In Drone-Conscious Era, Cameras Fly to Cover Tennis as Spectacle
By JOHN MARTIN
PARIS – On a grey afternoon, a hot air balloon advertising a French bank drifted briefly into view as spectators at Roland Garros watched Roger Federer dispatch his first-round opponent in the 2014 French Open.
Depending on where they sat, it was also possible to see the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance.
For a moment, the twin images of a 19th Century balloon and the iconic tower by Eiffel conjured a scene from “Around the World in Eighty Days,” the 1873 Jules Verne classic novel.
Moments later, a miniaturized jet airplane the size of a small automobile appeared over the rim of the stadium.
Guided by wires, the plane’s fuselage bore the name of an international airline. Its undercarriage held a camera that swept over the heads of the spectators. Then, Cablecam, 440 pounds of carbon fiber and metal, pointed its lens straight down at the players from a height of about 90 feet.
Asked whether he had been distracted, Federer said “not really,” but said he had been rattled by a flying camera at the Australian Open four months ago.
“I don’t like it when they come too close,” Federer said, recalling the incident.
In Melbourne, Federer was changing shirts during his semifinal match against Rafael Nadal when he glanced up, froze, and then glared for several seconds.
Positioned about 30 feet above him was Spidercam, a 130-pound metal device held by cables and guided with winches. Its base carried a camera controlled from a booth high up near the roof of Rod Laver Arena.
Federer scowled and pulled down his shirt to cover his chest, seemingly irritated by an invasion of his privacy. The image, displayed to about 14,800 courtside spectators, was beamed to TV audiences around the world.
“I ask them just for some space because I am trying to focus,” he said. Changing his shirt, he suggested, was a private matter.
Then Federer smiled. “I feel like it’s a bit odd, you know, who is that guy controlling the camera? I don’t know. Is he a weirdo or not?” he said, provoking laughter from reporters.
Since 2001, wire-guided cameras have taken to the skies over three of the four major international tennis championships. The French went first, launching Cablecam, a camera supplied by a small company, ACS France, which specializes in aerial photography for feature films, television commercials, and sporting events. .
ESPN deployed Spidercam at the U.S. Open in 2010 and exported its use to the Australian Open in 2011.
In an era when flying cameras appear everywhere from backyards to battlefields, some athletes are wary of their widening presence.
But none express surprise that the images they capture are capable of drawing gasps of appreciation from viewers and spectators.
“The camera has been a fantastic addition,” said Chris Widmaier, a U.S.T.A. managing director. At the U.S. Open, he said, “It provides dramatic perspectives on the competition and the event.”
The All England Lawn Tennis Club, however, has decided not to deploy the device. “It was considered and rejected,” said Johnny Perkins, the Wimbledon spokesman, “partly on aesthetic grounds but also for technical reasons having to do with the way the wires would have been attached to parts of Centre Court.”
“It’s a terrific tool,” said Jamie Reynolds, ESPN vice president of events. He said he hoped the AELTC might someday allow Spidercam to cover Centre Court and beyond, including Wimbledon’s queue of ticket buyers and strollers on St. Mary’s Walk.
“We’re still hoping at one point we might have the opportunity to explore the option,” he said.
At least half a dozen professional and college sports, including tennis, football, basketball, soccer, cricket, rugby, and auto and horse racing, have adopted the flying camera technology.
But athletes, principally cricketeers, do not display universal acclaim for a device that could get in the way of their team winning a championship.
Nearly two years ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Spidercam “has been hit by football goalkeepers.” It said “Mumbai’s Dinesh Karthik struck a ball into the camera during a cricket match against a Sydney team.” Two players claimed the camera was “a distraction for batsmen and came too close to the field during its use in the Indian Premier League.”
At the 2013 Australian Open, a BBC radio commentator noticed Andy Murray’s distraction during a third- round match against Richard Berankis of Latvia:
“Murray dwells over his next serve a little longer as he thinks about where he is going to put it. He smuggles that one past Berankis, but loses the next point as he is disturbed by an apparent movement of the overhead Spidercam.
At Roland Garros, French operators use gyroscopes to guide Cablecam a distance of about 150 yards. The craft rides on three wires stretched from a platform at Suzanne Lenglen stadium to a crane scaffold beside Philippe Chatrier stadium.
On television monitors, Cablecam’s images sweep across the grounds and dive into the stadium in a spectacular flight that propels the viewer into the thick of a match.
“They’re doing a fabulous job for the application they’ve been asked to do,” said Reynolds, whose ESPN control room crew played a videotape of a Cablecam approach to Chatrier stadium for a photographer.
“It’s there for atmosphere, to give you beauty, to give you size and scope of the venue. That’s a good asset” he said, noting that the French device cannot descend to court level, where he said what he called a “coverage tool” could do a better job following action as players scramble to win a point.
When Cablecam made its debut in 2013, the appearance of a flying camera beneath a model airliner surprised Reynolds, he said. “I’m not sure domestically you’d ever get away with putting a model plane flying a stadium in the United States.”
But mandatory daily inspections and rigorous company maintenance routines guarantee safety, said Luc Poullain, the chief executive officer of ACS France, which created the craft and installed the camera in its Versailles headquarters.
Each morning, Poullain said, ACS technicians test cables and tighten screws to assure that the plane, which carries electronic gyroscopes for stability, is safe to fly. “The truss you have at the end can support seven times the load we have,” said Poulain.
Serena Williams said the device’s arrival distracted her during her first round match. “I was about to serve,” Williams said, “and I saw this airplane. I thought, is there an airplane flying? Then I realized it was a camera.”
Williams said she saw a benefit. “Listen, it’s all about the more camera views, the more people you can reach on TV, the more people who get involved in the sport,” she said. “It’s just looking at it in the bigger picture.”
In Melbourne, a smaller picture attracted two operators for the owners of Spidercam, a European technology company based in Vienna and Hamburg.
Squeezed into a booth high above the court, pilot Christian Will and cameraman Stephen Grueber said children in the stands often respond to the device as if it were an intelligent being.
“We find little kids and bring the camera down to them and start nodding the camera at them and they find that quite funny and the crowd kind of likes it,” said Grueber.
Maria Hering, a Spidercam technician who monitored its batteries and inspected its cables to ensure safety in Melbourne, agreed that the device exhibits personality traits.
Asked what she might be saying to the craft as it leaves her hands and lifts off, Hering smiled. “’Have fun,’” she said, adding, “’and be careful.’”