Ball Marks at the French Open, or What Do YOU Have Eyes to See?

It’s time for the French Open again in tennis. I went once; it was thrilling. On those clay courts, line calls are made by examination of the mark that the ball leaves on the court. There’s no high-tech instant reply screen. An expert chair umpire jumps down and trots over to determine the ball’s trajectory and settles a dispute over whether it was in or out, and the point is decided. I found an old New York Times article about it interesting.

Here’s an excerpt:

“It happens in almost every match, and sometimes several times. A ball hits the court. A line judge makes a call. A player disagrees.

“And so begins clay court tennis’s quirkiest bit of theater.

“The chair umpire climbs down from the midcourt perch. He or she hustles — not a run, not a walk, but a trot — to the point of contention.

“Dirt is examined. Sport meets archaeology.

“In an era of instant replays and computer-generated assurances, there is an old-world charm to ball marks, little imprints of evidence left behind in the fraction of a moment that a ball touches the brick dust of a French Open tennis court.”

This is what these chair umpires know — lines, ball marks, smudges. And they’re not all created equal, as the NYT tells us: “Lobs create perfectly round spots. Hard serves leave comet-shaped streaks. 

Smashes, spins and drops leave variations.

Sometimes there is barely a smudge at all. Sometimes, usually late in a set and near the baseline, the mark cannot be picked from a crowded constellation of blots and footprints. And, hardest of all, sometimes there is only a partial mark near the white line, a phantom left to interpretation.

Chair umpires receive special training for handling disputes and decoding ball marks on clay, and the French Tennis Federation’s Web site includes instructional videos.”

So enough about tennis. My point is not about tennis.  My point is about the development of eyes to see — whatever it is you want to see.

We all know that old adage that “Eskimos have a million words for snow, whereas the rest of us just know ‘snow.'” And it turns out that that’s under debate, for it’s hard to define “Eskimo” or “word” or even “snow” accurately enough to count. But you get the point.

Whatever it is that we really know, we can SEE differently than others can, those who don’t care as much or have as much exposure to whatever it is we KNOW.

Teenagers go into athletic shoe stores and are faced with a wall of 200 shoes that look, to an adult, nearly identical. But when an adult suggests a particular one, they are often met with an indignant reaction, “Nobody would wear those.” Which is hard to figure, cause the fine points between that one and another are S-U-B-T-L-E.

So what is it that you have eyes to see?

  • Can you pick out unusual birds at a distance by their shape or attributes?
  • Can you win at “Name that Tune,” figuring out a song within a few notes heard?
  • Do you recognize slight changes to a particular car model when you see one on the road?
  • Maybe you can recognize counterfeit coins.
  • Perhaps you are skilled at discerning where people are from or hearing minor differences in regional accents.
  • Are you a barbed-wire expert?
  • Do you look at a quilt and know all about the fabric?

Eyes are the windows into the soul in the Bible. It matters what our eyes are taking in. It matters what we develop eyes to see.

And just as the umpires at the French Open need to study and receive special training in their chosen area of focus, so do we.

It’s amazing to realize that we can develop super-powers this way (whether bird watchers or snow-describers or marketing gurus for Nike) and that we really do cultivate the ability to see things that others can’t see. What we see and who we become depend on where we put our time and focus.


Leave a Reply