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The Future of the Clay Court

The 2020 Roland-Garros Grand Slam tournament, also known as the French Open, began on September 21 as the only Grand Slam tournament to reject the more novel Hawk-Eye camera system for challenges. Instead, the tournament opted to rely on the eyes of a chair umpire, line judges, and ball marks, a system that has been in place since the tournament’s creation in 1891. Hawk-Eye, first used in a Grand Slam tournament at the 2006 U.S. Open, is a precise system involving six cameras that produce a real time 3-dimensional path of the ball. This system is used to review umpire or line judge calls that players believe may be incorrect. 

In every Grand Slam tournament, each player is allowed to challenge three line calls in total. The real-time Hawk-Eye review is then played to either confirm or correct the call for other tournaments. However, because the French Open is played on a clay surface, the ball leaves a clear mark in the court each time it lands. If a player thinks the umpire misjudged a line call, the umpire will check this mark on the court in order to review the call. Because of this, many officials believe that there is no need to implement the Hawk-Eye system for clay courts.

The issue, however, is that there are several marks within just inches of each other as the game progresses. The human eye cannot distinguish one mark from another with any more precision than the Hawk-Eye system, and in many cases makes mistakes. In my opinion, it would be a wise decision for the Roland-Garros committee and officials to incorporate the Hawk-Eye system while officiating. Checking the mark supposedly left behind by the ball is not fool-proof, and often determines the outcome of a set, and in some cases, the match. 

The latter was the case in this year’s tournament during a second round men’s singles match between Canadian player Denis Shapovalov and Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain. Shapovalov led against Baena 5-4 in the fifth and final set. Shapovalov was up 30-15, serving to possibly end the match with just two points left. In the next point Baena returned a ball and Shapovalov believed that it landed out. The chair umpire, however, called the shot in. Had the Hawk-Eye system been available for a challenge, Shapovalov would have had the option to review the point using the 3D camera system. As the live television footage proves, the ball was out and Shapovalov should have received the point. This call cost Shapovalov two match points, and eventually he fell eight games to six in the final set to Baena, eliminating him from the tournament. After the match, Shapovalov urged the Roland-Garros to install the Hawk-Eye system, expressing his worries for inaccurate calls like these in future years. 

The Roland-Garros tournament continues to stay in the past, prioritizing tradition over the accuracy provided by modern technology in the form of real-time 3D cameras. Without the Hawk-Eye system, it is more common that we see players arguing with umpires about calls, disrupting the match. Viewers watch tennis matches for the sport, and not to watch the umpire stand over the lines pointing at marks. The Hawk-Eye system limits conflict with umpires, and keeps matches flowing at a reasonable pace. With the technology that is available, it confuses me as to why the Roland-Garros tournament continues to make inaccurate calls, which we saw in the match with Shapovalov, can affect an entire match. The advanced system has worked brilliantly in the other three Grand Slam tournaments as a reliable and efficient determiner—players have the chance to challenge calls with footage, while umpires may still make the majority of calls. Ultimately, whether or not Roland-Garros will adopt the Hawk-Eye system is up to the tournament committee, but I think the incorporation of the system will be a positive step for the matches.