Bad Line Calls: John McEnroe Has an Idea


According to a story written by John Branch in the New York Times, John McEnroe would like to have the world’s top tennis players call their own lines. McEnroe’s Call for Tournament Line Judges: ‘Out!’

A solution to bad line calls from the man who gave us “the pits of the earth”?

 At first glance, you might wonder why an idea that is widely viewed as the biggest problem in the amateur ranks would suddenly become interesting when applied to the top levels of professionals.

Cheating in amateur tennis by calling the ball out when it’s in draws criticism even from the game’s most ardent fans. Some believe it happens because an opponent cannot be trusted to call the lines fairly and fire must be fought with fire. Others believe that players are so competitive that they “hope” the ball out and call it accordingly.

Whatever the justification, cheating in age group, high school and college tennis is a problem that has defied solution.

If a junior player feels he is being cheated, some coaches advise that he call a ball landing in the middle of the court “out.” Then, in response to his opponent’s protest, our junior player is told to say, “you call your side, I’ll call mine.”

There are two aspects of professional tennis might change the calculus: the availability of Hawk-Eye, a multi-camera tracking system that has become a fixture in major events; and the presence of crowds.

Imagine a match in which one player is repeatedly overruled on appeal. He persistently calls balls out and the appeals persistently show his calls to be wrong. Soon, the crowd (both live and on television) begins to believe that the bad calls are not accidental. Few fans like cheating and most begin to root against him. Sponsors don’t like to be associated with cheaters and they begin to take his cheating into account when deciding whom to endorse.

The players will, at first, dislike the idea of being given additional responsibility in a highly competitive situation, but soon the very best players, who understand the importance of image, might decide that a reputation for fairness is a quality worth having.

Fair line calling could become a competitive differentiator.

According to Branch, this is how Novak Djokovic handled such a situation.

“On occasion, players already do their own policing. Late in a tense fourth set between top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Radek Stepanek in the second round, Stepanek hit a ball that was called out by the line judge. Stepanek challenged the call, and Hawk-Eye showed that it was in.”

“The chair umpire ordered the point replayed.”

“Djokovic intervened and conceded the point. He could not have returned the shot anyway.”

“’It’s fair play,’ Djokovic explained after he won the match. ‘It’s something that I would expect my opponent to do for me. Doesn’t happen very often, unfortunately.’”

Novak Djokovic is on to something. So is John McEnroe.