Perceptual uncertainty and line-call challenges in professional tennis.

Research paper by George G Mather

Indexed on: 23 Apr '08Published on: 23 Apr '08Published in: Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society


Fast-moving sports such as tennis require both players and match officials to make rapid accurate perceptual decisions about dynamic events in the visual world. Disagreements arise regularly, leading to disputes about decisions such as line calls. A number of factors must contribute to these disputes, including lapses in concentration, bias and gamesmanship. Fundamental uncertainty or variability in the sensory information supporting decisions must also play a role. Modern technological innovations now provide detailed and accurate physical information that can be compared against the decisions of players and officials. The present paper uses this psychophysical data to assess the significance of perceptual limitations as a contributor to real-world decisions in professional tennis. A detailed analysis is presented of a large body of data on line-call challenges in professional tennis tournaments over the last 2 years. Results reveal that the vast majority of challenges can be explained in a direct highly predictable manner by a simple model of uncertainty in perceptual information processing. Both players and line judges are remarkably accurate at judging ball bounce position, with a positional uncertainty of less than 40mm. Line judges are more reliable than players. Judgements are more difficult for balls bouncing near base and service lines than those bouncing near side and centre lines. There is no evidence for significant errors in localization due to image motion.