The ever-popular Johnny Mac is back, but the line judges he has had a 40-year love — but mostly hate — relationship with, won’t be.
For the second time in history of any ATP-sanctioned event, all eight matches played between the John McEnroe-led United States squad against the Fernando Gonzalez-captained International team this weekend at the ATP Champions Tour tournament, the Delray Beach Open, at the Delray Beach Tennis Center will be played without lines people.
The lines will be called by Hawk-Eye Live, the electronic line-calling system, that has become arguably the most accurate and fan-friendly instant-replay (challenge) employed in any professional sport.
McEnroe, who will make his fourth appearance in Delray Beach at the only U.S.-based Champions Tour stop, but his first since 2012, is well known for his fiery disputes with tennis officials. McEnroe, who turns 59 Friday, would often use his on-court outbursts as motivation en route to winning seven Grand Slam singles titles, nine major doubles titles and 149 tournaments overall during his Hall of Fame career.
However, sometimes such as the 1990 Australian Open, when McEnroe was disqualified for not remembering how many warnings it took to get tossed, his temper tantrums derailed his quest for titles.
“Sometimes I thought I was justified; other times perhaps I was reaching for straws,’’ said McEnroe via a recent conference call. “I don’t know, whatever way you want to look at it, to me, I built up this, ‘Well, they’re going to screw me type of attitude, and I can’t trust them.’ Right or wrong, that’s a whole other article.’’
McEnroe, who also plays on Jim Courier’s PowerShares senior circuit where retired ATP Tour players call their own lines, was asked if his career would’ve been better or worse if the human element was taken out of line-calling.
“I believe I would’ve been secure in knowing that I’d get an opportunity to get another look at (a potential) tournament-winning or losing call in certain cases,’’ said McEnroe, an iconic tennis commentator for ESPN who was ranked No. 1 from 1982-84.
“There’s only a handful of calls in a match where the players aren’t really sure whether it’s in or out, or the umpire or linesmen had made an honest mistake.
“I feel like I would’ve been 15 or 20 percent probably better player, But I would’ve been more boring and maybe I wouldn’t be talking to you now or maybe I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I had with commentary or do some other things in my life. … You could see how rare it is to see any discussion with the umpires.’’
The only other ATP event to rely strictly on electronic line-calling, along with a chair umpire to oversee the match, was the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals contested between 21-and-under stars last November in Milan.
While the ATP used that as a trial run for possibly eliminating line judges in the future, the Hawk-Eye Live experiment in Delray Beach was suggested by tournament founder/director Mark Baron and approved by the Champions Tour.
“If there’s a technology that makes officiating better, we owe it to them to try it,” Gayle Bradshaw, ATP Executive Vice President of Rules and Competition, said last November. “The tour will have to take a look at the atmosphere. Does it make it too sterile? Does it take away from the game or add something to the game?
“If this is able to do the job and with accuracy, and it ends up as a cost saving to the tournaments, it would be hard to keep it out of the game.”
Jack Sock, 25, the defending champion and top seed at the Delray Beach Open, wasn’t ready to recommend or reject the elimination of line judges.
“It would obviously take out some of the questioning sometimes and any arguments some players have with refs,’’ Sock said via conference call. “There would definitely have to be a trial period and a majority (of us) like it. I don’t think it can be an overnight thing.’’
A chair umpire will still be needed to have the final word on unusual calls such as foot faults, double-bounces, whether a player illegally touches the net on his follow-through or if a ball grazes a player or any part of his clothing.
“I think it’s a win-win,’’ McEnroe said of implementing Hawk-Eye Live on the regular tour. “What we lost, we more than gained back in trust. To me, the next step is why the linesmen are there in the first place? We’ve been way ahead of the curve as far as integrating men and women’s events and equal prize money in comparison to other sports.
“But if we ever did something like having no linesmen and just having challenges, that would be unique and ultimately would have a lot more crowd involvement and excitement.
“I doubt it will ever happen.’’