Robots have moved into human territory. For the first time this year, World TeamTennis is moving their personnel off the court and into a sequestered viewing area to observe Hawkeye feeds, from sensors on tripods, placed by the baseline, service line, and the center mark. The replay room scheme is much like what you’ve seen on TV at the FIFA World Cup of soccer, Major League Baseball, or National Basketball Association games. Off-site officials view replay in conjunction with the on-site referees to make calls accurately. The trend of emerging use of tech in sports, though criticized by many skeptics for affecting the flow of play, is a necessary measure to ensure bad calls don’t butcher the image of the sport. Think about how WWE deliberately sabotages their own image with referees that always look away from the action at most inopportune time.
A wonderful (or creepy) added touch is that the Hawkeye system is interfaced with the venue’s public address speakers. Prerecorded gender-neutral calls are programmed to played after a shot: one of a woman yelling “FAULT” during an errant serve, and another of a male yelling “OUT” to call a groundstroke lobbed past the baseline. I got to ask Chris Madigan from BZA PR (and liaison to the New York Empire), about the limit on how many times coaches or players can challenge the umpire. He states that, since there still is a chair umpire, who still holds ultimate authority to overturn decisions and can easily make calls on his side of baseline, the Hawkeye is more of a fan experience accessory to show how close the shots are between in and out, instead of a tool used by the teams to object a call.
The New York Empire’s venue crew did a good job from the three matches I’ve been at, to display all the close points on their two big screens at Court 17. Soccer, tennis, and many other Olympic sports were once stalwart sporting events, where players and viewers went with the call on the field, whether they liked it or not. Often, the arena crews would not replay the highlight immediately on the venue’s big monitors. Now that it is almost 2019, many sports are adopting technically advanced methods to ensure the right call is made first to the point that this truly is the new norm.
World TeamTennis already had a hand in making Grand Slam events, such as the US Open, adopt a countdown timer for first serves to decrease the downtime between games and encourage quicker play. Another rule that is being considered for adoption in Grand Slams, that is in WTT rules, is the one that states that serves that clip the net and land in the proper quadrant are still in play. The league is known for entertaining fans by having DJs play dance tunes between points. Teams are encouraged to put on a halftime show, ranging from T Shirt Tosses and inviting fans on court to return a serve from the team’s ace dealer.
WTT has declared that “The automated line-calling technology is also expected to help streamline play, building on a trend with WTT matches. With the addition of coach’s timeouts in 2012 and the 25-second service clock in 2015, WTT match times have been reduced by approximately 30 minutes over the past five seasons.”
WTT is the annual round-robin challenge, started by a group consisting of Billie Jean King, her then-husband Larry King, and Dr. Leonard Bloom in 1973, which not only reinforced King’s vision of paying women the same amount of money as their male counterparts, but also remixed the game of tennis to better sell it to the masses. Unlike the Fed Cup or Davis Cup, WTT is a competition between touring teams representing cities and locales across America.
Matches are played in a No-Ad scoring system (at 40-all or 3-3, next point wins), and the team that wins five games wins the set. Each set represents a separate discipline: mixed, men’s, and women’s doubles, and men’s & women’s singles. The coach of the home team decides which order in these events are played and whether to call a time-out or use one substitution within the set. The coach is also allowed to put himself into the match!
The team with the most game points scored wins. Even if one team wins the first three sets, the latter two sets are still played. Consider sets like innings in baseball; instead of three outs, scoring five points in a set progresses the match to the next set. The object is for the winning team to win 5-0 and gain as much as they can against their opponent and/or limit their scoring production. Sets that end in 4-4 go onto a tiebreaker game where the first team to win 5 points wins the set. If the trailing team wins the last set, extended play is in effect; they must continue to hold their serves and break points to win enough games to the leading team’s number of total games won. If that happens, a First-To-7 SuperTieBreaker is played with participants of the fifth set. Extended play ends if the leading team wins a point before the losing team ties the score. Consider it like getting the final out in the 9th inning in baseball!
Though there used to be a few more teams, WTT has dialed it back to six: The Philadelphia Freedoms (an originally chartered team), the San Diego Aviators, the Springfield Lasers, the Orange County Breakers , the Washington Kastles and the New York Empire (full disclosure, I was granted credentials by the NYE courtesy of Madigan of BZA PR). The best two teams of the round robin season face off in the WTT Final on August 5th, with the winning team hoisting the King Cup. All the matches are played in a month’s span right after Wimbledon and before the US Open series. The planning for who plays on which team comes to a head at the Indian Wells Masters in March, where a schoolyard fantasy draft between the six teams’ braintrust is held.
Mark Ein and Fred Luddy, the owners of the Kastles and the Breakers , respectively, recently purchased a majority stake of ownership in WTT from Billie Jean King, who still owns the Freedoms. To follow along with the matches as they happen this week, you can go to http://WTT.TV to check out the live Youtube streams of league matches, at no extra cost to you!