Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Calling the Lines


A time honored tradition in every sport, there is nothing more American than blasting a referee. Go to any game of any sport in America and I guarantee that there will be a loud minority of people yelling at whoever is officiating the game. This culture of complaint is not limited to professional or even college games (where the relative anonymity of the crowd makes it easier to scream, but arguably less effective). Simply show up at a youth event anywhere across our land and some parent (or grandparent) will be acting a fool, cursing a person that probably lives down the street for them (and from whom they may buy groceries, get their car repaired or break bed in church) over something as silly as a double dribble call. We often feel that the normal rules of society, treat others the way you would be treated, be respectful and don't call people four letter words/private body parts while screaming and pointing, simply do not apply in the context of sports. It is an unalienable American right.

However in the world of tennis, the level of officiating criticism takes on another level. Fans (and players) at tennis matches believe that the lines people are consistently making mistakes and often intentionally. I have watched at least part of over 30 matches over the course of this tournament and I have seen a player openly question a line person's call in every single one. The reaction from the crowd is even more harsh. Any shot on a show court that is even close to the line leads to a loud murmur from the crowd suggesting disagreement for whatever the decision is, whether in or out. I often want to ask those in the crowd, especially those sitting at the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium, do you really believe that you, sitting potentially 100 feet above the court, can somehow see it better than the individual seated with her focused on the line and the line only?  Their confidence is impressive, even if their rationality is not.

With this in mind, I sat directly on the line for today's David Ferrer-Richard Gasquet match, only a couple of feet behind the lines judge in the photographer's pit. My goal was simple...to determine just how hard it is to call out/in during a major male tennis match. The answer...it can be unbelievably difficult to judge the closest of close calls. Part of this has to do with the angle of the view. While there likely isn't a better option (having the linesman float directly over the court seems impractical), the side view tends to distort the proceedings a bit. With the glare of the sun (or lights at night), the white of the line can blur a bit, causing the most important feature (the actual spot the line ends) to bleed somewhat. I think this is in part why people suggest lines people tend to "err on the side of in." Whether conscious or not, the line looks bigger the more you stare at it with a glare.

Then there is the problem of the speed. With the lines people staring directly at the line, the ball's speed and arc can appear suddenly, and be tough to pinpoint. Unless you have laser-like focus, this can occasionally sneak up on you and cause a person problems while finding the exact spot of contact. Because of the crazy angles that can now be hit by the top players (thanks to the modern strings), even following the arc of the ball (and using that to surmise the landing point) can be difficult. There there is the problem that makes me believe that even Hawkeye is occasionally wrong...the ball is round and figuring out exactly what part of the ball hit what part of the line is an inexact science, perfected only by ants on the ground. To do so at tremendous speed becomes even more difficult.

With all that said however, after spending a match observing them, I believe the lines people do about as good a job as possible. On the challenged calls in this tournament (which are presumably the closest of the close calls), the decision has been reversed only 28% of the time. That is a fairly solid success record, and one thats error rare would probably be acceptable even without Hawkeye (miss on average 3-6 calls a match and can you really complain? It is certainly a better rate than officiating in other sports). After trying to recreate their job for a set, I have even more respect for what they do. Some calls are too close for anyone and on those, everyone will make mistakes. But the lines people generally do their job as well as it can be done (with the problems above hindering) and are certainly better suited to make the calls than the players focused on returning the shots or the drunk fans far up in the crowd above them. As I often say about the people who are on television commentating, a doctor preforming surgery or someone cutting my hair...they aren't perfect, but they are probably better than you.