Sports, business & technology

Ch-ch-changes…in the blink of a Hawk-Eye

Fans watch tennis on a large JumboTronIn 1996, 15-year-old tennis players Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova were barely professional and, although previously mentioned in the media, were just about to embark on a permanent wave of intense worldwide scrutiny.

That same year marked some of my first up-close-and-personal experiences of the professional tennis tour. As a ballgirl at a tournament in Washington, D.C., I listened to players dispute line calls with chair umpires, secretly hoping that their wrath would not be taken out on me during the changeover. Later that summer, I stretched my student budget to take a bus from Virginia to New York without any knowledge of the U.S. Open grounds ticket protocol or order of match play. Checking the World Wide Web in advance or a Blackberry en route was not an option; the schedules weren’t even posted online. The only choice was to guess and thankfully, the odds worked in my favor.

Fast forward 10 years to one sunny day in Key Biscayne, Fla. My tournament shuttle was whisking me to the Nasdaq-100 Open and the hot topic of conversation amongst my fellow passengers – several tennis umpires – was not who would win the tournament, but the brand new technology making its debut at the event. That technology was the Hawk-Eye computer system, which can track the path of each tennis ball that is struck. Both the men’s and women’s pro tours decided to allow players to challenge calls during select matches. A large overhead monitor, in turn, showed a 3-D graphical replay of the ball to confirm whether it was in or out.

The umpires, perhaps incensed that their play-calling skills were being tested on such a magnified scale, scoffed at Hawk-Eye, stating that it was such an expensive undertaking (estimated at about US$20,000 per court) and that the players were wrong 70 percent of the time anyway. Take the opposite perspective, however, and that revealed the startling statistic that the players were actually right not .5, not 5, but 30 percent of the time.

Technology has certainly had a profound impact on tennis in the dozen years since I fetched towels for Patrick Rafter and Todd Martin. While there may not be robots replacing ballkids (yet), I can now download U.S. Open match schedules the night before I head to the stadium, keep up with the action on my computer via real-time scoreboards without the need to refresh the screen, and even watch live streaming matches on Hawk-Eye has made its way to more tournaments, and instead of spectators straining their ears to listen to arguments between players and umpires, they crane their necks to look at overhead monitors, cheering wildly if a player’s challenge overrules an umpire’s original call. Even 15 is now apparently ancient for a young athlete to face anonymity; 6-year-old Jan Silva is already training on full scholarship in France, was featured in USA Today and has a Web site that declares him to be “The Tiger Woods of Tennis.”

And tennis is just a slice of the sports business pie, which Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal estimates to be worth US$213 billion. How much will technology continue to make an impact on sports, be it from an athlete’s, a recruiter’s, a coach’s or a spectator’s point of view? In an ever-changing, uncertain world where the Giants have managed to topple the Patriots in the Super Bowl, it seems like the sky’s the limit.


February 5, 2008 - Posted by | tennis |


  1. i think the hawk eye is a great invention. i didnt know such tech. existed. thanks for putting the word out.

    Comment by guest | February 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] innovations in sports that have had a major impact on fans. One of them was the subject of Sportsbiztech’s first entry on the Hawk-Eye. Others include HDTV and the yellow “1st and 10” lines in televised NFL games. Did your […]

    Pingback by News of the week (more like the past two weeks) « Sportsbiztech | March 2, 2008 | Reply

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