How does the introduction of instant replay at tournaments affect the way pickleball is played?
A: Instant replay was introduced for the first time by the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) at the Takeya Showcase tournament in Newport Beach, California, last August. The decision to adopt the technology was kind of last minute, reports Don Stanley, the PPA’s head referee, in large part because players felt it was time to professionalize calls. Here’s how it works in PPA tournaments:
• To initiate a video challenge, a team or player must have time-outs remaining.
• Once a challenge is requested, the referee who is sitting in the media truck with the video team reviews the video, slowing it down, freezing frames, and stopping and starting it, doing whatever is needed to make the most definitive determination.
• The video ref then communicates his or her decision to the lead ref on the court.
• Depending on lighting and other factors, the lead ref may also ask to review the video on a hand-held device, but as of press time that is still being worked out and may prolong the process too much.
Howard Simon, who was the first pickleball referee to use video review at Newport Beach, cautions that going to the video isn’t a perfect solution; but he agrees that with half of the challenged calls getting overturned so far, it’s proving to be helpful. Bob Swisshelm, another veteran ref who has already been in the video booth hot seat, concurs, calling it “awesome” but cautioning that it is “still in its infancy,” as replays can also be inconclusive due to a bad camera angle or a blocked or blurred play.
Swisshelm points to a call on a baseline shot during the PPA Texas Open last fall as a classic example; he was lead referee on the court. Leigh Waters called the ball out early in the match. Opponents Lucy Kovalova and Simone Jardim then asked Swisshelm what he thought. “As is often the case,” he says, “neither I nor my second ref could say, since our primary job is watching other stuff, so Simone said, ‘Oh, what the heck. Let’s challenge it!’” The call was overturned.
Surprisingly, watching lines is low on the list for pickleball referees given all they must contend with, infringements in the non-volley zone (NVZ) being a priority. “I don’t doubt my ability to make the tough calls,” stresses Swisshelm. “But what we want is for the correct call to be made.”
At first glance, one might question whether instant replay is really needed in
a sport where players at the highest levels have long been counted on to call their own foot faults, “defer” to opponents when the right call is ambiguous, and sometimes even “abdicate” a point that has been called in their favor. Some have been known to go so far as to roll things back after a wrong call is made, even if the ref won’t allow it. Players can intentionally serve into the net or serve out in order to rewind to the place in the game where the error was made.
But supporters say that instant replay actually reinforces this positive aspect of pickleball’s culture. Take what happened in Austin, Texas, last November during the first Major League Pickleball tournament, for instance. Irina Tereschenko and Andrea Koop were playing Anna Leigh Waters and Lee Whitwell. Tereschenko called the ball out, but some spectators thought the ball was in. Her opponents couldn’t ask for a video replay as they had already used a challenge. Ben Johns, Tereschenko’s team captain, who was watching, suggested that she challenge her own call, which she gladly did. The ball was determined to be good. “So I lost the point—and the match,” says Tereschenko. “It was kind of sad, but I’d rather lose like that than win with a bad call.”
Don Stanley says Tereschenko’s challenge on herself was the mark of great sportsmanship, and he’s in favor of the continued use of instant replay, in large part because referees have so many things to monitor during each point and often can’t turn quickly enough to see a ball as it heads toward the baseline. “For me personally,” he says, “I don’t trust myself when my head is turning. I won’t make a call unless I’m 100 percent sure.”
The biggest potential downside Stanley sees is that games might slow down due to the instant replay challenge, resulting in the kind of long waits fans endure during pro football games. “I’m going to institute a policy that the refs in the truck have 60 seconds to make a ruling once my headset is on,” he says. “If not, the call stands.” Simon agrees. “We don’t want this to become a battle of videos. We still want people to use their skills and eyes. In pickleball, it’s different from soccer and other sports. It’s two-dimensional,” he explains, “where the ball touches, where your foot touches. So if you step into the NVZ, it’s a fault, but if your foot is in the air over the zone, that’s OK.”
“You have to get your ducks in a row before you go over to the headset to look at the video,” explains Stanley. The confusion that occurred during a recent mixed doubles match between Matt Wright/Lucy Kovalova and Ben Johns/ Simone Jardim following a video challenge is a good example: Everyone became unsure as to whose turn it was to serve and from what side of the court.
“It’s very flippin’ important for the refs to keep tabs,” Stanley says. “We’re trying
to finesse the process because in the heat of battle, that’s the sticky part. Things can get hairy. If you walk into the center before you’ve completed the scoresheet process, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt.” As a result, tracking refs, whose only responsibility is to keep score, are now part of the video challenge replay system.
In a sport where players are allowed to overrule a referee as long as it’s to the benefit of their opponent, anything that contributes to overall fairness is a win to officiators. In other words, for the referees, instant replay is like having a reliable eyewitness on their team. What judge wouldn’t want that?