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Volume 23 No. 28
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With tech development, courts will still have live atmosphere

Technology means players like Serena Williams will still have friendly faces in their boxes.
Photo: Renderings courtesy of U.S. Open

Players’ boxes are a major comfort for any professional tennis competitor, alternately serving as a source of shared celebration and words of encouragement from relatives, friends, agents and coaches seated in the box.

 

For this year’s U.S. Open, though, held amid a pandemic with no fans in attendance, players looking to their support group in the box will find them live … on an interactive screen. 

A virtual player’s box, created by The Famous Group, is just one of the many tech innovations that the USTA is implementing for this year’s tournament, which begins Aug. 31 in New York.

Innovation is nothing new for the Open, which gave the sport yellow tennis balls, night tennis and the first use of electronic line calling. But the absence of 800,000 fans at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center over the course of the two-week event due to the pandemic forced an IBM-assisted redesign of the tournament’s app, stripping away the numerous on-site features that won’t be needed this year and adding new fan engagement tools.

The empty stands prompted the USTA to hunt for ways to bring missing fans’ voices into Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums. Kirsten Corio, USTA managing director for ticketing and social strategy, and her team sat through at least 25 remote pitches from companies hawking novel tech ideas to create a virtual fan presence. They ultimately settled on Fan Cam Powered by American Express, created by Wasserman’s CrowdAmp, in which fans can submit recordings of themselves cheering that are then added to a library that match producers can play in-stadium or on the broadcast throughout a match. Fan Cam will only be available through the U.S. Open app. 

“We really wanted players on the court to be able to see fan cheers and hear their voices, get to as close to normal as possible in the stadium,” said Corio. “We wanted them to feel that energy, and we wanted fans to feel like they had a role to play in that live match.”

Noah Syken, IBM vice president of sports and entertainment partnerships, said that five years ago, his company shifted the USTA’s computing to the cloud, leaving the organization well-positioned for remote work and enabling organizers to drastically decrease the number of people at the National Tennis Center, a key part of their COVID-19 mitigation plans. For example, all the tournament’s official scorekeepers will be working remotely, their scoring updated through the cloud.  

In another first for a Grand Slam, the Open’s use of Hawk-Eye Live, a version of the Hawk-Eye line-calling system that makes automatic (and vocal) “out” calls, will allow the tournament to decrease the number of human line judges on-site from 300 to 70. Sean Cary, USTA senior director of pro officiating, said that human line judges have recorded “out” calls in their own distinct voices so that players on different courts don’t get confused when they hear the automated Hawk-Eye Live calls from a neighboring match