Home » Articles, Featured Articles, World Features » Technology in sport

roger federer, tennis, technology, sport

Federer's stance continues to bemuse

Brave decisions needed to safeguard sport

Simon Cambers @scambers73

They all even themselves out in the end, don’t they? It’s a trite saying you will hear from time to time, especially from the pub bore, about how the bad or incorrect decisions in sport average out in the end to no one’s advantage.

Well, since you asked, no, they don’t.

Now I don’t have a huge scientific database of incidents to prove my case but I hope I won’t need to. Anyone who saw Frank Lampard’s “goal” ruled out in last summer’s World Cup finals, let alone the one that pegged back Spurs this past Saturday, will know where I am coming from.

It took that incident in the England-Germany game to prompt a technological volte-face from Sepp Blatter and yet one of the world’s top sportsmen believes its use is unnecessary. What’s going on?

From outrageous lbw decisions and clearly incorrect line-calls to whether a try has been scored, technology is already widely used in cricket, tennis and rugby, a back-up to the fallibility of the human eye. In the NFL a coach can send an on-the-field ruling “upstairs” to the video referees while tight finishes in athletics and horse racing are split by the use of a camera.

Even golf uses video to check whether a player has broken its rules in a particular incident. Actually that last one is probably not a helpful example but you get the point. Sport has embraced technology.

So many people have so much emotion, time and yes, money, invested in sport these days that it would be remiss if the authorities allowed the human error factor to play such a big role anymore.

When sport was still largely amateur, the fact that an umpire gave an exceedingly dodgy lbw decision could perhaps be excused. Standing in a field all day, concentration is bound to wander and it is amazing that umpires actually get so many calls right. It’s utterly ridiculous, when you think about it, that at the moment the ball is released, they have to look down to check for a no-ball and then look up in time to judge where the ball pitched, what it hit and what it was going to do before something got in the way.

It always amazes me when someone involved in sport, especially a player, says that technology should not be used. Don’t they want teams to win on merit alone? Surely they would rather go home from a football match knowing that their side had been beaten fair and square?

Maybe the human psyche needs to feel wronged – perhaps that’s what the opposition to it all is about in football – but that’s wrong in itself. A goal should be a goal and not a shot that was cleared off the line but was given as a goal because the referee and linesman couldn’t see that it had gone over the line.

I know some people like infallibility in their officials and I can understand that more when it comes from non-sportsmen. But when it comes from the world’s best, that really makes the mind boggle. Step forward Roger Federer. The Swiss is arguably the greatest player ever to wield a tennis racket but his attitude to technology is baffling.

Ever since Hawk-Eye was introduced as an umpire’s aid – through a player challenging the existing call – Federer has been the leading (and at times the only) opponent to it. “We have electronic line calling even though we don’t need it. We all know we don’t but we do have it. Guys are sitting there, not moving. They’re only staring at the line,” Federer has said.

Well, I’ll tell you why we need it. Because linesmen and women are human and therefore they make mistakes. At important moments.

Remember the 2007 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal when Federer said to the umpire: “It’s killing me” after one call went against him? Or the 2009 US Open final when he had a tantrum when Hawk-Eye overruled an out call that would have given him a point for a two sets to love lead against Juan Martin Del Potro?

While the vast majority of players have just accepted it, Federer clearly doesn’t trust it and this is an important point – technology can only be trusted if it is believed to be accurate. Hawk-Eye, which uses 10 cameras on a court, says it is accurate to within a margin of error of 3 millimetres.

That is enough to be wrong on the very odd occasion when a ball clips the very outside of the line but when that happens a player can never be absolutely sure if it was in or out anyway. There is a school of thought that the “mark” left by a ball is not the entire ball anyway because it gets compressed when it hits the ground.

It is true that some players might use the system to earn a quick mental break but the stoppages are brief and tennis would seem to have the challenge system right. Some say that it favours the higher-ranked players because they are the ones who play on the show courts and since Hawk-Eye is expensive, many tournaments cannot afford to use it on the outside courts. Even that is changing, though, with last month’s BNP Paribas Masters in Indian Wells the first to use it on all its courts. Others will doubtless follow suit.

