Imprints of evidence
The French Open still goes by the method of relying on marks on red clay to decide disputed line calls
It happens in almost every match, and sometimes several times. A ball hits the court. A line judge makes a call. A player disagrees. And so begins clay court tennis’s quirkiest bit of theater.
The chair umpire climbs down from the midcourt perch. He or she hustles – not a run, not a walk, but a trot – to the point of contention.
Dirt is examined. Sport meets archaeology. In an era of instant replays and computer-generated assurances, there is an old-world charm to ball marks, little imprints of evidence left behind in the fraction of a moment that a ball touches the brick dust of a French Open tennis court.
“Obviously a mark on the court is better than a mark on the screen,” said Franck Sabatier, chief of officials for the French Open.
The problem, though, is that not all ball marks are equal. Lobs create perfectly round spots. Hard serves leave comet-shaped streaks. Smashes, spins and drops leave variations.
Sometimes there is barely a smudge at all. Sometimes, usually late in a set and near the baseline, the mark cannot be picked from a crowded constellation of blots and footprints. And, hardest of all, sometimes there is only a partial mark near the white line, a phantom left to interpretation. “Ball-mark inspection is definitely the key point on clay,” said Cedric Mourier, a veteran chair umpire who worked the final last year between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling. “A lot of people think clay is easy. When everything goes well, it’s easy. But when it doesn’t, it’s tricky.”
The clay at Roland Garros is really a layer of white limestone frosted with crushed red-brick powder. The gritty dust is millimeters thick – deep enough to show footprints and allow for sliding, shallow enough to keep from piling up and affecting the way the ball bounces.
The surface is groomed between sets. Workers, one on each side of the net, pull a large swatch of netting behind them. They move back and forth on the court, erasing all evidence of the previous set and leaving a clean canvas. Other workers follow with brooms, sweeping the dusty lines clean. Play resumes. And with each footprint and ball mark, the court is pocked with marks that can taint future evidence.
The French Open has 54 chair umpires – arbitre de chaise – working the tournament. Most are veterans of the men’s and women’s tours. Players know them. They know the players. They know which players have good eyes. They know which ones challenge the most calls. They know which matches will probably require them to leave the chair more than usual. On other surfaces, such as hardcourts and grass, there is no on-court evaluation for disputed calls. At top-level tournaments, including Wimbledon and the US Open, calls (at least on the main courts) can be challenged and potentially reversed by a replay system called Hawk-Eye. It uses a series of cameras to track the precise flight of a ball. Computer animation – often on a large video screen, to the crowd’s delight – reveals the final call.
There is no serious talk of bringing such technology to clay, particularly the French Open. “I think it makes clay special,” said Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 French Open winner. She disputed a call in her first-round victory over Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.
The chair umpire came and looked, and pointed out a different ball mark. A line judge was summoned for confirmation. Kuznetsova shook her head and rolled her eyes. She lost the point. “Sometimes it’s very complicated,” she said. “They show you, sometimes, something which doesn’t make sense. It’s a mark. And sometimes it’s ...very hard to see if the ball really touched or did not. So it’s strange.”
There are basic ground rules for players on clay. Mainly, if you think a shot was not called correctly, stop playing. If you return a shot you think was out but was called in, do not hit another shot.
This happened at the 2005 French Open, in what Sabatier called “the last big moment” for ball-mark debate. Nadal, on his way to the first of his six titles, hit a shot that was called in.
His opponent, France’s Sebastien Grosjean, thought it was out, but played a second shot before complaining. He asked the chair umpire to inspect the spot. The chair umpire, from Argentina, refused because it was too late.
Chair umpires receive special training for handling disputes and decoding ball marks on clay, and the French Tennis Federation’s website includes instructional videos. They quickly climb from the chair and jog to the spot in question, keeping an eye on the spot and trying to avoid obstructing the players’ view. They will point to the spot without touching it. That often ends the dispute. A gesture is made — palm down to signal that the ball was in, finger up if it was out.
Sometimes — at least half the time, probably — the request comes from the player on the other side of the net. Rules forbid players from coming across during a match, so they often lean on the net, pointing. Chair umpires are instructed not to jog back to the chair until all players understand the call.
After all, there is a tennis match to be played. And while the tradition of checking the ball marks can create theater, it is not the point of the proceeding.
“Everyone is waiting – players, crowd, TV, everybody,” Mourier said. “Is it in or out?”
On clay, there is one way to find out. Get out of the chair.