Tennis Gets a Little More Virtual

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

There will be no more complaining about the umpires in tennis. Last Monday the U.S. Open began using something they call “instant replay” to review line calls. Here’s how it works. A player — let’s say, Andre Agassi — hits a ball that lands very close to the line. It’s called out. He swears it’s in. He says to the umpire, “I beg your pardon, sir, but I challenge your assertion.” Then, the big screen above the court flickers to life. On it, a flat yellow circle loops through a blue field. As it changes direction, a static, gray oval appears behind the yellow circle. This gray thing, which represents the “ball mark,” is depicted just to the right of a thick white line. In this case, that means the ball was out. Poor Agassi.

These computer-animated replays aren’t new. The television networks have been using them for the last four years. But now that the images are official, I find myself asking, Why am I supposed to believe this cartoon ball? What makes this more accurate than the human eye or, at least, the slow-motion replay? It is a drawing, after all, and not even a very good one. The Smurf-blue court has an antiseptic, childlike quality. It reminds me of the screen that weathermen stand in front of. And the graphics would not past muster at EA Sports where games like Madden NFL seem almost too vivid. The tennis replay looks more like Pong.

Like so many cartoons today, the “replay” was fashioned out of excessive technological research and corporate funding (It’s so expensive that it’s only used on the main two courts). A British company called Hawk-eye Innovations developed the tracking system, which was originally used for cricket. A team of high speed cameras marks the precise location of the ball during play. Complicated algorithmic software then plots the ball’s movement and velocity on a virtual court. Seconds later, we experience the truth.

Gordon Beck, an executive producer at USA Network, told me, “It’s not that radically different from EA Madden Football. It’s not that different from the gaming world, re-expressing the data into graphic simulations.” When he was working on the broadcast last year, Beck tried revising the animation to give it “the feel of scientifically calibrated accuracy.” To do so, he turned to old submarine movies and mimicked the hash marks that denoted distance and depth in periscope scenes. “Then we realized, we don’t need all that scientific stuff.” he said. “It’s a cartoon. Let’s not overdo it. All that really matters is where the ball is in relation to the lines.”

For me, though, hash marks or no, it is still a slightly disconcerting experience to watch an event on live television, only to turn to computerized cartoons when we want to know what just happened. But then “live television” is already a peculiar concept. Maybe it’s passé. The U.S. Open website, sponsored by IBM, offers “real time” re-creations of major matches. Using the Hawk-eye data, shows each point being played in a ghostly disembodied universe. From the path of the ball, we have to infer the beauty of Federer’s slice or the power of Sharapova’s groundstrokes. Luckily, we’re provided with plenty of statistics to aid our imaginative exercise. “We took the real time data that the umpires enter and that the statisticians enter,” John Kent, an IBM sports marketing executive, said, “and we tried to make the experience a little more virtual.”

I admit there might be something pleasurable about this. The tennis junkie who is stuck at his desk during a big match may not be able to wait to see a replay. There is a thrill to a live event, even if that live event is filtered through a broadband connection. And if you’re stuck waiting for information to be dumped onto the screen, I guess it is nice to have the experience be “a little more virtual.” Year after year, I witness the gradual unraveling of the Philadelphia Phillies’ season on my PC, using ESPN’s Gamecast, and I often wish the experience was a lot more virtual.

But baseball is a different animal than tennis. Apart from the arcane scoring system, singles tennis is fairly straightforward. Its elegance comes from the physical and mental duel between two players on opposite sides of the net. There are no box scores. There is no slugging percentage. There are no debatable managerial decisions like the hit-and-run or the double switch. There is, in fact, no manager. In tennis, there is little to argue about except line calls, and as spectators, we need to argue. There is also little to enjoy except for the player’s athleticism which is performed spontaneously, in actual space. In other words, we need to see it.

I don’t think computers are threatening sport. Athletics will remain full of fantastic feats performed in real space by real people with real bodies. Narratives and representations of sports will continue to rise above statistics or binary code. From a spectator’s point-of-view, though, I think we’re probably better off without the Looney Toons line calls, even if they represent accurate data. Perhaps, I have too much faith in video images while maintaining a curmudgeonly suspicion of anything drawn. We are in an age of animation, some might say. Photography is dead. Nostalgically, though, I want to preserve the human error and the uncertainty in sport as well as the physical grace. Please, let me have a bad call every once in a while.

There might be another reason to be suspicious of these replays. Last year, after extensive testing, the USTA decided the digital tracking system wasn’t accurate enough to use at the Open. Perhaps they’ve improved it, or perhaps they’re pulling the CGI wool over our eyes. Some reports claim it’s accurate to three millimeters. Is that good?

Regardless, digital replays are changing tennis. The other night when Agassi was playing Andrei Pavel, commentator John McEnroe got heated about a call. It was classic McEnroe, but he wasn’t attacking the linesman, he was attacking the “replay” image. The ball looked in, McEnroe said. “There must be something wrong with this system.”

Great article!

— Em    Sep 2, 12:10 PM    #


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