Stop the Overrule Unfairness

After the senseless tragedy in Florida this week, nothing could be more trivial than this little rant below, which I had already written at the time. But if you’d like to escape the madness of the real world for a few minutes and geek out on a tennis micro-issue, here you go:

One of my irritations with tennis lately, and it was especially true during the Australian Open, is when the chair umpire overrules an out call and gives the point (instead of replaying it) to the player who hit the ball that was initially called out. The umpire typically explains the decision by telling the other player that he/she attempted to return the shot before hearing the out call from the linesperson.

There were several notable examples of this during the Aussie. Here are just a few: Caroline Wozniacki was serving at 6-4, 5-3, 15-30 in her third-round match against Kiki Bertens (start watching this at 1:25:00) when the umpire overruled a very bad out call on the baseline. Wozniacki swung and hit the ball into the net. I obviously don’t know exactly when Wozniacki heard the call, and one could make the case from the video that she might have argued even more vociferously if she really believed she was right. But it was close, and it looked to me like she might have pulled up short on her follow-through, which would have affected her shot. (More on that below.)

There was this (start watching at 56:50) between Agnieszka Radwanska and Su-Wei Hsieh. Radwanska had the panicked look of someone trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The chair umpire was about to award the point to Hsieh when Radwanska pointed out that she actually hit the disputed ball back onto Hsieh’s side of the court. The umpire was so quick to give Hsieh the point that he didn’t even consider whether Radwanska had returned the shot. Radwanska successfully demanded the intervention of a tournament supervisor and they ended up replaying the point, thankfully. Kyle Edmund had a similar complaint returning a Marin Cilic serve during their semifinal. A description of the dispute is here.

The week after the Aussie, in St. Petersburg, Caroline Garcia lost when a replay overturned an out call on match point against her. You can watch the point and her argument here, though the Russian commentators talk over much of it. This one might not have involved an overrule, but the issue is the same. Yes, Garcia appears to take a pretty full swing at the ball. But if the call came during her swing, and it almost surely did, it would have affected the shot in some way. And to not give the player the benefit of the doubt on a linesperson’s error on match point is very unfair.

I’ll predict right here that there’s going to be some kind of rule or interpretation change on this issue before long, because the status quo is so illogical. They will end up replaying the point on most of these. That would be progress. I’ll break down my argument into three parts: Ethical/moral, mechanical and technological.

Ethical/moral: A linesperson calls a ball out, the chair umpire says, “Correction, ball was good,” and while doing so makes the speculative judgment that the player swung before hearing the linesperson’s call. The mistake was made by the linesperson, or possibly even worse, the umpire making the overrule. The aggrieved player should get the benefit of the doubt since he/she didn’t make the mistake; one of the officials did. The way it works now, the umpire essentially shifts responsibility for the bad call onto the player. It’s simply unjust.

There’s also a strong element of arrogance here, as if the umpire knows better than the player whether her shot was affected. The situation is different from the typical line-call dispute, when a player thinks a ball was in or out but doesn’t actually know. In this case, most of the time the player knows whether her ability to make the shot was impaired. And when you see how strenuously the players argue when the point gets taken away (e.g., Wozniacki, Edmund, Garcia), it’s hard to believe they’re all knowingly and passionately lying every time. I know that a player can convince herself that she was wronged and argue based on that. But it’s hard to believe that all these players are mistaken that the out call affected their shot or that they are willfully lying about it so often. Call me naive, but I think most of the top pros aren’t ethically corrupt.

Mechanical: This is probably the issue that I find most maddening. The discussions on court, and in the TV commentary booth, revolve around whether the player made contact with the ball before or after the line call was made. This isn’t even the right question to ask. Anyone who plays a decent level of recreational tennis knows that the complete swing, including the follow-through, determines where the ball goes. That whip-over-the-head forehand swing of Nadal’s isn’t just for decorative purposes. It’s what keeps the damn ball in the court. In other words, if a player makes contact with the ball and then is disrupted by a shout before finishing her swing, her shot will be affected. Period. If this weren’t the case we would all just stop our swings right when the racket meets the ball. Therefore, the player should get a do-over if the call came at any time during her swing. I find it amazing that umpires — at least the times I’ve been watching — haven’t acknowledged this.

Technological:  I will admit that on this point I have more questions than answers. On these disputed calls, we hear/see the TV replay of the sound of the line call and watch the player’s swing. Based on that, the TV commentators and we at home form an opinion of which came first — the call or the swing. Notwithstanding that it’s not even the appropriate question (as I argue above), are we even getting accurate information from the TV replay? I have my doubts that the time gap between when we hear the linesperson’s call and see the player make contact on a TV replay is exactly the same as what happened in real time on the court. Does Wozniacki, who may be 10 to 12 feet away from the linesperson, hear the out call at the same instant we hear it on TV? I wouldn’t assume so. This is a question a tennis journalist or fan with a math/science inclination — someone like Jeff Sackmann or Carl Bialek, who have done interesting work with tennis analytics — could perhaps dig into. There must be someone at MIT who can answer. The question is basically this: Is the sound/vision sequence obtained from a TV replay exactly the same as what happened on court? If the answer is no, let’s stop coming to conclusions based on the TV replays.

The arguments on this issue will continue — until umpires get guidance that they have to give the player the benefit of the doubt. And I suspect that will happen before long.

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