RealTime IT News

Tech's New Sway at The US Open

FLUSHING, N.Y. -- "Challenge it!"

US Open fans (never the shy, retiring types) are shouting these words with glee at this year's tennis tournament.

If you've taken in some of the US Open play so far -– either via live play on USOpen.org, in person, or the old-fashioned way on TV, you know why: the new instant replay feature has fans urging players to use the computers.

US Open officials debuted the system this year. It lets players challenge the final word of the line judge about whether a ball was in or out.

It's also a watershed moment for professional tennis, one of the few remaining sports that (for the most part) has held off on letting tech change the rules of the game.

As the first Grand Slam event to introduce the instant replay challenge (in Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums), the US Open is leading tennis into an inextricable link with technology.

Players in the main courts now get two challenges per set to review line calls.

If the instant replay agrees with the player's challenge, the player retains the same number of challenges. If the player is wrong, then he or she has one challenge remaining per set (no carrying over challenges to new sets).

The big screen display above the court (and on broadcasts) creates another moment of suspense for fans, who so far appear delighted with the addition. Players, such as Andy Roddick, mention in media interviews they are ok with it.

Everybody takes part in waiting for the computer to decide, with 3D-like views of where the ball actually hit and cheers or jeers going up as the computers render their decision of in or out.

Men are the biggest users of the challenge rule at 87 so far, according to the US Open's stats. Of that, 26 challenges turned out to be correct.

That means computers have so far overturned about 29.89 percent of the challenged calls out of an average of about 3 calls per match.

The women trail the men in using the feature at 40 challenges so far, with 12 of them turning out to be incorrect so far for an average of 30 percent.

It's just one of the many ways tech increasingly holds sway in tennis, if not sports in general.

Take innovations at the USOpen.org Web site, which is preparing to scale up to its biggest traffic bump yet as the finals approach.

IBM is marking its 15th year supplying hosting, servers, database and services support as it captures and pumps data into the US Open Web site.

Big Blue is also making virtualization technology a cornerstone of its tech deployment behind the scenes. Sure, Arthur Ashe was a player, rather than the name of center court, in 1968 when virtualization began to wend its way into the IT world, mostly on IBM's mainframes.

With cooling costs in data centers a major issue in any IT shop these days, virtualization has come a long way, and in this case, is pulling out all the stops for the site traffic.

For example, IBM consolidated 60 servers it uses for the data crunching and hosting USOpen.org to nine, grouped by threes.

In addition to the 3-D effects of the instant replay system, IBM is working with the company behind the instant replay, Hawk-Eye, in order to make sure the replay data is captured and sent to the appropriate audiences, such as scoreboards, for instant replay challenges.

The same information is pumped into IBM's PointTracker feature that lets users track ball speed, angles of play and other features of the game.

You've got live matches you can watch on the site, quizzes, instant replay, 3D features, point tracking, and player statistics in every configuration you could imagine out of IBM's DB2 systems.

American Express (perhaps a bit stung by the mojo campaign it built around Andy Roddick during last year's sponsorship, only to see him dinged in the early rounds), took a different route this year with an interactive US Open advertising campaign.

This year Amex is inviting viewers to play an online game called StopPong.com (http://www.stoppong.com). Using a strategy built on the old Pong videogame, StopPong lets players move "Andy" around on the court in position to bat the tennis ball at Pong. The first to score 15 wins.

One player called it kind of cool for the retro aspect, but didn't think it was all that fun. Here's what did work: The game kept him engaged long enough for Amex's marketing message to get across.

Hawk-Eye at US Open
Hawk-Eye's instant replay tech as seen above center court (Photo: Gene Hirschel).

Tech holds sway in tennis. But the arrival of instant replay for the pros puts tech into the fabric of the game.

You would think that players and fans would grumble or remark on its intrusion in the game. Instead, they've quickly absorbed its place within the spectacle, the suspense and the drama of watching the limits of a line judge diminish with each call to.."challenge it!"

Gene Hirschel contributed to this story. Erin Joyce is executive editor of internet.com's news channel.