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There Are Thorny Issues Involved in Utilizing Electronic Technology

It’s hardly a surprise that John McEnroe would attach his name to a device that is controversial and new. In terms of self-promotion, it’s a free ride.

McEnroe, the former tennis star turned TV analyst, took one look at CBS’ new super-high-speed camera that was used to show baseline replays at the U.S. Open and dubbed it “the Mac Cam.” It showed, with startling clarity, tennis balls as they hit the baseline, contorted on impact, and flew away.

The technology is enough to make a linesman obsolete.

But not yet.

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The camera undoubtedly makes a powerful impact on television, but the tennis world is unsure about its application. In fact, many fans, officials and journalists at the Open might not even have been aware of it, since they were not watching television.

Still, the camera is an intriguing piece of equipment. It was developed by Kodak to observe vehicle crash tests and analyze the manner in which cars break apart in collisions. It’s also used in some types of surgery and manufacturing.

The digital camera is the size of a shoe box and costs about $450,000, almost twice the cost of a standard television camera. Its most impressive statistic, though, is its speed--it shoots at 1,000 frames a second, affording the replays remarkable clarity.

By way of comparison: The fastest single-lens reflex camera used by newspaper photographers shoots 10 frames a second. The standard television camera shoots 30 frames a second. The super slo-mo cameras that networks use at sporting events shoot 90 frames a second.

The cameras--one focused on each baseline--are so valuable that they are removed when not in use.

So far, the system has been used only at the U.S. Open, and, tennis being tennis, there is no indication that it will be used elsewhere, since each of the Grand Slam events does things its own way.

Wimbledon, for example, is the only one to use an electronic device to detect net calls on serves. The Australian Open experimented this year with a system of pressure-sensitive devices mounted under the court to call lines.

Even the electronic Cyclops system to call service faults, which was adopted amid controversy in 1980, is not in use everywhere. It took years to make it proficient and it still is turned off occasionally when it becomes obvious that it is not functioning correctly.

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The big problem with technological advances such as these high-speed cameras is that they are so expensive that only the Grand Slam tournaments can afford to use them, and that use is limited.

In order to fully automate all 20 courts at the Open with the camera, for instance, it would cost nearly $60 million.

There are other thorny questions for its use as an instant-replay device: The camera shows only the line and the ball, providing no other context. A player could argue that there is no proof he actually hit the ball that is shown in the frame.

Also, because the digital system is operated on a loop from the camera to a disc, the replays are recorded over. The disc can store only 1 1/2 seconds of data, then it is lost. There would be no opportunity to review points other than the most current one.

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And even that would be at the discretion of the camera operator. To capture the nanosecond, the operator has to make an instantaneous decision to stop, record and replay the crucial frames. If the operator doesn’t think a ball is close enough to the line to warrant stopping the camera, the point is lost.

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Add McEnroe: McEnroe’s ignorant remarks to Sports Illustrated last week are in keeping with his usual egocentric, narrow-mindedness.

The article explores McEnroe’s new life as a New York art dealer and covers the same ground McEnroe tilled last year when he criticized his broadcast partners. He says Mary Carillo, perhaps the best tennis broadcaster now working, cannot possibly know anything about men’s tennis.

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Yet, interestingly, McEnroe is qualified to discuss women’s tennis? What a leap of logic.

He submarines the career of venerable tennis writer-broadcaster Bud Collins, dismissing him as being merely a “journalist.”

Collins knows when he’s been damned by faint praise. McEnroe will never in his life possess one scintilla of Collins’ graciousness or class.

Applying his own narrow standards, how is it that a college dropout with no training can presume to pass judgment on art or artists? What does an ex-jock know about neo-expressionism and why should anyone listen to him?

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McEnroe has had it both ways his entire spoiled life. In the SI article, for instance, he dismisses Jimmy Connors’ senior tennis tour as a farce--he has yet to win an event--but only months ago McEnroe was in a reporter’s face, whining that the tour wasn’t getting the media coverage it deserved.

“I’m here,” he said. “That makes it a big event.”

No John, that makes it a huge pain in the butt, just like you.


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