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Why are French Open umpires wearing cameras on their heads?

Last Friday night in Paris, anyone who was watching Carlos Alcaraz and Sebastian Korda’s night session match on television coverage — and who had also seen the Zendaya tennis film you might have heard of called Challengers — had a dizzying flashback.

A camera from the side of the court suddenly appeared, just above net level, swinging back and forth as the players jostled for control at the net. Barely keeping up with their speed of movement and thought, it veered from side to side, tracking the ball across the clay and down the white lines and coming to a staggering stop as Korda, the American No 27 seed, stopped a vicious strike from No 3 seed Alcaraz dead over the net.

It didn’t have the brazen aestheticism of Challengers director Luca Guadagnino’s work, the camera merging with the ball, but it was a new angle on a sport whose TV coverage does little service to the vicious spin and phenomenal speed that its best players apply to that little fuzzy yellow ball.

Innovation. Fun. A little bit of self-awareness. Everything for which so many of the sport’s obsessive and casual fans cry.

And everything that this technology — a small head camera worn by umpires on the French Open’s show court, Philippe-Chatrier — may not have intended to be.

The world of invention is full of products and gadgets intended for one purpose that found their groove with another. 

Bubble wrap was supposed to be three-dimensional wallpaper. Viagra was a new blood pressure medication. The slinky was a surefire way to secure naval instruments in rough seas.

Umpire-Head-Camera, welcome to the ranks of unintended consequences.

Gaining that close-up swivel view was a big part of the thinking when leaders at France’s tennis federation, the FFT, started toying with the idea of a camera perched on the chair umpire more than a year ago. There were visions of never-before-seen footage of forehands zipping over the net at 80mph, so fast they appeared to be dragging the camera with them.

“Let’s face it, they do have the best seat in the stadium,” said Pascal Maria, the assistant referee for the French Open. No one can buy that seat, but the thinking was that they could let the fans experience that view.

From a television perspective, that mostly didn’t go so well. Watching a match on a high-speed swivel from close-up can be a rather nausea-inducing experience for television producers and fans alike. Instead, the technology’s purpose was rerouted to serve a pedestrian, but at Roland Garros, the high purpose: letting everyone see the marks that umpires are looking at when they decide if a ball is in or out.

Even that hasn’t worked great. When umpires climb down from their chairs to inspect ball marks to decide whether their colleagues calling the lines have botched the job, the shot is so fleeting as to be basically useless, partly because the people wearing the cameras are so good — most of the time — at picking them out that they’re looking at them for less than a second.

“Good for playback, slowed down, (but) tough to cut to live,” said Bob Whyley, senior vice president for production and executive producer at the Tennis Channel. “The ref’s head, looking down at the mark, is too quick.”

Andy Murray asked on X whether there was a worse technology in sport. Victoria Azarenka questioned why it was available, but more pedestrian things such as line-calling reviews are not.

Amelie Mauresmo, the tournament director, said officials had scrapped the idea of cutting to the head camera for live-action shots after just a few days. 

“It’s kind of tricky,” she said, but if there are good images, such as a chat with a player or a ball inspection, those would make the replay cut.

The French Open is out on its own in even introducing the cameras, with the other Grand Slams having no plans to bring them in for now. That’s largely because the tournament brought in umpire head cameras to check line calls, but instead, it created a player point-of-view that will go down in tennis lore.

Specifically, the umpire’s view of athletes worth tens of millions of dollars (and more) whining to them like children pleading with a parent who won’t let them have dessert or watch television. 

Without Ump-Head, there is no image of the last French men’s hope Corentin Moutet during his match against world No 2 Jannik Sinner on Wednesday night, pleading for justice with Nico Helwerth, an experienced tennis official from Germany. He was angry that a linesperson had called him for foot-faulting on his favorite shot, the underarm serve.

He was wrong and he didn’t get his justice and the audience got to see what it really feels like to get yelled at by a sweaty, hulking mess who is in a tizzy. Depending on the level of profanity and the decisions of the producers of the telecast, they also get to hear exactly what the umpire and the player are talking about.

Louise Engzell, a Swedish umpire, said she has found herself feeling like the camera is something of a security blanket, both from players going too far and from commentators inadvertently misrepresenting the conversations they are having with players.

“I prefer that they have the information about what actually happened in a situation: why the chair umpire made this decision, and whether we are 100 percent right or it’s a gray area,” Engzell said in an interview about the cameras during one of many rain delays over the weekend.

At least they know and they can discuss the reality of what happened. It can only be good.”

Point-of-view coverage has been a success in other sports — inviting spectators to better understand the speed, effort and difficulty of what they are watching, which can sometimes be softened by the wide-angle view of a television camera.

During a pre-season match between Aston Villa and Newcastle United last summer, Villa footballer Youri Tielemans wore a camera on his chest, demonstrating the speed of thought that footballers have to demonstrate at the highest level — even in a contest with nothing on the line.

This works most often by making it a standalone view — usually outside of a live broadcast, like Tielemans’ featured video — or relying on a stationary camera, attached to a fixed piece of equipment. In tennis, the court-level camera does a much better job of showing the incredible shape and intensity of players’ ball striking, but it removes the context of angles provided by a wider shot.

It also lacks the extreme shift of a POV camera, which makes a huge difference in helping a momentary replay stand out.

Engzell participated in the first efforts toward outfitting the umpires with cameras at the French Open last year. Jean-Patrick Reydellet, chief of umpires at the French Open, said that involved buying some GoPros and strapping to the umpire’s chests. They didn’t share the footage with television partners but reviewed it after matches. 

The results were not great. Some neat views of the court, but the angle didn’t quite work. Also, umpires don’t move their chests very much, so there was a lot of footage of the top of the net and the touch screen the umpire operates. 

Engzell said the chest camera also made for an awkward setup for female umpires.

Reydellet and his staff evaluated the cameras that officials wear in the NBA, rugby and other sports. The ear setup seemed like the best one. Umpires who were willing tried them out during the qualifying tournament two weeks ago and gave the thumbs up, especially after they saw how the camera could show exactly how they inspected a ball mark to see if it landed on the line, by following its outline from the clay to compete its circumference.

That hasn’t really worked out. Part of the reason is that the umpires only need to take a glance, which this leaves the viewer with a disorienting head wobble and little else. It also doesn’t “sell” the decision to fans and players very well — a problem that football has experienced with video assistant referee (VAR) when officials change a decision without looking at it themselves.

“It is a camera that obviously needs to get better,” Reydellet said. “Probably smaller, probably long-life batteries, probably different settings that we can work on.”

Part of the goal is also to show how complex the job is. The French Open wants to use the footage to teach aspiring umpires, to give viewers a sense of everything a player has to do, and to add a new layer of transparency to the umpiring process and its myriad tasks.

In an interview, Helwerth enumerated the checklist he performs on every point.

Check if the receiver is ready, if the ball kids are in position, if the line judges are where they are supposed to be, deactivate the serve clock, after having just turned it on, enter the last point on the tablet, check the crowd. When it’s over, take a glance at the loser of the point to make sure they’re behaving. If they come over to talk, switch off the stadium microphone — but not the head cam, of course — then make sure to turn it back on.

“We’re not bored up there,” he said.

For this year, the cameras are only in use on the main court, but it’s hard to not see them moving to other courts in the future, especially after one umpire inspected the wrong ball mark to rule on a point on Court Simonne-Mathieu in a match between Zheng Qinwen and Elina Avanesyan.

Maybe next year, someone watching a monitor underneath the stadium could yell into a transmitter: “No, not that one!”

That would be nice. Not as nice as the shot of Moutet.

(Top photo: Eurosport)

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