Dominic Thiem loves the French Open. It’s understandable. In losing the past two French Open finals to 12-time champion Rafael Nadal, Thiem established himself as the second-best player on the surface dominated by the “King of Clay.”
The 27-year-old even had kind words about rising before the sun to prepare for some of his matches in this chilly and wet autumn edition of tournament.
“It shows how special and how unusual everything is in this year, and in general,” Thiem, seeded No. 3, said.
But there’s one element that even he no longer finds charming, or acceptable: the tournament’s resistance to using electronic call reviews via systems like Hawk-Eye or Foxtenn. Instead, Roland Garros clings to a procedure that, while fraught with human error, is as much a part of the tournament’s tradition as those kids who mimic the famous paso doble, leading the entire crowd to finish with a lusty, “Olé!“
“I would support 100 percent Hawk-Eye on clay,” Thiem said, acknowledging that, without having been aware of it, he had benefited from a few calls that were proved erroneous in television replays during his comfortable third-round win over Casper Ruud (broadcasters make use of the technology, even if Roland Garros eschews it).
“I think it would be fair for everybody if Hawk-Eye would also exist on clay. I think we should make it happen.”
Thiem is one of the most influential voices in the growing chorus calling for the French Open to abandon a much-loved tradition. At this tournament, a host of players, including top-10 seeds Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov, called for the embrace of electronic review.
“For sure it’s time for Hawk-Eye on clay. I don’t understand why they haven’t proceeded,” Tsitsipas said after learning Shapovalov, the No. 9 seed, had been denied two match-point opportunities in his five-set, third-round loss because of a bad call. “Doesn’t really matter the surface. That’s innovation, and we have to keep growing and keep adding new things to the sport that will help make the sport better and more fair.”
In the French Open tradition, a protest by either player leads the umpire to climb down from the high chair and jog over to examine the ball mark left by the shot in dispute. The official tries to determine whether or not the ball touched the line, or fell inside or outside the court. Meanwhile, the players stand by, watching or even arguing with the official about the forensic evidence in the disturbed clay.
The process has always added a measure of color and human interest to the matches. Unfortunately for its proponents, television reviews have time and again contradicted the ruling of the umpire. The evidence suggests that making a definite determination on the subject is something of a fool’s errand. Much of the time it isn’t even fair to blame the umpire, who is following the rules, for making a mistake.
“It’s not the umpire’s mistake,” Thiem said. “Sometimes you just cannot see the mark. It’s too difficult, especially after the set break, because they clean the court, they brush the lines, so it’s almost impossible to see where the mark starts.”
At other times, human error results in an unfair decision. Electronic review has shown that on occasion the umpire and player are not even examining the right mark, but one near it. That turns the process into a bit of a clown show, but the French don’t seem to mind even if the pros do.
In the early days of electronic review, mistrust flourished among the players. Roger Federer had an amusing talent for being wrong on Hawk-Eye challenges and scowling when the evidence confirmed it. He was hostile to the technology until around 2016. “What I struggle with is, I don’t think it’s 100 percent accurate,” Federer said at Wimbledon in 2015. “I still see calls I don’t quite understand.”
Eventually, even Federer was obliged to admit that if Hawk-Eye erred by a tiny margin, everyone was at least equally subject to the same shortcomings.
The tide has been turning against skeptics. Mark Knowles, the former doubles star who now is a Tennis Channel broadcaster, said on the air Saturday: “So far, it’s been about 50-50 in the locker room in terms of full confidence in Hawk-Eye. But we’re seeing this week that a lot of players have more confidence in it now.”
The subject is close to Knowles’ heart. He and Daniel Nestor lost the 1998 US Open final in the pre-Hawk-Eye review era because of a bad call on a match point that would have earned them the title. Instead, they lost. Commentator John McEnroe approached the losers in the locker room and, according to Knowles, said: “Sorry, Knowlesy, you guys actually won that match. We had Hawk-Eye in the booth.”
“I still have sleepless nights over that one,” Knowles said.
Shapovalov is the one most likely to be tossing and turning for many nights to come after this year’s meeting in Paris. He was serving at 5-4, 30-15 on Thursday when an erroneous no-call on behalf of opponent Roberto Carballes Baena denied Shapovalov two match points. He then lost the match, and later posted a screen grab of the Hawk-Eye review showing that the ball hit by Carballes was out.
“When will we have Hawk-Eye on clay?” Shapovalov said on the social media post.
— Denis Shapovalov (@denis_shapo) October 1, 2020
Not soon, seems to be the most well-informed answer. French officials are turning deaf ears to the complaints, just like they’re turning a blind eye to the lines.
“The FFT is not in favor of replacing umpires with machines. The traces left by the ball on clay are supposed to allow the referees to validate or invalidate the linesmen’s announcements on their own,” the French Tennis Federation said in a statement to Reuters on Saturday.
The statement suggested there could be a difference between “the machine” and the “trace” on clay. It also argued that the reversal issue doesn’t arise often, noting that a study of 800 matches revealed there were adjudicated calls once in every 1.5 sets on average, adding “[That’s] very little compared to the number of rallies played.”
We’ve seen, though, that bad calls have a way of happening at important times.
Appeals to the ATP, the Grand Slam Board, the ITF or any other power broker in tennis are unlikely to be of much help to the reformers. Each Grand Slam event is free to operate any way it chooses, as Roland Garros officials demonstrated when the concerns about the coronavirus pandemic led them to postpone the start of the tournament from late May to now.
The French might not be able to hold out forever, though. Saturday, top-ranked Novak Djokovic advanced to the fourth round and after his match took the call for reform one step further, calling for the implementation at all tournaments of the Hawk-Eye Live system that completely eliminates line judges (that system has yet to be approved for play on clay).
“With all my respect for the tradition and the culture we have in this sport,” Djokovic said, “when it comes to people present on the court during a match, including line umpires, I really don’t see a reason why every single tournament in this world, in this technological advanced era, would not have what we had during Cincinnati [Western & Southern]/New York [US Open] tournaments.”