Manufactured Fairness: The Advent of Hawkeye

By James Schlunke

Publish date:

In professional sports, platforms all of stripes compete in bidding wars for an enormous global audience. The name of the game? To offer easier to access, higher definition and preferably live entertainment with minimal disruption. Network, cable and pay-per view now compete with bedfellows as peculiar as Optus Television for broadcasting supremacy. Who, after all, would have believed ten years ago that a telecommunications company would hold exclusive rights to the English Premier League?

In professional sports, platforms all of stripes compete in bidding wars for an enormous global audience. The name of the game? To offer easier to access, higher definition and preferably live entertainment with minimal disruption. Network, cable and pay-per view now compete with bedfellows as peculiar as Optus Television for broadcasting supremacy. Who, after all, would have believed ten years ago that a telecommunications company would hold exclusive rights to the English Premier League?

However, the past few decades have seen the advent of technology revolutionising sport from within. For example, much is made of the impact of data science and analytics to drive recruitment, nutrition and rehabilitation from injury.[1] However, perhaps the most controversial addition to this sporting revolution has been the introduction of ‘Fairness technology’ to drive more equitable outcomes in competition. Such permutations are driven by a clear hypothesis: that eliminating the arbitrariness of human judgement and augmenting the quality of the decision-making process is an inherent good. On the other hand, the line between ‘invasion’ and ‘Intrusion’ is sometimes fiercely debated.

This new paradigm shifts the burden of adjudication to machines with little scope for fault, therefore eliminating the need for human judgement along with all its inherent flaws. Examples of such technology were paraded at this year’s Australian Open where the ‘HawkEye’ system was in full display to those viewing at home or on the terraces. Unlike more recent innovations, Hawkeye is now very much an established part of the WTA (Women’s) and ATP (Men’s) Tours.

Developed by Hawkeye technologies, Hawkeye was Initially developed for cricket (specifically for reviewing LBW decisions) by Dr Paul Hawkins, a computer scientist with a keen interest in artificial intelligence.[2] After trials yielded promising results, the technology made its professional tennis debut in 2006 and is now a common fixture in the sport.

The science of Hawkeye review is undoubtably as sophisticated as it is meticulous. For example, at the Australian Open the Hawkeye system utilised a team of 14 people to ensure their cameras were tracking accurately and reliably.[3] To ensure the most holistic analysis possible, there are also 5 of these cameras deployed on each end of Rod laver arena.[4] After a contentious ruling, the Hawkeye system is able to triangulate the balls position in three-dimensional space and then replicate the process in a subsequent frame.[5] The umpire and the audience are then given an animated view of the ball’s trajectory in a virtual environment.

Ensuring accuracy has also been prescribed with rigorous tolerance rules. According to ITF guidelines, Hawkeye must not generate a lag of 5mm per on average from the balls actual position. Now that we have a 13-year history of Hawkeye in professional tennis, analysis of voluminous empirical data concludes a deviation of about 3.6mm on average, comfortably inside requirements.[6] However, this statistical margin has also attracted the chagrin of some commentators for being too thin. For example, at the 2007 Wimbledon final, Rafael Nadal decided to consultant the Hawkeye system to dispute whether a shot from his opponent, Roger Federer, was a valid winner.[7] After a Hawkeye review the ball was deemed to have marginally clipped the line. Furthermore, subsequent analysis by the Hawkeye computer system deemed the ball to be an infinitesimal 1mm inside the periphery.[8] However, shockingly for observers, traditional television replays appeared to suggest that the ball had landed over the baseline. As the Wimbledon finals are considered the most prestigious events on the tennis calendar, the flaws of the technology were left in plain view on the world stage.

Moreover, it has been pointed out that a faster ball travels further between each frame on a camera film, meaning more uncertainty as to its trajectory between frames.[9] Tennis balls travel very quickly, and when you consider that the fastest servers on tour can clock 230km/h this perhaps puts them at a disadvantage, however tenuous.[10] Therefore, it is evident that Hawkeye isn’t perfect, and there is always going to be a measurable degree of doubt in all its verdicts. However, despite some short-lived negative press, a further decade of professional tennis has passed with Hawkeye largely emerging unscathed. There is also evidence to suggest that Hawkeye is widely embraced by the player community, with leading players such as Andy Murray praising the technology.[11] Such is its popularity, there are now also calls to extend the technology to clay court tournaments such as the French Open.[12] Clay surfaces are made from cohesive properties akin to natural clay and thus tend to leave a discernible mark where the ball has dropped.[13] However, such is the confidence in Hawkeye as a method of dispute resolution, it is now considered as the natural replacement to physical line inspections by the umpire.

Moreover, at the recent ‘2018 Next Generation tournament’, a season end competition for the tours best young players, an even bolder approach was trialled. Not content to showcase the best in upcoming sporting talent, the tournament also brandished the exciting new advancements in Hawkeye technology that could revolutionise the future of line judging. In this competition, all line-calling was electronically determined, meaning (in a professional tennis first) zero lines-people on the court.[14] Each match utilised a chair umpire as a single official and only to keep score, leaving Hawk-Eye to make all in-play calls. Even foot faults were called by an off-court review official using cameras at the center line and baselines.[15] In this system, a pre-recorded voice calls “out” whenever Hawk-Eye intervenes, so there are no challenges, although particularly close calls are replayed and observed on the large television screens.[16] Therefore, although there are no current plans to implement this on the senior tour, this is a possible model of what future tennis adjudicating could look like in years to come.

It is notable that the under-21 stars appeared to enthusiastically accept the new scoring system and many spoke on record to endorse it.[17] This is perhaps an unsurprising development. As the younger generation on the tour replaces the older, a less tech-phobic crop of players will emerge who have grown accustomed to a rich digital environment. It is this momentum, paired with established empirical success that could make electronic line calling an unavoidable reality. Hawkeye may have had a dubious start but tennis would appear to have a digital future

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[1] Marginal gains: the rise of data analytics in sport (The Guardian, 2015) https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/jan/22/marginal-gains-the-rise-of-data-analytics-in-sport

[2] Inside Hawkeye (Australian Open TV, 2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhQyVnwBXBs&t=1s

[3] As above

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] Hawk-Eye in the Crosshairs at Wimbledon Again (IEE Spectrum, 2008) https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/hawkeye-in-the-crosshairs-at-wimbledon-again

[7] Hawk-Eye in the Crosshairs at Wimbledon Again (IEE Spectrum, 2008) https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/hawkeye-in-the-crosshairs-at-wimbledon-again

[8] Paul Hawkins ‘Was Roger Federer right to criticise Hawk-Eye?‘ (The Guardian. 2007) https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2007/jul/11/tennis.wimbledon

[9] Susie Gage ‘Hawk-Eye at Wimbledon: it’s not as infallible as you think’ (The Guardian, 2013) https://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2013/jul/08/hawk-eye-wimbledon

[10] As above.

[11] https://www.express.co.uk/sport/tennis/589276/Wimbledon-Andy-Murray-Hawkeye

[12] https://www.theroar.com.au/2018/05/27/hawkeye-clay-court-tennis-needs-get-times/

[13] https://www.tennis.com.au/learn/courts-and-surfaces/surfaces/clay

[14] http://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2017/09/hawk-eye-set-replace-officials-next-gen-atp-finals-italy/69500/

[15] As above.

[16] https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/tennis/next-gen-finals-milan-atp-new-generation-fans-rule-changes-format-a8046531.html

[17] As above.

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