"Nightline" tried to film U.S. tennis doubles specialist Bob Bryan as he warmed up for the Boodles Challenge event outside London. Sure, our cameras captured the raw power and coordination of his service action. But could we capture a closeup of the ball bouncing an inch inside the line?
Well, not really. That's because our camera records only 30 frames per second and Bryan serves at around 150 miles per hour. Watching the tape, all we saw was a puff of dust. So how can an umpire really make the call that a ball is in or out?
And we all know what can happen when a player feels wronged.
Remember John McEnroe's infamous outburst in 1981 while coasting in round two of Wimbledon against Tom Gullikson?
"You can't be serious man," spewed Mac, getting all irate in his tight shorts and headband. "You cannot be serious! That ball was on the line. Chalk flew up. It was clearly in!"
Well, maybe McEnroe had a point.
Like a Hawkeye
"John McEnroe was right probably 40 percent of the time," claims professor George Mather at the University of Sussex in England.
But that means, as the professor explains, "The umpires were right 60 percent of the time." And, apparently, those statistics apply not just to McEnroe but to his more even-tempered colleagues as well.
How did Mather work that out? Well, for starters, he has removed emotion from the equation. Mather isn't the sort of guy to go around calling people "the pits of the world." He quietly and studiously analyzed 1,500 player challenges made using the Hawkeye line-calling technology.
Introduced to tennis in 2006, Hawkeye has changed the way the game is played. Players are allowed to contest the officials' word on line calls. If a player makes a challenge, Hawkeye shows in minute detail the exact path of the ball. At least eight cameras are positioned around the court tracking the ball and feeding that information to a master computer perched above players.
In a rally of about 20 shots, "there are about a billion calculations worked out within about three or four seconds," said Luke Aggers, who operated Hawkeye at this month's Artois tournament in London.
And, for a player, it's hard to argue with that sort of technology. Aggers claims he has never been abused by an irate player. No one has ever aggressively questioned his conclusion.
To get a taste for the often fractious umpire-player relationship, I asked David Mercer, who was in the chair for the McEnroe and Connors Wimbledon final of 1984, to take charge of me against my friend Dimitrije, a hard-serving Serb with a wicked temper.
Mercer claims he was on the receiving end of his fair share of abuse back in the day. I asked if he ever caved in to a player's bleating. "No," was his unequivocal reply.
Sure enough, a few of his calls left me fuming. I followed the advice of U.S. veteran Vince Spadea, and I challenged.
"On a big point, you challenge it," Spadea told me at the Artois tournament. "You're right, the umpire gets humbled."
Never Trust the Umpire
Players, Spadea explained, nearly always think they're right because they hit thousands of balls in practice, aiming for the outer reaches of the court. They know a good hit from a bad hit. And Spadea's ove-arching piece of advice: Never trust the umpire.
"I don't know what this guy's been doing the last four nights," he said, gesturing toward an umpire's chair. "Maybe his vision, maybe he isn't as alert. How do I know? It's human error, he's a human being."
Mercer claims never to stay out late drinking when he's on tournament duty. But he did let one anecdote slip. "In the old days, there used to be an umpire's cocktail party, believe it or not, at lunchtime," he said. "Some of the officials would have the odd sherry and gin and tonic and there was a lady who fell asleep."
Tipsy or stone-cold sober, the human eye just can't always handle a 150 mph serve. Umpires might be right a little more than players, but they're far from infallible. Does Mercer think he was always right when players questioned a call? "Not always," he admitted. "There were quite a few times when, to be honest, I wasn't sure."
And tight calls do matter. They can turn a match. So most players like Hawkeye. Their career and bank balance aren't going to be affected by human error, by a bad call.
"Yeah, the human element is taken out of it," Bob Bryan said, after he finished bashing balls around at ridiculous speed. "But these are huge tournaments. There are huge purses on the line."