If Nasa can lose the Mars Observer we should not be surprised that a computer can be deceived while tracking tennis balls. One of the biggest mistakes officials of the United States Tennis Association made in their haste to be first with something new was in hiding the fact that the electromagnetic system was not foolproof.
It transpires that even as TEL (Tennis Electronic Lines) was being installed on the four main courts at Flushing Meadow four months ago it was triggered off each time an electrician wearing a knee brace came within range of a line.
Trinkets and metal in tennis equipment confused the computer during some of the qualifying matches at the end of last week, and nobody is sure how much metal debris lies beneath the concrete courts of the National Tennis Centre, which is built on the site of the World Trade Fair.
Warnings of possible snags in line-calling technology were sounded more then a year ago, when the US Open was among tournaments experimenting with electronic systems. During a seminar at the Italian Open, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Rudrapatna Ramnath, whose enthusiasm for tennis has been utilised in the pioneering and development of racket-testing technology, told of a notable service error.
In a test firing of a missile, using a heat-seeking infra-red homing device, a projectile designed to home in on the turret of a tank went off course and blew up a beer can, which was lying in the sun sending off a strong infra-red signal. 'That,' Professor Ramnath said, 'was an expensive way to discourage drinking.'
Announcing that electronic line-calling had been put on hold, Steve DeVoe, the US Open tournament director, said the organisers had 'encountered the normal start-up problems'. One wry observer expressed relief that DeVoe is not an airline spokesman. 'We also had new problems we had not seen before,' DeVoe added. But for these, and the protests of the players, the organisers had been prepared to use the system with only an umpire, a net-cord judge and two foot-fault judges manning each of the four wired courts. They were then going to compromise by using the full crew of 10 linesmen, insisting that the computer would make the calls except when a ball landed beyond its range of 12 inches either side of a line.
The events of the weekend scotched that and reinforced the opinion of those who consider that electronic line-calling, when perfected, should be used as an aid to linesmen, not as a means of replacing them.
Apart from other extraneous matter, TEL managed to detect Mats Wilander, who was into heavy metal for a while as a rock'n'roll wannabe after losing touch with tennis. Rip Van Wilander, who appeared to lose interest in the game after winning the US Open in 1988, has emerged from Sleepy Hollow clutching a wild card.
The 29-year-old Swede's victory against Ivan Lendl here five years ago, in the last final to go the distance, completed a splendid achievement. That year, Wilander won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles, and even managed to reach the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, where his success rate ranks below that of Lendl.
Wilander's first-round opponent is Jaime Oncins, a Brazilian who is more competitive than was suggested by a walk-on part when Jimmy Connors marked his 40th birthday last year. Stamina was fundamental to Wilander's success, and many people wonder if he still has sufficient powers to merit a free entry after such a long absence. It could be that that the organisers are simply pleased to welcome a familiar face now that Connors and John McEnroe are both missing from the draw for the first time in 22 years.
Stefan Edberg's prospects of winning the title for a third consecutive year appear to have diminished along with the 'kick' of his second serve. Jim Courier pounced on the Swede's second deliveries in winning their Wimbledon semi-final, and Edberg does not seem to have regained his confidence. His demolition of Courier in the 1991 final is regarded as the most spectacular performance of his career, and his successful defence last year confounded those who had doubted his tenacity.
To reach the final, Edberg came back from a break down in the fifth set of three consecutive matches, culminating in a semi-final against Michael Chang which lasted five hours and 26 minutes. Edberg then recovered in the final after losing the opening set against Pete Sampras.
Boris Becker is still struggling to rekindle the desire which enabled him to win the title in 1986, so the Americans are fancied to wrest the championships from Europe for the first time since Sampras's success in 1990.
Courier, who has returned to No 1 in place of Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, could take advantage of a favourable draw. Sampras, who suffered shin splints when playing on similar courts to these earlier in the year, is projected to play Andre Agassi in the fourth round. The Las Vegan managed to raise his game sufficiently to take the last place in the seedings. Chang has also shown encouraging form recently.
The sight of Wilander may remind Steffi Graf of a time when she was unquestionable the best female player. In 1988, when Monica Seles was several grunts from becoming a big noise, the German completed the Grand Slam and also won the Olympic gold medal.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario denied Graf the possibilty of becoming the first player ever to accomplish consecutive Grand Slams by defeating her in the final of the 1989 French Open. In Seles's continued absence after the knife attack in Hamburg four months ago (she spent yesterday at Flushing Meadow watching matches played for an Arthur Ashe charity), the Spaniard remains one of the few players capable of defeating Graf. The rest tend to 'choke' when Graf's vulnerability gives them a glimpse of victory. Steffi, though, is not causing as much concern as 'Emily', a hurricane building up off the eastern seaboard.