Electronic line calling and the drama of tennis

Published by Bastien Thorne

Is tennis about to lose one of its unique aspects: the drama of the fight between an umpire and a player? Photo: Getty Images
With the introduction of electronic line calling at the Next Gen Championships in Milan, tennis risks losing one of its most popular aspects.

Passion. Drama. Intensity. As world-renowned tennis commentator Robbie Koenig frequently opines: “sport is the best form of reality TV”.

Of course, the bulk of tennis’ drama flows from the talent and ability of the players on the court. To watch Roger, Serena, Rafa, Maria and Novak (amongst others) performing at their peak engrosses millions of fans – the tennis and wider sporting audience – around the world.

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But the sporting theatre is about so much more than simply watching players performing at their best. There is a human element to this drama as well: fans are as engrossed by the fragility of the human beneath the athlete as they are by their abilities on the court.

More often than not, those fragilities are manifested in the interaction between players and officials.

A quick glance at the data from any tournament (or YouTube) will show you that tennis fans would rather watch a player going bananas at an umpire than Roger Federer playing an amazing rally. Why? Because we, as human beings, simply enjoy watching other human beings ‘losing it’.

Think about some of the most memorable incidents in tennis history: Serena at the US Open (twice), John McEnroe getting defaulted, Nick Kyrgios or Fabio Fognini on multiple occasions… These are the kind of moments that tennis fans devour, digest and discuss (even if they make the authorities squirm).

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While the drama comes down to the personality, the trigger is – more often than not – something occurs on the court. Perhaps that something is a bad line call, maybe a foot fault, it could even be an overrule. All of these incidents chip away at the mental barriers of the athlete, and ratchet up the tension in a match.

That is why the ATP’s decision to do away with line judges at the Next Gen Championships in Milan should ring alarm bells throughout the game.

Proponents will argue that tennis needs to evolve (innovation is the buzz word) and technology can provide a platform that will allow players to focus on their games rather than the skill – or lack thereof – of officialdom. There is undoubtedly some merit to that.

But technology will rob the fan of the theatre.

Without the human element – when mentally taut players snap because they perceive themselves to have been wronged – athletes will simply huff and puff around a court and occasionally smash up a racquet. That back and forth between the athlete and official, those seminal moments that enthral television viewers and internet users alike, will be lost. Tennis will become… sanitised.

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Innovation is a worthy pursuit in everything that we do. In fact, it is to be applauded. But innovation in sport will only be successful if one – or both – eyes are fixed firmly on the needs of the viewing public (they are, after all, the ones that pay the bills). That public has a thirst for drama, and one that is often quenched by the volatility of the human interaction on the court.

By removing the majority of those humans from it, the ATP – and tennis a large – will undoubtedly produce a ‘tighter’ product, but will lose the drama that so often enthrals the fans.

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