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Replay Layer Must Not Become A Troublemaker

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

You will never, ever believe this: Cedric Mourier made a bad call at the Shanghai Masters on Thursday.

Late in the round-of-16 match between Roger Federer and Roberto Bautista Agut, a deuce point should have been awarded to Bautista Agut but wasn’t. The timing of an overrule relative to the moment when a player (in this case, Federer) hit a shot was relevant in settling the issue. Mourier did not interpret the sequence properly. Bautista was denied a game point. He then faced break point. He saved the break point, but then had to deal with a second break point, which he lost. Federer then served out the match, 6-4 in the third.

Mourier is notable for his mediocrity. Different fan bases in tennis will recall different mistakes on his part. One of the more prominent ones in recent years was a very bad miss at the 2017 Monte Carlo Masters which went against David Goffin in a semifinal against Rafael Nadal. The miss was so egregiously awful that some people felt Nadal — FROM THE OTHER END OF THE COURT! — should have conceded the point. That was ridiculous… but so was Mourier’s officiating.

At any rate, this latest missed call in Shanghai raises a question. An active and informed member of #TennisTwitter raised this very legitimate question-cum-proposal after the incident:

The idea is certainly worth considering, and it contains genuine merit.

Here is what we — as a community of tennis observers, both fans and commentators — must consider about a proposal such as this: Chiefly, implementing this proposal would significantly change the nature of replay in tennis.

That is not inherently bad OR good. I am simply noting the significance of this proposal if it is adopted and implemented.

What is the significance? It is — structurally — very simple while also being quite profound.

Plainly put, if the above proposal is put into practice, replay review in tennis will go beyond “sight calls,” that is, calls which simply identify whether a ball lands in or out. The above proposal would mean that replay review would move into new territory: determining the timing of a call and whether it affected a player’s shot or not. Whoever would be placed in charge of replay review — which is a question unto itself — would have to study a tape not only for the visuals, but now for audio as well. This would be more than a sight call. It would take — in some of the more complicated cases — at least 45 seconds if not a minute to resolve.

Again, none of this is bad. None of this is inherently a problem.

HOWEVER:

Let’s realize what we are getting ourselves into here.

We already have the serve clock, which the Australian Open has adopted for 2019. If tennis is so obsessed with limiting the length of matches, will it then be willing to have 45-second reviews of calls such as the one in Federer-RBA? Why have the serve clock if longer replay reviews will be part of the sport?

That’s a minor point.

A bigger one: If we are asking chair umpires to handle so many added responsibilities as it is (such as the serve clock), will tennis then ask the chair umpires to review their own calls? I doubt it. There will probably be a replay review booth in which a SEPARATE umpire breaks down the audio and video and arrives at a ruling, so that the chair is removed from the situation. That means more officials working more matches, which should affect how much umpires get paid, which is something the four major tournaments — and the revenues they make — need to think about in how they distribute their revenues and resources.

Also consider this: At a time when consistent enforcement of rules by all chair umpires has become (necessarily) a huge point of debate and contention in tennis circles, this introduction of replay review at a deeper and more complicated level invites the risk that more situations will be handled inconsistently.

This proposal above is a good one in that it tries to get more calls right, which should ALWAYS be the goal of officiating in any sport. However, tennis is not inspiring much confidence at the moment that rules will be consistently applied, and consistency is precisely what is needed if this layer of replay review is to not become a troublemaker in the sport.

For more perspective on the complexities of chair umpiring and making correct calls in tennis, consult our staff roundtable at Tennis With An Accent from September. The discussion has a lot to add to this consideration of expanded replay review.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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