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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, February 2, 2021

 
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“If you can have a situation where electronic equipment is calling the lines right, what the hell would you need linesmen for?” McEnroe told Tennis Now.

Photo credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty

John McEnroe brought fine finesse—and fierce feuding—to different depths on court.

At his most intense, the mercurial McEnroe was the tennis version of mayhem quarreling with chair umpires, ranting at referees, berating linesmen and even trying poking Cyclops in its electronic eye.

McEnroe: AO Should Play Best-of-Three-Set Matches

So it may not surprise you to learn the former world No. 1 is celebrating the Australian Open entering the electronic age.

The Melbourne major will make history next week as it becomes the first Grand Slam tournament to use live electronic line-calling on all lines in all main-draw matches on all courts.

The 2020 US Open featured live electronic line-calling on outer courts, but retained lines crews inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The human element came into play when Novak Djokovic inadvertently struck a lineswoman in the throat with a stray ball prompting the world No. 1’s default from the Flushing Meadows fourth round.

The Australian Open is opting to use technology over traditional human umpires to call the lines as part of biosecurity protocols to limit the number of people on court and reduce the risk of a Coronavirus infection. The primary reason. of course, is to make correct calls.

McEnroe told Tennis Now the Australian Open’s decision to clear lines crews from the court is a no brainer during an ESPN zoom call to promote ESPN's first ball to last ball coverage of the Australian Open starting Sunday, February 7th at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

“If you can have a situation where electronic equipment is calling the lines right, what the hell would you need linesmen for?” McEnroe told Tennis Now. “I mean, why the hell would you have a human error when you have it if it's absolutely right? It makes no sense.

“I could have saved a hell of a lot of energy. Wasted my energy. I think the linesmen sort of liked me, deep down.”

Though the Hall of Famer had a love-hate relationship with officials at times, McEnroe believes had electronic line-calling existed in his era it would have saved him a lot of wasted energy.

“They didn't like me a whole lot maybe while it was going on. I was getting a lot of people pissed off at me,” McEnroe said. “I could have harnessed that in a different way. I would have maybe really enjoyed that. You live and learn.”



Fellow ESPN analyst Chrissie Evert had a much more cordial relationship with chair umpires and lines people than McEnroe—though the 18-time Grand Slam champion concedes “I gave them dirty looks and you know that”—and makes a different call on electronic line-calling.

Evert favors the human element and occasional mistakes real lines people bring to the game suggesting that unpredictability, like an occasional bad bounce, brings a real-life element to the game. Tennis, like life, sometimes deals players a bad bounce or wrong call. The question is: how do players respond to that level of stress?.

“Technology has changed the world. It definitely will change our sport,” Evert told Tennis Now. “I like the human element. I like the linesmen. I like making mistakes. I like the human element.

“I don't know how I feel about it, but I guess it's the fairest thing of all.”

In response, McEnroe suggests tournaments that can’t afford the expense of Hawk-Eye or other line-calling technology simply empower players call their own lines as they do in many junior and senior level tournaments.

“If you like the human element, I have a better idea. Have the players call the lines, then you'll see some interesting developments,” McEnroe said.

Does the 2021 Australian Open mark the beginning of the end for lines people?

Not entirely.

Remember, Roland Garros has resisted calls to use line-calling technology—even though it has the system on site for its broadcast partners—preferring the traditional method of checking ball marks left on the red clay.

Chair umpires are still vital for overseeing matches and point out the experience of working on the lines crew is the best training for chair umpires.

And the cost of Hawk-Eye and other line-calling technology means some smaller tournaments can’t afford to employ it.

The Australian Open, which starts on Monday, will employ a limited number of local lines umpires to work as match assistants.

Among the duties of match assistants: assisting managing player bathroom breaks and heat breaks and helping the chair umpire.

Of course, McEnroe knows all about how festering feuds with umpires can lead to major meltdowns.

Thirty-one years ago, the mercurial McEnroe was famously defaulted from his 1990 Australian Open fourth-round match while leading Mikael Pernfors and fined $6,500 after an outburst of bad behavior including smashing a racquet and unleashing a torrent of abuse at umpire Gerry Armstrong.



While some opponents suggested McEnroe could use his raging arguments with officials as both a tactical tool to disrupt an opponent and as fuel to fire up his competitive engine, the man who held the world No. 1 ranking in singles and doubles, doesn’t necessarily agree.

McEnroe believes even if was playing in an era with electronic line-calling, he’d never let a machine get in the way of a good argument.

“The second best piece of advice I ever got was [from Ilie] Nastase,” McEnroe told Tennis Now. “You remember when Cyclops came in? I was like, What are we going to do now? We won't be able to yell at the linesmen.

“He was like: ‘Macaroni, don't worry, we'll think of something else.’ “


 

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