Paul Hawkins: Doctor's antidote to court controversies

Innovative expert in Artificial Intelligence is set to transform tennis with his electronic line judges. Ronald Atkin speaks to him
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It will be a historic occasion, one of those moments which promises to change a sport's time-honoured direction and momentum. So say tennis's top administrators of the Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling system which will be introduced for the first time on Wednesday at an official tournament on the professional tour, the Nasdaq-100 Open in Key Biscayne, Florida.

The further good news is that Hawk-Eye is a British invention, the brainchild of Paul Hawkins, a 31-year-old who graduated from Durham University with a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and who has incorporated part of his own name in an instantly memorable product title. "Lucky my name isn't Cock or Slew," smiled Dr Hawkins, elegantly at ease amid the clutter of the expanded premises to which his company has just moved at Colden Common, near Winchester.

With three bottles of champagne perched on a shelf offering the only celebratory hint, Dr Hawkins was marooned between boxes still to be emptied following the move and the hefty crates in which he was flying a ton of equipment out to Florida.

Acknowledging "huge excitement and a huge responsibility", Hawkins is on site this weekend with a team of five, at one of the few tournaments outside the four Grand Slams that embraces both men's and women's events.

Getting to this stage with a system previously used only as a television aid in cricket and tennis has been a draining experience. Hawkins estimates he worked 340 days, long days too, last year, so feels it essential to be directing operations on Hawk-Eye's debut.

"At this stage in Hawk-Eye's life, credibility is absolutely essential to us, because it takes an awfully long time to build up and a very small time to lose," he said, sipping tea, one booted foot on a plug-in radiator on a chilly Hampshire morning.

"I don't want people to be writing after the second day of the tournament that there is a problem. That could very quickly put the whole process back years. There are plenty of sceptics out there looking for something to pick up on. I am very aware what it means to the players and what our obligations are, because we are affecting results."

Exactly what will be affecting the results is a system using six cameras which record the trajectory of the ball and transmit the information to a computer which gives a verdict on the ball's position, accurate, it is claimed, to within four millimetres, or 99.99 per cent. This verdict can be transmitted via video boards within five seconds of a player querying a call.

"I am very much an ideas person and it is something I thought up myself," said Hawkins, whose summation that he is "a reasonable sportsman" is borne out by the fact that in tennis he was school champion and a county-level player and in Minor Counties cricket batted for Buckinghamshire.

There is a story, dismissed with a smile as apocryphal, that he set about inventing Hawk-Eye after receiving a dodgy lbw. "I was led by what I knew was possible technically and what I felt would be an advantage to sport, but I didn't know whether the route into it would be via officiating, coaching or television." It was TV that proved the entry point, with Channel 4 baptising Hawk-Eye for their coverage of Test cricket in 2001. Since then it has been used widely as a viewing aid in the coverage of cricket and tennis but not, until this week, as an official adjunct to the sport.

While cricket still dragged its heels, the International Tennis Federation took the decision to test Hawk-Eye and approved it last September. It has been used at two tournaments, the Masters Seniors at the Royal Albert Hall in December and the Hopman Cup at Perth in January.

With John McEnroe in the Albert Hall field, Hawk-Eye rapidly came to public attention. "On the first couple of days it wasn't being used because there was no BBC coverage," recalled Hawkins. "On one of those days McEnroe got a bad call and we saw the really nasty side of him. When he later had the ability to challenge calls, he often challenged wrongly but had to accept it. Then you saw a very different personality, a much lighter side."

At the Hopman Cup, a light-hearted occasion with mixed teams invited to challenge freely, there were 83 challenges and players were correct on 45 per cent of them. At Key Biscayne each player will be permitted two challenges per set. For each successful query, the player retains the challenge for the rest of that set. If he or she is wrong, one of the challenges is used up. And during a tiebreak in any set, each player will receive an additional challenge.

Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of professional tennis at the US Tennis Association, welcomes Hawk-Eye as "a major breakthrough for the sport", calling it "an opportunity to help officials and players while creating a bit more excitement and intrigue for the fans". Etienne de Villiers, president of the ATP, the men's tour, feels Hawk-Eye's introduction is long overdue: "To me it was always crazy that with modern technology we could tell to a metre where a person is on earth, yet we can't tell whether a tennis ball is in or out." Larry Scott, chief executive of the WTA women's tour, said: "The stakes are so high in professional sport nowadays that we felt it incumbent to pursue technology."

Hawk-Eye will be operating only on Key Biscayne's centre court and its use at the two Grand Slam events which have decided to bring it in, the US and Australian Opens, will be limited to the show courts. "At the moment our current technology would not extend to its use on all courts at big tournaments," said Hawkins, "but we are still refining it and will be able to expand in time."

He has reservations about limiting the number of challenges. "With unlimited challenges [as in Perth] they can say 'Hey, that was close. I was wrong, but no harm in looking' whereas if it's limited they are saying 'I am sure you are wrong'. If it is then shown the line judge was correct, it puts the player in an uncomfortable position."

Hawkins feels he has a solution. "Why should a player need to become involved in the officiating anyway? Why doesn't the umpire have a little screen by his chair? If he is not sure of the call, he can look at our system and decide whether to overrule or not. So the player doesn't need to challenge."

For this year at least, Wimbledon will not join the US and Australian Grand Slam events in using Hawk-Eye. Although it has been a television aid for the BBC at the Stella Artois grass-court event at Queen's Club for the past four years, the All England Club want it tried first on site. "But how do you test on their grass courts because they are only available for a couple of weeks?" asked Hawkins. He is also slightly nettled by the irony of the fact that Wimbledon already uses Cyclops, an automatic service-line system which will eventually be replaced by Hawk-Eye but which never had to be tested in advance.

Hawkins feels his invention could even play a part on clay, a surface where the landing ball leaves a mark. "As it happens, a mark on a clay court isn't accurate because when the ball hits the ground, clay moves clay, so the mark doesn't actually represent the part of the ball which touches the ground."

However, he is philosophical about Hawk-Eye's chances on clay. "While a mark may not be all that accurate, it is believable and that is all that really matters. The only way it could come in on clay is if it simply helps the player or umpire to go to the correct mark, because undoubtedly umpires sometimes guess when they look at a scuffed baseline."

With all that it brings to tennis, Hawk-Eye could, in time, remove one human element, the line judge. "At the moment there is still a need for them because they make the original call and we are only there to be involved if a player disagrees with that call. And since Hawk-Eye is only going to be on the main courts for now, line judges are essential."

Andre Agassi calls Hawk-Eye "one of the most exciting things to happen for players, fans and television viewers". Andy Roddick says: "On top of getting the calls right time after time, which will be nice, it will add drama and excitement." Maria Sharapova reckons it is "great news for all players". So, as he submits his well-tested invention to the crucial test, Hawkins is feeling the weight of responsibility.

"Right now, Roger Federer doesn't think he is going down in history but when he retires he will look back on his achievements and realise what he has done. That's my attitude. If I retired knowing I had helped make tennis appeal to a wider audience and ensured that the players walk on court knowing their destiny is in their own hands, that would be enough for me."

Life & Times: Sport's scientist calls the shots

NAME: Paul Martin Hawkins.

BORN: 26 April 1974, Bledlow Ridge, Buckinghamshire.

EDUCATION: PhD in Artificial Intelligence at Durham University.

POSITION: Managing director of Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd.

CAREER: Worked for Roke Manor Research in Hampshire, where Hawk-Eye was developed from 1999-2001. It was first seen on Channel 4's cricket coverage in 2001, and passed the evaluation of the International Tennis Federation last September.

SPORTING PEDIGREE: Rowed in the first eight for Durham University at Henley; England-ranked junior table tennis player; represented Buckinghamshire in Minor Counties cricket.