Britain's Johanna Konta and umpire Louise Engzell of Sweden argue over a line call during the quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament against Sloane Stephens of the US at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Photo: AP)
There’s a bit of choreography on clay whenever a player disagrees with a line call at the French Open.
The ball lands. The aggrieved player winces and squints at the spot, then scrapes the clay with a racket to underline the mark. The player stands in place, hands on hips, waiting. The chair umpire clambers down to the court, speed-walks over to locate the mark, thinks about it, then renders judgment — by holding an index finger aloft to indicate “Out” or holding a palm flat to indicate “In.” Sometimes, an argument ensues.
Happens every match, it seems. More than once, usually. The whole dance can take mere seconds. Or last several minutes. Or change the complexion of a match entirely, such Martina Hingis’ infamous meltdown against Steffi Graf in the 1999 French Open final, 20 years ago Wednesday.
It’s unique in Grand Slam tennis to Roland Garros, because the other three major tournaments use the Hawk-Eye review system during matches, the way most sports have embraced this sort of thing. The thinking goes: Unlike on the hard courts at the US Open and Australian Open, or the grass courts at Wimbledon, balls leave an indelible imprint on the red dirt, so let’s dispense with any technological assistance and instead just check the mark with our own eyes.
Old-fashioned? Yes. Less than perfect? Of course. Which is why some players are calling for clay tournaments — the French Open, which concludes Sunday, in particular — to make this pas de deux a relic of the past and give chair umpires and line judges some help. After all, television broadcasters often show viewers what Hawk-Eye would have determined.
“They use it for the TV,” 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur said, “so why can’t you use it for us?”
Still, no one should expect a change anytime soon.
“Of course we’ve thought about it. Technology is something every sport should use, as much as possible,” tournament director Guy Forget said in an interview.
“If we don’t use it — and I don’t think we ever will — it’s ... because, historically, we’ve been judging the course of a ball and where it lands on the court by the mark it leaves on the clay,” Forget said. “Would you like to have a court with no chair umpire, no linesmen, just electronic line-calling? Is that something we really want in the future? I think we’d miss something.”
There’s the human element.
The theater of it all.
A certain je ne sais quoi that makes the French Open stand apart from other majors.
And yet ...
“I am 100 percent for having replay. They should use it,” said Chris Evert, who won seven of her 18 major trophies in Paris. “Because of the way they sweep the lines on clay courts, sometimes you can’t see for sure if the ball hit the line or not. I also think that some chair umpires vary. They all view whether it’s in or out differently. I’m not calling them cheaters, of course, but it doesn’t look sometimes like it’s all the way out but they go, ‘Out.’”
This is not a new concern. Back in 2013, for example, Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine was fined $2,000 for pulling out his cell phone during a first-round loss at the French Open to snap a photo of a mark he thought was misjudged.
But the chorus seems to be louder now, because of the perception that there have been “so many mistakes from the umpires this year,” said Borna Coric, a Croatian seeded 13th at Roland Garros.
All non-clay ATP tournaments are required to use electronic line-calling; the statistics kept by the men’s tour show that the number of calls reversed on review has been between 28-29% in each of the past five years, including in 2019. At last year’s US Open, the figure for all events was 29.1%.
Could simply be a result of more and more players posting on social media when they believe a ruling was wrong.
“It’s something I’m really trying to push for, because I feel like there’s way too many controversial calls. There’s so many close calls from day-to-day, from every match,” said Denis Shapovalov, a Canadian seeded 20th in Paris. “Sometimes, just, the call is so close, it’s impossible to call it. You need a system to have justice.”
The main objection voiced by Forget and others is whether Hawk-Eye, which has a tiny margin of error, would be accurate enough on clay courts, where the crushed brick gets blown by the air or kicked around by players’ feet and covers lines. And there are, to be sure, players who are just fine with the status quo.
Usually, the discussion wraps up quite quickly, such as on the very last point of three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka’s 5-plus-hour victory Sunday, when his backhand barely landed in, grazing the outside edge of the sideline. He had to wait to celebrate.
“I was just hoping that the umpire would confirm it,” Wawrinka said. “So I was, (for) half a second, not sure.”
That’s nothing compared to the 4½-minute delay over a disputed serve during 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro’s third-round win over Jordan Thompson on Saturday.
As spectators whistled derisively or jeered, the scene devolved into a sort of existential debate — best had over an espresso and a cigarette, perhaps — about, essentially, what the definition of “line” is and whether, as chair umpire Manuel Absolu posited, one can “imagine there is a mark.”
“There are so many arguments ... just like that one,” Thompson said. “If we had Hawk-Eye, it would have been over in 20 seconds, and we would have been back playing.”