As football continues to tiptoe around increased use of technology, tennis is boldly exploring where seemingly no sport has gone before.
Indeed a tennis event being staged Tuesday, and not the prestigious Miami Open, could well shape the sport for many years to come.
Hawk-Eye has been used at top-tier tournaments for a decade now but Tuesday evening in Salt Lake City the line calling aid will be used on the PowerShares Series solely instead of linespeople.
And one of the four participants in Utah, former Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis, thinks it’s a matter of when, not if, tennis at the highest level adopts something similar and does away with linespeople.
“I definitely think it’s only a matter of time,” Philippoussis told CNN.com. “I see it as a natural progression.
“It’s going to happen. Sooner or later someone is going to have to take the leap and say it’s going to be now.”
The PowerShares Series, a circuit for retired champions, is calling the initiative unprecedented, and the plan is to also use the system at the 11 other cities that make up the tour for players over 30.
The players – who include Philippoussis and grand slam winners Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andy Roddick and Michael Chang – will be essentially policing themselves by keeping an eye on the lines, aided by the chair umpire. They’ll be backed up by Hawk-Eye and allowed unlimited challenges.
“I never thought this day would come when I would play tournament tennis without linesmen,” McEnroe, famous for coining the phrase, ‘You cannot be serious,’ when he argued calls, said in a press release. “I think this can be a groundbreaking game-changer for the sport.”
Hawk-Eye is currently utilized – in conjunction with linespeople – at three of the four grand slams and at many of the bigger non grand slam tournaments. Players are permitted three incorrect challenges per set, prior to a tiebreak, not unlimited challenges.
“I think we’re the perfect test case if the tours are remotely interested in it,” Courier, who runs the circuit through the company he co-founded, InsideOut Sports + Entertainment, told CNN.com.
He said the governing body in the U.S., the USTA, will be sending an official to the Chicago date on April 2 to “see it in real time.”
“So I think there will be some interested parties,” said Courier, the U.S. Davis Cup captain. “It would probably be in their best interest to probably be aware of what it looks like.”
Players calling lines is nothing new for juniors, those competing in Futures tournaments – the lowest rung of the professional tennis ladder – and for the elite pros during practice. The difference is that they can’t rely on Hawk-Eye.
But for players such as Agassi, it’s bound to take some getting accustomed to in match play.
“I expect it to be really interesting,” he told reporters in a conference call. “Weird, I guess, would be one way to put it.
“Will I see the ball every bit as well as I feel like I do when there’s linesmen out there? The heat’s on me to make the actual call.”
Courier initially “resisted” the idea, feeling it could be perceived as a “little hokey.”
But the more he consulted with players taking part in the series, the more he warmed to it, despite the higher cost.
“The thing I was initially concerned about was that it would add stress to the players, including myself,” said Courier. “And the calls I’m most concerned about are the service calls because when you have Andy and Mark hitting 135-mile per hour serves at you close to the line … in practice we do call them out but doing it in tournament competition is a little bit different and it’s not something we’ve done for quite a long time.
“We can always back up if we’re not happy with (the system) and if it seems to jeopardize the validity of the competition. We’re flexible.”
Philippoussis is convinced the concept will work.
“It’s the future,” said the Aussie. “Everything on the sports side is great with the rules, but things like that with technology when it’s progressing and getting better, I think it’s a step in the right direction.
“As long as the crowd doesn’t disappear and they have technology for us … we would have trouble then.”
And being honest on line calls won’t be an issue for Philippoussis, he said.
“I was the kid that when the other player hit the ball, was like, ‘I think it was in,’ and my dad was like, ‘Why did you call it in? It was a foot out.’ I’d say, ‘I wasn’t sure’ and my dad would roll his eyes,” he said, laughing.