It is more than three decades since an incredulous John McEnroe uttered his most famous line: “You cannot be serious”.
Directed towards the umpire, Edward James, during Wimbledon in 1981, the American was livid at a line call that went against him. “Chalk flew up,” he continued.
The chalk is long gone and so, largely, have the disputes thanks to the introduction of Hawk-Eye, which is in its ninth year of use here.
When it was introduced there were fears was that it would make the line judges redundant. But, while umpires may be reluctant to overrule, knowing the technology can do the job if a player chooses to challenge, line judges continue to do a hugely important job. And it seems they’re doing it pretty well.
In the first eight days of this year’s Wimbledon, there have been 212 correct challenges, 131 by the men and 81 by the women. That’s well up on the past three years, which can be explained by the fact that Wimbledon increased the number of courts with Hawk-Eye to six this year, adding courts 12 and 18 to the list. But in terms of how often players challenge correctly, very little has changed in the past four years, with the men at 26% and the women at 27%. Considering that line judges have to call serves that can reach almost 150mph, that’s pretty impressive.
Love it or hate it, Hawk-Eye has become a part of the fabric at Wimbledon and across the ATP and WTA Tours. It has virtually ended disputes over line calls but also added to the drama as the players and crowd wait to see the result. And the system adopted by tennis of up to three incorrect challenges per player, per set is often held up as a standard that other sports, like football, might follow.
Andy Murray is certainly a fan. The Scot was thankful for the challenge system during his win over Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round, with a correct challenge on match point in the fourth set giving him victory over the big-serving Croat. “That was a big one to get right and it won me the match,” Murray said.
Some players are not quite so enamoured with it, the most notable being Roger Federer. The seven-times champion likes the tradition of line judges doing their job, and though he’s grown to accept it, he trusts his eyes and his instinct above a bunch of cameras. “What I struggle with is I don’t think it’s 100% accurate,” he said. “Let’s say 99%, fine. It’s still not 100% in my opinion.
“I still see calls I don’t quite understand. But I still think it’s fine to have it. It’s even good to have it because you don’t want to lose at Wimbledon maybe because of one bad call or a missed call by someone.”
Interestingly, Federer’s record on challenges is generally pretty poor. In his first four matches, the Swiss has won only two out of nine, or 22%. Murray’s is marginally better, at 25% (four out of 16). They’re not the worst, though. Viktor Troicki got just one out of 10 correct, while Karlovic managed three out of 20. On the men’s side, the big servers made the most challenges, perhaps not surprisingly given the speeds they are hitting and the fact that, unlike the line judges, they know where the ball is going. Kevin Anderson tops the list of challenges made, with a whopping 30 (10 right), just ahead of Marin Cilic (seven out of 29), Karlovic and Nick Kyrgios (four out of 15). Of the men who made 10 or more challenges, the most successful were Marcos Baghdatis and Luca Vanni, who each ended up with 50%.
In the women’s singles, the three players to challenge the most – Timea Bacsinszky, Jelena Jankovic and Heather Watson, each with 13 – all fared better than the average. Of those challenging more than eight times (in women’s tennis the overall number of challenges is reduced), the Czech, Lucie Safarova, was the most successful with 10%. Some barely use it – Venus Williams lost all three of her challenges and Serena Williams has won just one out of four – while others are simply terrible at it. Belinda Bencic lost all seven of her challenges, while the most inaccurate is Victoria Azarenka, who lost all 12.
It’s not a perfect science.
Some feel the top players, who get the show courts, have an advantage over others who generally play on courts where Hawk-Eye is not in use. Players are supposed to challenge immediately but on many occasions you’ll see a player look to their box for an opinion before making a decision. Sometimes, they’ll ask the umpire for their advice. And the reasons for challenging vary from those who think they’ve been wronged to those who just need a breather.
Perhaps the last word should be left to Serena Williams, who was given a challenge by the umpire even when she hadn’t asked for it during her fourth-round match with sister Venus. “I don’t challenge out of stress any more,” she said.
This article was written by Simon Cambers at Wimbledon, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th July 2015 11.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010