They'll Make the Call

They'll Make the Call

The ball is moving too fast. There’s already a lot of pressure, a crowd in the stands, a medal on the line.

It’s just hard to see. 

Was it in? Out? Can’t tell? 

And hang on just a second. Before you go to Facebook or some pickleball, online forum where someone has frozen the moment in time for all of the internet to see, remember for just a second, the players on the court don’t have the same luxury as you do, sitting on the couch, crumbs all over your shirt and the ability to slow down, zoom in and study the ball like it’s a Zapruder film.

So, what’s the call?

Chances are, at the pro level, the players can’t tell either. And as tough as it is to make that decision, it’s even tougher to try and figure out what’s going to be the future of pickleball line calls, replay, and trying to make sure the tough calls are turned into the right calls.

"In a perfect world, players wouldn’t have to make their own line calls,” said PPA Tour pro Tyler Loong. "Being realistic and dealing with the economics and logistics, it’s not feasible.”

Loong is right. Tennis, the most comparable sport to pickleball, has certainly been around a lot longer and has a lot more discretionary money to funnel toward cameras, replay and the like. The same goes for other sports which have made the move, somewhat, away from being entirely reliable on the human element. Basketball, football, baseball, soccer - all have video replay components to their game at the professional level.

Is pickleball next? It’s happened at some tournaments, with video, but there is no official, standardized use of replay.

The way pickleball is set up, from the rec level to the pros, the calls are left in the hands of the players. Refereed matches provide some recourse for questioned calls, but for the most part, players get the final say - which is problematic for some.

"It’s really frustrating and upsetting when a ball that I believe was in gets called out,” said PPA Tour player Catherine Parenteau, who has played many matches with video replay as an option for players.”I do my best to always be fair and honest with all my calls, so it’s disappointing when my opponent doesn’t do the same. It can change the entire trajectory of the match when that happens and sometimes it is a critical point in the match.”

See, here’s the thing. It’s less likely bad calls happen at the pro level than at the lower level. Pro players are known to give more leeway. Sure, you’ll see plenty of folks with their, “I-told-you-so” videos on Facebook, but the pro players are more likely to call an out-ball in than a 3.0 player will. Why?

“Players are going to continue to make these calls,” said PPA lead referee Don Stanley. “There’s too much mutual respect. They make the best calls to their ability and in good faith, plus, you get someone you’re facing today who might be your partner tomorrow. When you’re that close, you’re not going to make calls you’re not sure about.”

"There was a move recently to have line judges, four per match at the pro-level medal matches, to make calls, but Stanley it was considered a disaster. “It’s not the answer. And it’s proven to not be the answer,” Stanley said.

“The game is getting faster and faster,” said PPA Tour player Spencer Smith. “With more money coming in, it needs to be fair. It’s too hard to turn around and make a correct call that is right by the line. None of us have perfect sight, so we’re destined to make a few bad calls.”

Those few bad calls, the few arguments that are also destined to happen, are problematic for sure, but so is trying to pay for a “Hawkeye” system like pro tennis has, and so is asking a line judge to sit at the baseline and try to decide if a screaming, overhead smash lands in, on the line, or out. 

Mistakes happen, and while it seems unlikely there won’t be more video technology used moving ahead, the system players are dealing with now works. It's not perfect, but it's the best system there is because ultimately the players police themselves.

“Most players give opponents the benefit of the doubt and simply play the ball to not be labeled as a cheater,” Loong said. “I used to call balls closely, but as I've gotten older, I've realized it’s not worth it to mistakenly call a ball out if it’s in. Some of the best in the game are known for having generous line calls. They don’t need to cheat in order to win.”