But for me, the big problem with Federer’s stand is that it does not take into account the timing of the big decisions in a match, the break points, the set points and so forth. If a bad call comes when you’re leading 40-0 on your own serve, it is not a match-changing situation. You are still in control of your service game and you are likely to be able to shake off a bad call much more easily than if it came when you were standing at your first and perhaps only break point against, say Ivo Karlovic.

Something that happens when you are 15-30 down on serve is a far bigger mental challenge that can perhaps have far more impact on a match than at 5-0 up in a set, for example.

Every player gets lucky with the odd mishit or net-cord here and there and they all hit the line sometimes when they have aimed just inside. But Federer, who has mastered the game more than most, is apparently willing to risk an additional element of luck that could, in extremis, ruin his chances of victory. It is a strange anomaly. Maybe he is an absolute traditionalist or maybe he had things so easy until Nadal came along that he found a way to make it a bit more difficult for himself. I am not quite sure why I have never asked him. I promise I will.

I have a feeling Lampard would agree. It was his shot that landed well over the goal-line just before half-time when England played Germany in the second round of the World Cup finals last summer. The fact that Germany had been outplaying England in every department and ran out deserved 4-1 winners is absolutely irrelevant because what a second goal for England at that moment in the match would have done to the mental state of each team is absolutely key.

None of the England players suggested that the result of the game would definitely have gone their way. But all of them acknowledged the psychological effect that making it 2-2 at that stage might have had. It might, just might, have given them a chance. As it was, the match was adversely affected (for England) by the judgment of an individual, or individuals. Germany were the better side, of that there is no doubt. But England and those watching at least deserved the chance to find out what might have happened.

Goalline technology is being trialled in some arenas but there have been so many cases down the years, not to mention the 1966 World Cup final and England’s famous goal given by the Soviet linesman, that surely it will come into widespread use in the end. Offsides are far more problematic and would probably require quite a number of stoppages in play, but the goalline seems a no-brainer and even Blatter seems to be on board.

In tennis, using technology does not take away any judgment on behalf of the officials. They still have their say but they are protected by a back-up. Having it also removes any talk that officials might have been biased towards one player, that gambling cartels may have got to them, or whatever.

There is very little opposition to the use of technology in rugby. It is only used to see if a try is scored when the referee can’t see and it’s the referee’s call to use it if he feels he needs it. There may be times – and Mark Cueto’s disallowed try for England in the 2007 World Cup final is a perfect case in point – when the video takes a while to prove its point.

The video referee that day still stands by his judgement that Cueto’s foot was in touch. England would have been just one point behind South Africa had the try stood but the video showed, eventually, that it was right to disallow it. Controversy will always be there, but at least rugby has the option to use it.

However, I have never heard of an argument about the result of a photo-finish in horse racing or in athletics. Those sports use it to their advantage and athletics even uses it for stepping out of lanes. It works.

There is, I have to admit, a difference in cricket, where perhaps the lawmakers have not quite got it right yet. There were a couple of huge decisions in the latter stages of the World Cup – one that went the way of Sachin Tendulkar in the India-Pakistan semi-final – where even watching the replay it seemed hugely unlikely that what Hawk-Eye was showing us really would have happened.

Many former players, including Mike Atherton and Michael Holding, feel that the umpire should still have the final say on an lbw decision, at least when it is solely a case of deciding whether it pitched in line and would have hit the stumps.

Umpiring in cricket is all about judgment, and when the umpire feels the ball might have been clipping the top of the stumps, or might have pitched outside leg stump, or might have been going down the leg side, he is protected by the laws, with the benefit of the doubt supposed to go to the batsman.

Atherton and Holding both feel that technology should only be used to rectify howlers, those horrendous mistakes that are truly unfair. They would include the occasions when replays show the batsman has clearly hit the ball or, in another situation, that he had clearly hit the ball on its way through to the wicket-keeper. The jury may be out on the lbws but on these it seems absolutely right.

It was John McEnroe who once famously said of the now defunct Cyclops machine that was used at Wimbledon to call the service lines: “I’m not being paranoid, but that machine knows who I am.”

The fact is that using technology, in the correct way, rules out unfairness and injustice in sport, surely that has to be the way forward.

One Response to “Technology in sport”

  1. Nice website.. I think players are in the comfort zone with the existing process and feel unsettled when a new change comes in. Same happens with Indian team in cricket for UDRS.. All sport should embrace the new technology – no doubt about it.

    Reply

Leave a Reply


Refresh