Andy Murray was a victim.
Bianca Andreescu was too.
Jiri Lehecka had to play a fifth set and essentially win his third round match twice.
Hawk-Eye Live, an electronic line calling system, could have saved the players their set, even their match, but Wimbledon does not use it to its full extent, preferring a more traditional approach. The rest of the year on the professional tours, many tournaments rely solely on the technology, allowing players to know with near certainty whether their ball will land in or out because the computer is always calling.
But when players come to the All England Club for what is widely regarded as the most important tournament of the year, their fate is largely determined by linesmen who rely on their vision. Even more frustrating, because Wimbledon and its television partners have access to the technology that players can use to challenge a limited number of calls each match, anyone watching the broadcast sees in real time whether a ball is in or out. The people for whom the information is most important – the players and the referee who monitors the game – must trust the linesman.
When the human eye judges servers traveling around 120 mph and forehand rallies faster than 80 mph, mistakes are bound to happen.
“When mistakes are made in important moments, obviously as a player you don’t want that,” said Murray, who could have won his second-round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth set if computers had been on the court. call. Murray’s backhand return was called out, although replays showed the ball was in. He ended up losing in five sets.
No tennis tournament holds on to its traditions the way Wimbledon does. Lawn tennis. Matches on Center Court start later than anywhere else and after those in the Royal Box have had their lunch. No lights for outdoor tennis. An hour-long queue for last-minute tickets.
Those traditions do not influence the outcome of matches from one point to another. But keeping linesmen on the field after the technology proved more reliable has affected — perhaps even turned — key games seemingly every other day.
To understand why this happens, it is important to understand how tennis ended up with different rules for judging across its tournaments.
Before the early 2000s, tennis—like baseball, basketball, hockey, and other sports—relied on human officials to make calls, many of which were wrong, according to John McEnroe (and pretty much every other tennis player). McEnroe’s most infamous meltdown occurred at Wimbledon in 1981, prompted by an incorrect line call.
“I would have loved to have had Hawk-Eye,” said Mats Wilander, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and a star of the 1980s.
But then tennis began experimenting with the Hawk-Eye Live refereeing system. Cameras capture each ball’s bounce from multiple angles, and computers analyze the images to map the ball’s trajectory and impact points with only a microscopic margin of error. Line judges remained as a backup, but players were given three opportunities in each set to challenge a line call, and an additional challenge when a set went to a tiebreaker.
It forced players to try to figure out when to risk using a challenge they might need at a more crucial point later in the set.
“It’s too much,” Wilander said. “I can’t imagine doing that calculation, standing there thinking if a shot felt good, how many challenges I have left, how late in the set it is.”
Even Roger Federer, who was good at almost every aspect of tennis, was famously terrible at making successful challenges.
Before long, tennis officials began to consider a fully electronic line calling system. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, tournaments looked for ways to limit the number of people on the tennis court.
Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia, said using electronic calls in 2021 was also part of the Australian Open’s “culture of innovation”. The players liked it. Fans did too, Tiley said, because the games went faster.
Last year, the US Open switched to fully electronic line calling. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the raised lines on clay courts would prevent the technology from providing the same precision as on grass and hard courts. At the French Open and other clay court tournaments, the ball leaves a mark that umpires often inspect.
In 2022, the men’s ATP Tour featured 21 tournaments with fully electronic line calling, including stops in Indian Wells, California; Miami Gardens, Fla.; Canada; and Washington, DC All of these locations also have women’s WTA tournaments. Every ATP tournament will use it from 2025.
“The question is not whether it’s 100 percent right, but whether it’s better than a human, and it’s certainly better than a human,” said Mark Ein, who owns the Citi Open in Washington, DC
A spokesman for the All England Club said on Sunday that Wimbledon has no plans to remove its linesmen.
“After the tournament we will look at everything we do but at the moment we have no plans to change the system,” Dominic Foster said.
On Saturday, Andreescu fell victim to human error. 2019 US Open champion from Canada Andreescu has moved deeper into Grand Slam tournaments after years of injuries.
With the end of his fight against Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in sight, Andreescu resisted asking for electronic intervention on a decisive shot called out by the linesman. From across the net, Jabeur, who had been close to the ball when it landed, advised Andreescu not to waste one of his three challenges for the set, saying the ball was indeed out. The game continued, though not before television viewers saw the computerized replay showing the ball landing on the line.
“I trust Ons,” Andreescu said after Jabeur came back to beat her in three sets, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Andreescu explained that she was thinking about her previous match, a three-set marathon decided by a tiebreaker in the final set, where she said she “wasted” several challenges.
Towards Jabeur she thought, “I’ll save it, just in case.”
Bad idea. Jabeur won that game, the set and then the match.
Over on Court No. 12, the challenge system caused another kind of confusion. Lehecka had match point against Tommy Paul when he raised his hand to challenge a call after returning a shot from Paul that had landed on the line. His request for a challenge came just as Paul hit the next shot into the net.
The point was replayed. Paul won it and then the set moments later, forcing a deciding set. Lehecka won, but had to run around for another half hour. Venus Williams lost match point in her first round match on another complicated sequence involving a challenge.
Leylah Fernandez, a two-time Grand Slam finalist from Canada, said she likes the tradition of linesmen at Wimbledon as the world cedes more to technology.
Then again, she added, if “it cost me a fight, it probably would have been a different answer.”
This is where Murray, the two-time Wimbledon champion, found himself after his loss on Friday afternoon. When he arrived at his press conference, he had learned that his slow and sharply angled backhand return of serve, which landed just a few yards from the umpire, had hit the line.
The point would have given him two chances to break Tsitsipas’ serve and serve out of the match. When he was told that the shot was in, his eyes opened with a start, then fell to the floor.
Murray now knew what everyone else had seen.
The ball had landed under the nose of the umpire, who upheld the call, Murray said. He couldn’t imagine how anyone could have missed it. He actually likes having the linesmen, he added. Maybe it was his fault for not using a challenge.
“Ultimately,” he said, “the ref made a bad call that’s right in front of her.”