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Humans are no longer the line judges at the U.S. Open

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Open tennis tournament wraps up with final matches this weekend. If you're watching at home and you hear this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fault.

SHAPIRO: ...Or this...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Out.

SHAPIRO: ...You will not see any actual human beings on the court making those calls, because there are no more line judges at the U.S. Open. They've been replaced by optical technology, and the calls are all prerecorded. Well, that got NPR's Melissa Block curious to find out more.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Turns out, it all started with COVID. In 2020, to minimize the risk of infection, the U.S. Open eliminated nearly all line judges, using instead the optical technology called Hawk-Eye Live. Tournament officials thought it worked so well that now they use it exclusively.

SEAN CARY: We're providing the players a fairer playing field, with a lot more integrity, a much higher accuracy call.

BLOCK: That's Sean Cary, who oversees officiating at the U.S. Open. In the past, he says, when a player challenged a line judge's call and it was reviewed through the Hawk-Eye system, the human turned out to be correct about 75% of the time. Now, he says...

CARY: The automated line calling system is right pretty much 100% of the time.

BLOCK: Or put another way, says Benjamin Figueiredo, director of tennis at Hawk-Eye Innovations...

BENJAMIN FIGUEIREDO: We are millimeter accurate in terms of our line calling.

BLOCK: Though some players say Hawk-Eye occasionally does make erroneous calls. The technology uses 12 cameras to track the path of the ball through space. And when a server shot lands outside the line, it automatically triggers one of these recorded calls.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fault. Out.

BLOCK: With the switch to automation, about 250 line judges lost their jobs at the Open, but some of their voices live on. They went into a studio inside Arthur Ashe Stadium and essentially recorded their swan songs.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Fault.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Foot fault.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Out.

BLOCK: And listen carefully, says Sean Cary.

CARY: The thing that I think's really cool is that we've been able to program the system to know that if the ball is way out, it's going to be a softer out call.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Out.

BLOCK: But, he explains...

CARY: If there's a long rally and it finishes with a really close ball to the line, generally the crescendo of the crowd really builds.

BLOCK: So the recordings for those close calls are louder and more urgent.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Out.

BLOCK: Just like a baseball umpire, they are selling the call.

CARY: Yes, selling the call is a great way of explaining it.

BLOCK: Cary says, along with accuracy, there is another advantage to replacing line judges with automation. Now, with nine fewer people on the court...

CARY: We're providing a much cleaner court for our broadcast partners and our sponsorship partners.

BLOCK: In other words, the TV networks and corporate sponsors say they're happier because the screen has less clutter. OK, that's my word.

CARY: I mean, clutter's not necessarily a nice word to call human beings.

BLOCK: Now, speaking of sponsors, remember Benjamin Figueiredo from the tech company Hawk-Eye Innovations who we heard earlier? Well, he says the company has considered replacing fault or out calls with the names of sponsors shouted out instead, like Rolex or Ralph Lauren.

FIGUEIREDO: They have been - historical discussions have been had. I've been asked about this many times. It's not something that at the minute I guess anyone's particularly - has followed up on.

BLOCK: I tried to follow up with some more questions. No luck.

FIGUEIREDO: I guess I'd rather not get into the details.

BLOCK: As for the U.S. Open, the tournament's Sean Cary says automated line calling is here to stay.

CARY: It would be very difficult for us to move backwards now.

BLOCK: Which means no more tantrums from players screaming at officials about their calls.

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JOHN MCENROE: You can't be serious, man. You cannot be serious.

BLOCK: Looking at you, John McEnroe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCENROE: That ball was on the line.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News. And I am...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.