The big question mark: technology for clay line-calls?

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The big question mark: technology for clay line-calls?

American Reilly Opelka was ready to celebrate his win against local Corentin Moutet in the first round of the ATP 250 of Lyon. In the decisive tie-break, when the score was 6-4 in favour of Opelka, the French hit a powerful forehand that landed close to his opponent, who saw the ball bouncing out of the court.

Already heading to the net to savour his victory, Opelka was instead called back by the umpire’s declaration: the mark touched the line. The match resumed, and Moutet prevailed 12-10 in the tie break to conclude the last set.

Later in the day, Denis Shapovalov, who also figures in the Lyon draw, shared his reaction to the disagreement, defining it “yet again another controversial call on a huge point”. Shapovalov’s tweet is a reference to the discussion involving Marton Fucsovics and a referee during the first round of the Rome Open.

The ball-mark that sealed the Hungarian’s match 6-1 7-6(2) in favour of his opponent Nikoloz Basilashvili sparked divergence in opinion, and Fucsovics uploaded a picture of it on his social media, with the following message, “Last point of my match.

I didn’t want to, but I received a lot of requests to post it... If the ball is out then it’s a double fault, still some chance for me. But the referee overruled…” Tournaments on clay do not benefit of any technological check when it comes to ball bounces, and despite the growing insistence of some players for more attention to this part of the organization, and control technology remains a hard and grass court exclusive.

Yet, the Hawk-Eye system used in non-clay tournaments has demonstrated that it is not entirely flawless: some of its conclusions may be limited in credibility due to its system of frame-capture being unable to cover the fastest bounces precisely, and it has an accuracy limited to 3.6mm—which sometimes can perfectly make the difference.

So how could be players sure of the reliability of line calls? Sometime between the two above mentioned controversies, the WTA Luxembourg tournament announced the introduction of new control to its matches, “We'd like to present you FOXTENN, a technology that offers the most accurate tennis arbitration system ever, based on the real bounce.

FOXTENN will be applied at this year's tournament and will surely make it more interesting for players and supporters”. According to what the FOXTENN website states, it “is a revolutionary high-tech company dedicated to ultra-precise sports analysis,” and it is totally “based on the real bounce (world unique)”.

Not so new to the world, the nicknamed Fox has been tested for the first time in 2017, when ITFs in Spain used it to supervise calls in clay matches. Approved by the ITF, ATP, and WTA, the laser-based technique which can capture around 100.000 images per second—the human eye can only get 30—has made its debuts on the ATP circuit in tournaments like the Barcelona Open (2017 and 2019 editions).

Javier Simon, president of the company, has declared that around 20% of the tournaments on the ATP and WTA tour already use FOXTENN as a third-umpire. Coming back to the initial topic: how to avoid bad calls on clay courts? In 2018, when sought the opinion of experts on the debate of using technology to supervise ball bounces on earthy surfaces, a consideration stated that “there's something about spotting the ball in that dirt that just feels like tradition [...] Let the clay-court officiating stay the way it is—a beautiful mess”.

Yet, six out of seven of the insiders seemed to think of it the other way around. The case of unnecessary expenses has also been brought forward, but as discussions on line-calls controversies get recurrent, and technology has advanced a step further, it may be the right time for clay events to drop their sense of tradition and other objections, and seriously consider reaching out to more secure techniques.