Denis Shapovalov hits a backhand at WImbledon

Photo : Martin Sidorjak/Tennis Canada

COVID-19 has been keeping a lot of line judges—the officials who decide whether a ball is in or out—on the proverbial sidelines. They weren’t in Melbourne or New York but were on job at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, as well as at the year-end events in Guadalajara and Turin.

Things were pared down on the courts and in stadiums in 2020 and 2021 but the pandemic is slowly getting under control and tennis is gradually returning to normal. There are fans in the stands. Will there be linespersons on the courts?

Will line judges make a comeback or will the high-tech systems that replaced them spell the end of the job in which the officials often bear the brunt of a player’s wrath when they make a questionable call on shots that are virtually impossible for any human to track?

World No.1 Novak Djokovic made his opinion crystal clear: “I don’t see a reason why we need the line umpires if we have the technology. I support technology. It’s inevitable for the future of tennis.”

Here, one might wryly mention that, had there been no line judges at the 2020 US Open, there would have been no one for him to hit in the throat when he launched a frustrated shot into the backcourt that ultimately got him booted out of the tournament.

But let’s not go there.

On a more serious note, regardless of anyone’s attachment to tradition, it’s time to embrace change. Even Ross Hutchins, chief Tour officer, has said that “being the most accurate is the most important thing.”

To quell any doubts about the technology’s reliability, Hawk-Eye affirmed that its margin of error at the 2020 US Open was 3.6 millimetres. Of the 225,000 electronics calls, only 14 were misses

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But not everyone agrees. In mid-November the New York Times’ Christopher Clarey posted a quick survey to which 1,719 people responded.

There was equal support for the all-electronic option and a challenge system with linepersons.

The human-only option remained the least popular and is really only viable at smaller events at which organizers don’t have the means to invest in costly technology.

As always, the comments that follow the survey provide a more or less eloquent array of insights.

Someone said the Hawk-Eye isn’t reliable because it doesn’t generate a real image. That prompted another commenter to bring up FoxTenn, Hawk-Eye’s competitor, which merges simulations and real-time video.

Yet another commenter rightly pointed to the quarterfinal match between Sorana Cirstea and Dominika Cibulkova in Stanford in 2012, when the Romanian was right on six (SIX!) challenges, in a very bad day for linespersons.

Getting rid of e-mails would generate a lot of jobs for postmen. It would still be a pretty stupid thing to do,” typed someone else.

Yes, jobs would be lost. Sad but unavoidable.

As one fan put it, “today’s linespeople are tomorrow’s chair umps.” Could their disappearance jeopardize the development of the officials who sit in the chair and are absolutely essential to the match?

As drastic as it may seem, comparing line judges and postal carriers is somewhat amusing. Still, linespersons aren’t about to disappear for the simple reason that junior, ITF and most (if not all) Challenger events just can’t afford the new systems.

But at WTA and ATP tournaments, including the Slams, the eagle eye will be supplanted by the Hawk-Eye. It’s only a matter of time.

France has found its Félix

A French teenager has caught the attention of tennis fans. He achieved a rare feat on French soil to boot.

On November 9, Gabriel Debru overpowered No.220 Andrea Pellegrino of Italy in the first round of the Open international de tennis de Roanne.

Photo :

It should be noted that the Open is a Challenger event and young Gabriel is indeed young: he turns 16 in about two months. It’s a pretty impressive win.

Remind you of anyone? Our very own Félix Auger-Aliassime, of course, who was even younger.

The towering French teen (6’3” and still growing) is already making headlines in his country’s leading papers, including L’Équipe.

Photo : Eurosport

His amazing adventure came to an end in the next round, when he was eliminated by his countryman Hugo Grenier (184). Still, Debru managed to collect his first ATP points and enter the rankings at No.957.

But let’s get back to Félix Auger-Aliassime.

On July 27, 2015, he was a month shy of his fifteenth birthday when he defeated Andrew Whittington, then No.493, at the Granby Challenger.

Félix didn’t stop there. He did it again the next day when he eliminated Darian King of Barbados, then No.205, in two sets (7-5, 6-3). On his way to victory, Félix even won this 43-shot rally.

From No.1 237, he jumped to No.749.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This photo was taken that July evening in Granby.

Young Felix AUger Aliassime jumps in the air in celebration
Photo : Sarah-Jäde Champagne

Take a close look.

Perfectly inserted in the racquet head is part of the speed of his serve, around 140 km/hour. By chance, photographer Sara-Jäde Champagne immortalized the moment 14-year-old Félix made history and one-upped another young prodigy, Rafael Nadal.

The photo has fascinated me ever since.

L’entraîneur omniprésent

One of the biggest names in tennis demanded it a few months ago.

And now a tennis writer thinks it’s a good idea, too.

Will we one day see on-court coaching in tennis, on every game and even every point?

Last July, Stefanos Tsitsipas tweeted about it, and I considered it here.

Delving into the pros and cons of the idea, which remains revolutionary in a sport as steeped in tradition as tennis, I concluded that there was little chance in-match coaching would become a reality on the tours.

Photo : Andrew Eichenholz/ATP Tour

Now, a tennis expert has delivered an impassioned plea for on-court coaching and backed it up with clear data to better represent his perspective.

The expert is Joel Drucker, who’s spent over 35 years writing for countless publications and providing commentary for broadcasters including Tennis Channel, on which he’s been a fixture for two decades. He’s also the author of the 2004 biography/memoir Jimmy Connors Saved my Life.

On November 22, he wrote a column on on-court coaching that elicited a lot of reactions and a discussion with people like Tracy Austin, Eugenie Bouchard, Andy Roddick and Lindsay Davenport.

Drucker dissects the good and bad of in-match coaching, which is something athletes in many individual and team sports already have access to. That said, cementing his conviction, he thinks it’s time to face facts and admit that the rules are being flouted, since coaches coach constantly.

So, why not just open the door to in-match coaching?

Drucker even drew up a blueprint for it:

  • Player and coach walk onto the court together.
  • Coach sits on the bench next to the player for the entire match.
  • At the end of each set, TV viewers hear the conversation between the coach and player.
  • The members of the player’s entourage can also share comments.
  • Bathroom breaks are limited to one per two-out-of-three-set match and a predetermined length (5 to 7 minutes) based on location. Player and coach can go off the court together.
  • At all times during a tournament (matches, practice, meals), the coach wears a shirt with both the name of the coach and the player on the back of it. Everyone needs to know who these folks are.
  • The tours publish biographies of every coach of a top 100 player, detailing various credentials (playing career, teaching gigs, past clients, etc.). It will help to have quotes from and about the coach to give insights into their ideas.
  • The tour websites detail the exact date on which a coach is hired. The information will be updated on a regular basis and simple for anyone to find.
  • Practice times are published online and easily accessible (many tournaments already do this). The person who arranges the practice (coach, agent, assistant) lists the name of the hitting partner. If possible, a bit of information on the hitting partner (college player, ex-pro, instructor) will be available online so fans and media can know even more about the pro’s support team.
  • Coaches conduct press conferences after every match. Perhaps, as an experiment, coach and player could attend together.
  • When a player reaches the semifinals of an event, the coach participates in a pre-semi press conference, as well as one prior to the final.

What do you think about all this?

Yes? Yes, to some of it? No, to all of it?

Let me know!


Twitter: @paul6rivard

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