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You may never have heard of Jamea Jackson. She is the 94th best female tennis player in the world, which, given the sport’s faded glory, makes her almost a nonentity. Her prize money so far this year is $33,537: not what parents have in mind when teaching their two-year-old the backhand volley. Yet on Wednesday morning in Miami the girl from Atlanta made history.
Early in the second set, playing her compatriot Ashley Harkleroad, Jackson hit a forehand that was called out. She quietly asked the umpire for an electronic replay. For the first time in the history of the tennis tour, a computer would have the right to overrule a human judge’s call.
A couple of spectators shouted “Yeah!” and “All right!” but the man behind me relentlessly continued describing his career in insurance. Within seconds the big screen above the court displayed a computer animation of Jackson’s shot. The ball had indeed been out. Jackson had known it all along. “I just wanted to be first,” she explained later.
The instant replay – tennis’s biggest innovation since the tiebreak in 1970 – is only partly intended to ease players’ frustrations with bad calls. Its greater purpose is to give tennis a makeover. The sport had its glory days in the 1970s and 1980s but then shed fans to golf, while in the US it now gets fewer viewers than Nascar racing. The Jackson-Harkleroad match was a case in point: here were two players in the top 100 opening a big tournament in their home country, in front of just a couple of hundred spectators, many of whom were reading newspapers. Most people still say they like tennis but it risks becoming everyone’s fourth favourite sport. The young are even less keen: among American high-school boys it’s the ninth most popular sport, behind golf.
Tennis knew it had to change. It looked for a role model and found one in reality television. Larry Scott, chief executive of the Sony Ericsson WTA women’s tour, told me: “What is differentiating about women’s tennis? So much is about the great personalities.” Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati are like contestants in Survivor: in each round more get voted off the island until only the winner remains.
“The reality trend is showing us that people want to see behind the scenes,” says Scott. And so players will now be interviewed on TV before the match and may soon wear microphones while playing. The instant replay is the equivalent of the viewers’ vote on reality TV: either the player or the line judge is humiliated live. About half the time it’s the player (the judges turn out not to be complete cretins, after all).
The instant replay still has its limits. Here in Miami it is only being used on the centre court. That alone costs about $100,000 and so there was little desire to offer it to the Bulgarian teenagers sweating on the outer courts. Furthermore, after a player has twice challenged calls incorrectly he can’t challenge again in that set. The replay will feature in only a few tournaments this year but Scott hopes it will eventually take over the tour.
It will improve tennis. In the Jackson-Harkleroad match, the crowd got emotionally involved only during the replays. “It’s the suspense of waiting to see whether the ball was just in or out,” explains the Belgian player Kim Clijsters. “It works particularly in the States. The crowds are livelier here.”
The replay will improve manners, too. Tennis players spent much of the 1970s and 1980s throwing tantrums. After that, strict codes of conduct replaced the tantrum with the sulk: the player, anguished by a line judge’s call, crumbled on discovering he was the only pure soul in a world of evil morons.
The sulk often changes matches. Amélie Mauresmo, the world’s number one, says: “Sometimes we stay angry for quite a long time, maybe for points or games.” At the US Open of 2003 Harkleroad, getting thumped by a much better Russian girl, mingled sulk with tantrum. But the instant replay eradicates both. When Harkleroad queried a call on Wednesday, she was immediately shown by a computer to be wrong and had to shut up.
Tennis did well by the tantrum. Many fans loved it. John McEnroe probably won more converts for the game with his snarl than with his volley. Scott understands the loss: “You could argue that a player getting angry about a bad line call is quite entertaining.” But he thought an instant replay would be even more entertaining. And, as Dee Dutta of Sony Ericsson, chief sponsor of women’s tennis, says: “We want to compete in the entertainment arena.”
Most players support the instant replay. Those who opposed it seem to have been wrong. Marat Safin had called replays “bull”, saying they would hold up the game. They turn out to take about five seconds, shorter than the briefest sulk.
The replay works but it won’t revive tennis. The best way to do that might be to have less tennis. The tour appears endless and many players get injured or fed up. That’s why neither Williams sister nor Capriati is playing this fortnight. All we saw of Venus Williams in Miami was a vignette at tennis’s awards ceremony in the Four Seasons hotel on Tuesday. Spotting Billie Jean King, Venus cried “Billie, give me a hug!” and then had to bend almost double to embrace the little number one of the 1970s. It was like a giantess eating a child in a fairy tale.
Scott is spending much of this week locked up with tournament directors trying to negotiate a shorter tour but he admits: “The more difficult discussions come when you start looking at which tournaments to cut.”
It may never happen. Meanwhile we’ll enjoy the replays and, after a five-month European winter, the Miami sun.