Andy Murray was a victim.
Bianca Andreescu was also.
Jiri Lehecka had to play a fifth set and basically 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 is not using it to its full extent, preferring a more traditional approach. The rest of the year on the professional tours, many tournaments rely exclusively on technology, allowing players to know with near certainty whether their ball is landing in or out because the computer always makes the call.
But when players come to the All England Club for what is widely regarded as the most important tournament of the year, their fates are largely determined by line judges relying on their eyesight. 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 chair referee who oversees the match – must trust the linesman.
When the human eye judges a serve traveling at about 120 mph and a forehand piles up faster than 80 mph, mistakes are bound to happen.
“When mistakes are made at important moments, then 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 drawn the line. calls Murray’s backhand return was called, even though replays showed the ball was in. He ended up losing in five sets.
No tennis tournament clings to its traditions like Wimbledon does. Lawn tennis. Matches on Center Court starting later than everywhere else, and after those in the Royal Box had lunch. No lights for outdoor tennis. Queue with hours long waiting for last minute tickets.
These traditions have no effect on the outcome of matches from one point to the next. But keeping assistant referees on the court, after technology proved to be more reliable, affected – perhaps even turning – key matches seemingly every other day.
To understand why this happens, it is important to understand how tennis ended up with different rules for judging 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 almost all other tennis players). McEnroe’s most infamous meltdown occurred at Wimbledon in 1981, prompted by an incorrect line call.
“I would love to have Hawk-Eye,” said Mats Wilander, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and star in the 1980s.
But then tennis began experimenting with the Hawk-Eye Live judging system. Cameras capture the bounce of each ball from multiple angles and computers analyze the images to present the trajectory and impact points of the ball with only a microscopic margin for error. Line judges remained as backup, but players were given three chances each set to challenge a line call, and an extra challenge when a set went to a tie.
This forced players to try to figure out when to risk using a challenge that 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 considering an all-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, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, said adopting electronic calling in 2021 was also part of the Australian Open’s “culture of innovation”. Players liked it. So did fans, Tiley said, because matches moved faster.
Last year, the US Open switched to a fully electronic phone call. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the raised lines on clay courts would prevent the technology from providing the same accuracy 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 had 21 tournaments with fully electronic line calling, including stops in Indian Wells, California; Miami Gardens, Fla.; Canada; and Washington, D.C. All of those sites also have the women’s WTA tournaments. Every ATP tournament will use it starting in 2025.
“The question is not whether it is 100 percent correct but whether it is better than a human, and it is definitely better than a human,” said Mark Ein, who owns the Citi Open in Washington.
A spokesman for the All England Club said on Sunday that Wimbledon had no plans to remove its assistant referees.
“After the tournament we look at everything we do, but at this moment, we have no plans to change the system,” Dominic Foster said.
On Saturday, Andreescu fell victim to human error. The 2019 US Open champion from Canada, Andreescu stepped deeper into Grand Slam tournaments after years of injuries.
With the end of her match against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in sight, Andreescu resisted asking for an electronic intervention on a crucial shot that the line judge had called. From across the net, Jabeur, who was close to the ball when it landed, advised Andreescu not to waste one of her three challenges for the set, saying the ball was indeed gone. The match continued, although not before television viewers saw the computerized replay which showed 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 late-set tie, during which she said she “wasted” several challenges.
Against Jabeur, she thought: “I’ll save it, just in case.”
Bad idea. Jabeur won that game, and the set, and then the match.
Above Court No. 12, the challenge system caused another confusion. Lehecka had a match point against Tommy Paul when he raised his hand to challenge a call after returning a shot from Paul that 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 a 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 deputy umpires at Wimbledon as the world gives in more to technology.
Then again, she added, if “it cost me a match, it would probably be a different answer.”
That’s where Murray, the two-time Wimbledon champion, found himself after his loss on Friday afternoon. By the time he arrived at his press conference, he learned that his slow and sharply angled backhand return of a serve that landed just a few yards from the umpire had crossed the line.
The point would have given him two chances to break Tsitsipas’ serve and serve out the match. When he was told the shot was in, his eyes opened with surprise, then fell to the floor.
Murray now knew what everyone else saw.
The ball landed under the nose of the umpire, who upheld the call, Murray said. He couldn’t imagine how anyone could miss it. He actually likes having the deputy judges, he added. Maybe it was his fault for not using a challenge.
“Ultimately,” he said, “the referee made a bad call that’s right in front of her.”