Seeing a chair umpire jump onto the court, trot across the mud and point to a ball marker is one of the great traditions of the French Open.
Adds scenery to the scene. A sense of anticipation hangs in the air as officials are escorted to the site by whistles or cheers from the Paris crowd – depending on whose decision it is.
But in a sport of high stakes and good margins, is it time to stop relying solely on the human eye to identify crucial points?
At the recent Italian Open, Britain’s Andy Murray was upset when a call was made against him because the referee ruled a ball mark was on the line.
Murray strongly disagreed. Electronic line communication technology – which was not used in the Rome tournament but was seen by television viewers – supported the view of the former world number one.
The incident reignited the long-running debate over whether an electronic system should be brought to all courts – including the famous clay roofs of Roland Garros.
Is technology unreliable on the mud?
Unlike the other three Grand Slam tournaments, which are played on hard or grass courts, the French Open does not use technology in any way.
The Australian Open and the US Open – both played on hard courts – have already done away with human line judges in favor of relying solely on automated calls.
The Wimbledon Championships, played on grass, introduced Hawk-Eye technology in 2007 but the line rulers remain. Players in tournaments can challenge calls up to three times per combination.
The French Open continues to fully trust the linesmen and referees, and does not allow players to use electronic replays to challenge a human decision.
For a long time we felt red brick dust – a top layer of 1 to 2 millimeters – impairs the accuracy and reliability of an electronic system because it is a “living” surface that moves during a match.
This has resulted in persistent trust issues from players, commentators and fans.
But Foxtenn — one of three systems used to judge line calls in tennis, along with Hawk-Eye and IMG Arena — insists it’s reliable.
Foxtenn is the only vendor to date to operate an electronic line connection system on clay courts.
She says that ‘true bounce technology’ – which uses ultra-fast cameras capable of producing more than 100,000 images per second with a laser scanner system – is suitable for the surface.
“It provides perfect and constant calibration in real time,” says the Barcelona-based company.
“It basically captures everything that happens on the field; anywhere from minute detail to every unimaginable angle.”
Why not use it French Open?
Last month, line referees announced on the ATP Tour – the top level of men’s events – will be replaced by an electronic contact system on all surfaces on a full-time basis from 2025.
The WTA, which is the governing body for women’s tennis, told BBC Sport it was “reviewing” the full-time business with Online Connect and was “very interested” in making a similar move for the ATP.
French Open chief referee Remy Azmar admits the technology has been successful at other tournaments.
However, the resistance is still strong.
Two factors fuel the French Open’s reluctance to change: preserving the traditions synonymous with the 100-year-old tournament and an unwillingness to relinquish human control.
“Without the presence of the line judge, it’s already very robotic,” Azmar said. “But we must also realize that it works.
“Would it make the game feel cooler and empty on the court? Everyone can have a say in that, and it’s not for me to answer.”
France is widely regarded as one of the strongest nations when it comes to developing officials and Azmar says Roland Garros has “nothing to prove” in terms of management quality.
“As long as human judgment remains in control, we are a little less directly concerned. We reserve the freedom to make our own decisions,” he said.
Will we see him at Roland Garros?
With more and more tournaments relying on e-line communication, the French Open is fast becoming a skew by sticking to tradition.
Already approved as a review system on clay with line judges, Foxtenn and Hawk-Eye were used at ATP events in Barcelona, Estoril, Madrid and Bastad last year.
No seller has yet been approved to make individual decisions without administrators. The ultimate test of automatic technology continues on clay.
The ATP, the men’s governing body, said his imminent move “will improve accuracy and consistency across tournaments, match courts and surfaces”.
Last season, there were 30 WTA events that used e-line calls – including 13 that didn’t have line judges.
Only two WTA clay court events – Madrid and Iasi – have used the electronic line call review system in 2022.
With increased reliance on technology on the horizon, Azmar acknowledged that the French Open may have to change.
“If 98% or 99% of tournaments in a season are played without line umpires, we’re going to fall into a corner,” he said.
“I think we have to weigh things carefully and give ourselves time. But we can also get really caught up in it.”
What controversies have there been recently?
Disputes over line calls are regular occurrences during the European clay court season and there were a number of notable examples during the recent Italian Open.
The feud between Murray and Mohamed Lahyani exploded in Rome over the three-time champion’s massive profile – and his heated reaction.
Lahyani was also involved in another similar incident in Rome. The Swedish referee made a decision that angered the Danish player Holger Rohn in the quarter-final against Novak Djokovic, which he eventually won.
Ron asked if the officials had been punished for making “mistakes”, and so did Russia’s Veronika Kudermitova, who objected to the president’s ruling in the quarter-finals.
At the French Open, there was a major incident in 2021 that could have had even more damaging consequences.
In a thrilling semi-final match against Greece’s Maria Sakkari, Czech player Barbora Krejkova was denied a win when head referee Pierre Bacchi canceled a call from one of the referees at match point.
Television replays indicated that the ball was out, prompting Murray – who was watching TV – to say that Bache had made an “absolutely monstrous mistake”.
Krejikova shrugged off the disappointment, picking up another match point and winning her first Grand Slam singles title two days later.
These controversies illustrate the confusion that still exists about clay tile markings. Whether the tag is checked incorrectly, or the tag is not a true representation due to physics, tension can be created as a result.
“I don’t mind it being that way with the line umpires’ rule,” Ron said. “But it’s about how you read the sign. Sometimes it’s wrong.”
Until the governing bodies are satisfied that the technology is more subtle than the human eye, the drama over the controversies will continue – perhaps over the coming weeks at Roland Garros.