Johnny Nic on technology: Sport is played by humans, let it be judged by humans too

John Nicholson

In football the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is causing a lot of controversy. There are those who think it is ruining the game we all love, and those who think it makes the game more fair.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, football is a much more complex game than tennis with far more judgements to be made. In tennis, pretty much the only thing anyone needs to know is whether a ball was in or out.

So it’s surprising in some ways that technology in tennis isn’t used for all line calls automatically. The fact there is still someone standing at the back of the court, often in a blazer or skirt if it’s in England, staring at the line, seems a bit out-moded.

Line judges were replaced by Hawk-Eye technology at the #NextGen Finals in Milan last November. This was the first time at an ATP event that the umpire was the only official on court. Did the sky fall in? No.

Hawk-Eye’s decision was final. Players were not able to challenge calls. Well how can you challenge a computer? Kick it in the server? Afterwards it was concluded that it had speeded up the play and players seemed to just accept their new computer-based overlords without so much as breaking one racket in rage.

There is nothing equivocal about a ball being in or out, it is not in any way subjective and doesn’t have to assess nebulous things such as ‘intent’ the way football referees do. It doesn’t slow the game down or make everyone hang around while someone stares at a screen. In other words, all the things that people loathe about VAR in football are not relevant in tennis. But even so, many are against its widespread introduction.

At the weekend, Johanna Konta was raging at the umpire in the final of the Nature Valley Open in Nottingham, saying, “It’s an absolute joke. You’re making decisions that affect our lives. Do you fully understand that?”

What would she do if it was all electronically decided? She’d effectively be raging at a robot, which would be great fun for us to watch, but something of a waste of time. The umpire would just shrug and point to the screen and say, “Computer says no.”

Perhaps being able to remonstrate with an actual human is important to the game and without it, it is more akin to a computer game. Garbine Muguruza has joked that she likes line judges and umpires to be there so she can shout at them, but more seriously added. “You’d miss the people that have the eyes to see it. It would be scary, I’m not a technology person, I don’t have a computer, I don’t like all these things.”

Even Karolina Pliskova who infamously whacked a hole in the umpire’s chair with her racket at a match in Rome over a disputed call, and earned herself a hefty fine for doing so, is not in favour of the electronic all-seeing eye. “I think everybody has problems with referees, with some calls, and that’s why we have the challenge. Mistakes are just part of the game so I would not change it.”

And that’s actually quite a profound statement. It is exactly why I am philosophically opposed to VAR in football and indeed in any sport including tennis, feeling that sport is every much about getting things wrong as it about getting them right. Feeling that to err is to be human and that the point of sport isn’t to get everything right at all costs, it is to try and get it right to the best of our abilities, whilst accepting things will be called wrong sometimes.

To replace imperfect humanity with perfect technology is a negation of the very spirit of sport, that is at the core of Pliskova’s objection and it’s a noble position to take. After all, some of tennis’ most iconic moments have been provoked by disputes of line calls. We’d have had no John McEnroe outburst. “You cannot be serious, man! The ball was on the line!”

In an era when it is often said there are no characters in the game the way there once was, do we really want to make everything even more characterless and robotic? Do we want to iron out the creases of imperfection that make the game human?

Give me Konta screaming at the chair every day rather than staring into the unblinking eye of technology. Sport is played by humans, let it be judged and administered by humans too.

Follow John Nicholson on Twitter @JohnnyTheNic

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