USTA decides on electronic officiating for the US Open
FLUSHING MEADOW, N.Y.
Next month's US Open, and the US Open Series of tournaments leading up to the main event, promise some firsts for broadcasting pro tennis.
NBC/USA Networks and ESPN are slated to debut high-definition formats in the series. ESPN has booked Game Creek Video's Patriot for the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven, Conn. on Aug. 22, and NBC used NEP Broadcasting's Supershooter (SS24) for the RCA Championships in Indianapolis on July 23.
USA Networks' HD broadcasts of US Open matches on the two main TV courts in Flushing Meadow--Ashe and Armstrong stadiums--are slated for the newly renamed Universal High Definition Channel, formerly Bravo HD. The network will share truck equipment with CBS, which has contracted with New Century Productions (NCP) for the primary truck and NEP for the studio and support truck on the two main courts, according to Ken Aagaard, senior vice president of operations and production services for CBS Sports; the network will use trucks from Game Creek and Cross Creek for the outer courts. CBS has provided high-definition coverage of the event since 2000.
CBS will use an electronic video server-based system featuring the EVS IP Director as a "logging and metadata tool," Aagaard said. The setup will include 15 IP stations, five for logging dedicated feeds from each of the five courts and 10 for browsing stations, according to Greg Macchia, general manager of operations for EVS.
There's also word that Tech Imaging, a Boston-based developer of high speed imaging technology, was developing Swing Vision-type technology for CBS to track forehands, backhands and serves.
CBS plans to roll out a new and improved version of the "MacCam," its super slo-mo camera focused on the baseline that it has been using since 1996. Named after pro player-turned-commentator John McEnroe and developed by Tech Imaging, MacCam shots at the 2005 US Open will be seen in monochrome to allow for better resolution, according to Aagaard.
"We will have the option to colorize the scene and we intend to use this option," Aagaard said. "We are also looking to use a different camera angle to look at the 'side' lines that we believe will enhance some shots."
But the big news for all concerned was the United States Tennis Association's decision on whether or not to make electronic officiating equipment part of the official rules for the matches.
Ultimately, the USTA decided not to go ahead with the system, because, according to Technical Manager Dr. Stuart Miller, tests indicated that the technology failed to 1) stay within the margin of error for any reading, 2) make the correct call, and 3) achieve consistent readings for individual lines.
Instant replay is already a feature of broadcast tennis matches. In addition to CBS' MacCam, ESPN and USA Networks have used the Hawk-Eye system (re-dubbed "Shot Spot" by ESPN) for the past several years. Hawk-Eye, developed by Dr. Paul Hawkins and marketed by U.K.-based Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd., is a computer-generated technology that uses telemetry data to track the ball wherever it lands on the court.
Fans have been made very aware of controversial line calls, thanks to the use of these technologies. In fact, last year's US Open included a flagrantly bad overrule in the final set of the Serena Williams-Jennifer Capriati quarterfinal match, which was caught by USA Network's Hawk-Eye. The call was against Williams, who ended up losing.
"Since the 2004 US Open, we have been testing various technologies that might be used as electronic officiating aids in tennis," said USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier. "We created an Electronic Line Calling Task Force" comprised of representatives from the USTA, International Tennis Federation, ATP (men's tour), WTA (women's tour), CBS, NBC/USA Networks, ESPN, former broadcasters and players, he said.
ESPN broadcaster Cliff Drysdale, a US Open doubles champ in 1972 and U.S. Championship singles finalist in 1965 was on the task force. A strong on-air advocate for sanctioning electronic officiating, he believes it would benefit the game, as well as broadcasts, by adding an element of strategy to the mix.
"If you limit the number of challenges that a player can utilize during the match--like in football--it becomes of strategic interest to the viewer," Drysdale said. "And it gives us, as announcers, the opportunity to say, 'well, that's one that he or she should have challenged.'"
There's also the element of fair play.
"A wrong could be righted to some extent," he said. "Officials at the US Open were eager to get it to where they felt comfortable with [the technology's] accuracy so that they could use it at the Open."
Word had it that the official comfort zone would have involved an upgrade in the current system used by broadcasters, which, according to one source, might involve sensors. The number of contenders for the technology contract had dwindled to one in May: the Hawk-Eye System. The ITF did a series of tests to determine accuracy in late July.
Drysdale said that extra time was never an issue, since the technology's feedback was virtually instantaneous--much faster than, for example, the system used by the NFL. More important was the USTA's rule book.
"It depends on how it's set up," said Gordon Beck, senior vice president for USA Networks, who was also on the task force. "If it brings another strategic aspect to the game, then that could be a pro."
Beck noted that broadcasters would generally back anything that could help bring a compelling story to viewers--as long as it's not "hideously expensive." He said that his network got "a lot of positive feedback about Hawk-Eye."
But TV upgrades for Hawk-Eye were put on hold pending the USTA decision.
A thumbs up from the USTA could have passed Hawk-Eye's cost on to the USTA, while forfeiting the sponsorship plugs enjoyed by networks. Moreover, CBS would have dropped the MacCam for the official technology for these calls.
Thumbs down may lead to a Hawk-Eye upgrade involving improved graphics displays. Rather than simply showing where balls land, Hawk-Eye could be used to illustrate trends in play.
"It may be that a first serve is dramatically slowing down in the second set," Beck said. Tracking data generated by Hawk-Eye could also give insight on top-spin and player movement relative to a ball return.
Eventually a decision may also be made to upgrade Hawk-Eye for HD. For the record, Dr. Hawkins stated to TV Technology that, "Yes, we can do high-def."
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