; long matches and high stakes. But it didn't interfere significantly with play when used in last year's Davis Cup final -- one set of one match during became a bit overloaded by challenges, but overall the challenges were made at the rate of 3.6 per set, not that much higher than the 2 + 1 system.

What's more, the time it takes for a reply to show where the ball landed has been deliberately slowed down to heighten spectator tension. Just put them up as fast as they're available and the delay becomes almost insignificant.

Having unlimited challenges is also better than increasing the number to a large amount like 10 -- players don't feel they have to use challenges gratuitously in order not to waste them.

Going unlimited is bound to have some teething troubles, but it's worth doing because there are benefits to removing the cap. It prevents the possibility of a situation where a player has run out of challenges and then receives a bad call at a critical moment. It removes the pressure on the players to decide when to use challenges -- those internal debates might create a little extra amusement for fans, but they're a needless, meaningless burden on players who are trying to concentrate on more important things like playing. Besides, players often have no idea where the ball has landed -- they can't see the far baseline, they're often moving to the ball when it lands, their line of sight can be blocked.

If they're afraid to challenge for fear of being wrong, bad calls slip through. Don't tell David Ferrer he could have had two break points in the opening game against Roger Federer in Shanghai if only he'd challenged. But he didn't, because strategically it wasn't an opportune time to use a challenge.

But electronic replay isn't supposed to be about strategy and opportunism and suspense, it's supposed to be about ensuring correct calls. Let's give a rule which actually tries to achieve that a chance to work.