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Death knell sounded for Grand Slam line judges at Australian Open

(Reuters) - The Australian Open looks to have seen the last of the crouching officials scrutinising the lines of the tennis court after they were replaced by technology for this year’s tournament -- a move that has been largely welcomed by players.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne, Australia, January 14, 2018. Tennis balls are pictured in front of the Australian Open logo before the tennis tournament. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

This year’s Grand Slam at Melbourne Park is the first major to replace line judges with electronic line calling, a change brought about through necessity as part of a COVID-19 health measure to reduce the number of people required on-site.

It may have deprived tennis fans of courtside drama, but the players are not complaining.

“It saves me the trouble of attempting to challenge or thinking about did they call it correctly or not,” said U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka.

“If they do want to continue this way, I actually have no complaints about it because I think that there’s a lot of arguments that aren’t going to happen because of this technology.”

Line calls are being delivered real time through remote tracking cameras, meaning there have been no angry outbursts from players over close calls -- a plus for American Jennifer Brady, who “would rather not argue with people”.

Serena Williams has had her fair share of run-ins with line judges over her glittering career, infamously threatening to shove a ball down the throat of one who called a foot fault in a U.S. Open semi-final.

The 23-times Grand Slam champion said her previous experience of the system in Cincinnati left her unimpressed.

“But I like it now because ... it takes away a lot of the human error, which clearly I definitely don’t need. I should be the biggest fan of that,” she said, adding that as a “futurist, like Iron Man,” she is a fan of technology.

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Tournament director Craig Tiley was certain that, while the line judge would survive at lower levels, the days when future elite umpires honed their skills by calling the lines at Grand Slams were numbered.

“I was actually talking to a friend yesterday who’s a line judge, and he asked me, ‘Do you think my career is over?’ And I said, ‘As a line judge, yes, at the professional levels’,” Tiley told Reuters.

“That’s going to no longer be a pathway ... because the electronic line calling is here to stay.”

While world number one Novak Djokovic recognised line judges have been part of the game for so long, he was all for the introduction of technology.

“I understand that there is a tradition and history and the way we kind of got used to the line umpires being there,” said Djokovic, who was defaulted at last year’s U.S. Open for accidentally striking an official in the throat with a ball.

“But when you draw a line, I actually am in favour of technology. I don’t see a reason why we need the line umpires.”

The French Open remains the only Grand Slam that does not use the ball-tracking system that allows players to challenge calls, instead leaving the umpires to make final decisions based on marks left by the ball on the red clay.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of courts at last year’s U.S. Open, apart from the main show courts, dispensed with line judges as a health precaution.

Venus Williams thought line judges rarely got it wrong.

“I think the lines-people are also pretty accurate, too,” she said. “They’re usually right on the money, so ... It could be interesting to see where this goes.”

Briton Francesca Jones was not sure the technology was infallible, while Frenchman Gilles Simon said he felt the lack of challenges made the game “monotonous”.

“They really need to check that system,” Jones said after a questionable call during her match against Shelby Rogers. “I much prefer human error than systematic error.

“Look, it’s a new system and I understand why it’s being used but I think that definitely needs to be revised.”

On Wednesday, American Frances Tiafoe exploded on the Rod Laver Arena court with a string of expletives during his defeat to Novak Djokovic, joining the chorus of players who have found the technology glitchy.

“I hate it, I cannot stand it,” Tiafoe later said. “I’ll get used to it if they carry on with it but I’m not a fan.”

Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly, additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney, Leela de Kretser in Melbourne and Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; editing by Peter Rutherford