In or Out, Even Nasty Has Trouble Faulting Tennis' Breakthrough Electronic Linesman

updated 09/01/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1980 01:00AM

Among nature's noblemen (and women), consider the linesmen at a high-stakes pro tennis match. They are volunteers who receive little or no pay. They sit at courtside in the sautéing sun, forced to ignore the game itself, no matter how dramatic. Then, worse, they find themselves the target of vilification and rude gestures from the likes of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Sometimes, alas, they make mistakes: Linesmen are only flesh and blood.

Now a new kind of line monitor has entered big-time tennis that does not make mistakes and, for that matter, isn't flesh and blood. It is the CPE Service Line Monitor, an electronic arbiter introduced at Wimbledon in June and being tested this week by U.S. Open officials in New York.

The CPE—becoming known as the "Magic Eye"—is the brainchild of William Carlton and Margaret Parnis-England, who live on the island of Malta. In 1978, as spectators at the Malta International Tennis Tournament, they became peeved at the linesmen's decisions during a match between Pierre Barthes and Nikki Pilic.

Carlton, a retired British engineer, and Parnis-England, a local amateur tennis player, decided that at the very least linesmen should be aided in making calls. The initial idea, Carlton recalls, "was to have them work in a pit so they'd be at eye level with the line." That scheme gave way to an inverted periscope giving the judge a narrow, ground-level view of the ball. But, Carlton notes, "This required even more concentration from a linesman."

A propitious accident spurred them on. As they were testing their periscope, Carlton's daughter Sarah, then 9, accidently knocked it over, jarring the mirror so that a ball was no longer visible if it landed fair but only if it plopped beyond the line. "Suddenly," Carlton says, "we had a totally different conception"—building a device to show when balls were out, not in.

After studying how his home burglar alarm worked, Carlton built a prototype CPE using infrared rays to track the ball. Then he had an electronics firm make a machine, which the British Lawn Tennis Association began testing in 1978. The now-operational CPE, which is the size of a large briefcase, is primarily designed for the rear service line. (Elsewhere on the court, interference from the players' feet can hamper its "rulings.")

To monitor the service line, a unit is placed at either side of the court and, at the press of the linesman's button, emits "fault" rays that span the court for 15 inches on the "out" side of the service line. When a ball hits that area, the linesman hears a bleep and a red light flashes on the umpire's console. If the ball hits the line or lands up to six inches inside it, another ray is activated and flashes a yellow light in front of the umpire, with no bleeping.

Six months before the first round, Wimbledon began training officials to use the CPE. It was installed on Center Court and Court No. 1 for singles only at a cost to the All-England Tennis Club of $9,400. British tennis umpires' association chairman Geoff Pace says, "The device was a success, with fewer queries from the players, and the officials were happy to have it."

Parnis-England, 38, the wife of a Maltese industrialist and mother of four (ages 11 to 17), proposed the original periscope idea and served as project nag. "I pushed Bill into this because of my love for the game," she says. The divorced Carlton, 66, owned engineering and sporting goods plants in Essex before moving to Malta in 1969. A longtime tinkerer, he invented plastic beer crates, plastic badminton shuttlecocks and lightweight metal badminton rackets. When Carlton retired, Dunlop bought his badminton patents and production company. Now he gardens at his 18th-century home in the country and cruises the Mediterranean on his 53-foot motor yacht. He is happiest, though, in his workshop. His latest project is to find a breakthrough, low-cost way to collect and store solar energy. How close to a solution is he? "If I had the answer," he says, "I wouldn't be talking about tennis balls."

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