Wimbledon takes tennis high-tech

Kieran Doherty/Reuters
Britain's Andy Murray serves to Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland under the closed roof on Centre Court, during their match at the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, on June 29.
Not for security: The Hawk-Eye system watches the court and can overrule line judges if a player challenges a call.

Venus Williams handed Dinara Safina a crushing defeat, while sister Serena bested Elena Dementieva in a close match at Wimbledon's women's semi-finals Thursday afternoon, setting up another all-Williams final for Saturday. It's the fourth time the sisters will meet for the title, and though the contenders may be familiar, a few new technological innovations are bringing the action to fans worldwide in ways not before seen.

Don't rain on my match point

Most notably, of course, is the All-England Club's new Centre Court retractable roof. The $131 million, 182,986 sq. meter accordion-style roof allows for play to continue in even the hardest midsummer downpours. But even for that kind of cash, rain delays aren't a thing of the past. The translucent top takes 10 minutes to deploy, and a sophisticated three-level air conditioning system (one for the roof, one for the stands, and one to circulate air at court level) needs 20-30 minutes to get conditions inside just right for play.

Some purists argue that the overhead addition takes away from the charm of the storied club, but Billie-Jean King, one of the game's most decorated players, citing numerous interrupted matches over the years in a piece for Newsweek, says that the new roof belongs right where it is.

Both my 1963 Wimbledon final (against Margaret Smith) and the 1973 final (where I played Chris Evert) were delayed by a full day due to weather. The 1963 final was delayed by two days, because back then we did not play on Sunday, so we did not take the court until Monday. Both matches required a very long wait, and I would have loved a roof on those occasions. I also remember a pivotal match against Martina Navratilova later in my career where we played in the rain. It was miserable; my glasses got rain on them and fogged up, and I lost the match 10-8 in the third set. Would a roof have helped? It definitely would have made things better.

The Evening Standard sees even more benefit to the roof and its lights – the potential they have for drawing larger TV audiences as matches can now be scheduled into the evening. Though the move could be lucrative, officials insist night matches at Wimbledon will remain the exception and not the rule.

Smartphone-enhanced viewing

IBM has launched an Android smart phone app that gives tournament attendees supplemental data for matches in real time. Load up the "Seer Android" app on a T-Mobile G1, point its camera at a match, and the app will show what court you're on and who's playing, relevant tweets, and even comments from players. "It's about visualizing data in a different way," IBM's Alan Flack told Reuters in an interview.

(Electric) eye-spy

A technology called Hawk-Eye has been in use at major tournaments since 2006, using a triangulation system of 11 cameras to make line calls accurate to 3.6 millimeters, and making line judge errors a thing of the past. It's instant replay for tennis. Players have responded positively to its introduction, save for world No. 1 Roger Federer, who has said he doesn't see the point of it.

Some have challenged the technology behind the system, saying it lacks transparency. Its inventor, British computer scientist Paul Hawkins, has fiercely defended these claims, and says that giving up too much information about his system could give competitors an unfair advantage. Hawkins says the World Tennis Federation has tested the system exhaustively, and that it falls well within their accuracy guidelines.

Tweet your tennis?

Finally, this year marks the first time there's been "official" Wimbledon Twitter coverage.
@Centre_Court serves as a kind of live-microblog, sending play-by-play of the biggest matches to its 1,500+ followers. @Wimbledon has fed its nearly 20,000 followers updates ranging from tame – "Friday's order of play: Federer v Haas at 1pm followed by Murray v Roddick both on Centre Court" to, well, TMI: "Andy Murray is apparently eating 6000 calories a day during the Championships."

We're on Twitter, too. Keep up with the tech back-and-forth by following @CSMHorizonsBlog.

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