Once upon time, Grand Slam draws comprised of 16 seeds as opposed to 32, which is the number we are accustomed to seeing in modern times. 16-seed slam draws lasted from 1989 to Wimbledon 2001 and it’s fair to say that this period threw up its fair share of shocking early-round results and otherwise gripping first week matches. The suspicion among some seasoned tennis followers is that the unanimous decision to double the number of seeds at the four majors halved the amount of fun. After all, the change was made with the express purpose of buttressing the position of the players at and around the top of the game by making them less vulnerable to upsets in the early rounds.
Moreover, the threat of clay court specialists ranked in the top 10 boycotting Wimbledon was also a relevant factor behind the introduction of the 32-seed system. Gustavo Kuerten, former world No.1 and three-time titlist at the French Open, felt he had no business turning up at SW19 not only because grass did not suit his game, but also because Wimbledon’s seeding system works differently from those used at the other major tournaments. Previous performance in grass court tournaments is actually taken into account, so the seedings at Wimbledon aren’t solely based on ranking. This spelled doom for top claycourters who could not adapt to the surface and consequently faced the prospect of being an unseeded or lower seeded entrant into the main draw. Clay specialists Alex Corretja, Albert Costa and Thomas Muster were staunch advocates of Guga’s sentiments, often choosing to skip the grass altogether. Something had to be done.
Who gains and who loses out because of the 32-seed draw?
Nowadays, players ranked in the top 32 can’t play anyone else anyone ranked higher than 33 in their first two matches, whereas in the past the world’s best could be paired off with a fellow seed in the very first round. During the past 16 years, the results of this new way of doing things are a smoother ride for those players ranked from 17-32 in the opening two rounds and a harder time of things for unseeded players, as will be explained. In terms of the entertainment produced, there isn’t really a huge difference between the type of matches produced by a 16-seed draw and a 32-seed draw if viewing figures and television ratings are to be believed.
What’s at issue here is the chasm that has opened up between the ‘lower tier’ of the seeds (17-32) and those ranked below them. As the kind folk over at Tennis Abstract have pointed out, the top 16 seeds advance to the third, fourth rounds and quarter-final stage at a 10% higher rate since the new seeding format was adopted but even this statistic doesn’t represent much of a shake-up as far they’re concerned. Instead, unseeded players have taken the hit as the depth of the men’s game increases and those hovering around the mid-teens to the low 30s have benefitted at their expense. In the 12 seasons from 2002-2013, the men seeded from 17 through 32 reached the third round on 53% of occasions, unseeded players just 12% of the time. Things weren’t always this way and in the time that has elapsed since it is not likely that much has changed.
The disparity in fortunes between the lower seeds and the unseeded gets magnified when one considers how prize money at Grand Slams is currently distributed. First round losers at Wimbledon bag £35,000 while those who make it to the third round get a check for £90,000. It’s hard to defend the status quo as equitable, seeing as the lower tier seeds – think players like Jack Sock, John Isner and Albert Ramos-Viñolas- don’t add so much more value to the event than players ranked between 35 and 60, say. But if they live up to their seeding, then they get paid much, much more.
The Big Four at Slams- Aided by the draw or something more?
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won between them 44 of the last 49 Grand Slams and have mopped up most of the masters as well. As a result, one could be in favour of the 16-seed draw because it theoretically raises the chances of the Big Four being challenged in the opening rounds at slams, even if they don’t always lose outright.
The tennis world was set ablaze when, for instance, Novak Djokovic was dumped out of the 2nd round of the 2017 Australian Open by Denis Istomin and Andy Murray suffered the same fate against Mischa Zverev a round later. Both Istomin and Zverev were unseeded; they were true underdogs who won the day by taking the game to their opponents and refusing to give an inch. Their stories attracted almost as much interest to that particular tournament as the Federer-Nadal final. Similarly, we are all familiar with what happened to Nadal at Wimbledon from 2012-14, so his loss to Muller on Monday was hardly without precedent.
There is another side to the discussion about what has allowed the Big Four to dominate the ATP’s top-tier tournaments for the better part of a decade. Their remarkable consistency has been enabled by the 32-seed draw at Slams to some extent, but I submit that it can also be chalked up to the slowing down of surfaces and the use of heavier tennis balls. Wimbledon, for example, switched to 100% perennial ryegrass in 2001. Since 2003, Wimbledon has been won by Federer seven times, Djokovic three times, and Murray and Nadal twice. In that timespan, only Roddick (2009), Berdych (2010) and Raonic (2016) have even been able to reach the final of the event; all the rest of the finals have been contested between members of the untouchable quartet. The Australian Open, save for 2014 when Wawrinka broke through, has been won by either Djokovic, Federer or Nadal every year since 2006. The only other player to have made the final of the first slam of the year since 2009 is Andy Murray. At the US Open, power hitters like Del Potro, Čilić and Wawrinka have treated us to mesmerizing title runs in the last ten years, though the courts at Flushing Meadows don’t play nearly as fast as they did in the 90s.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that the only meaningfully negative effect of the 32-seed draw at Grand Slam tournaments is that it puts unseeded players in an unbelievably tough position in the early rounds and overwhelmingly protects the seeded players ranked 17-32 (or at Wimbledon, whoever happens to occupy those spots) for the first two rounds. With the way prize money is allocated, it makes a big difference that the 17-32 seeds have a higher chance of making the third round compared to the unseeded players who usually struggle to make it past the first. At the very top of the game, I don’t think the decision to ditch the 16-seed draw has had any noticeable impact. It didn’t make a world of difference that Rafael Nadal, for example, at this year’s Wimbledon had to play an unseeded player ranked in the low 40s like Donald Young in the 2nd round and Karen Khachanov (ranked 34th but seeded 30th) in the following round. The result of these two matches was the same- a straight sets beatdown- as was the entertainment value. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are quite a bit ahead of the field, but the lack of variance in the playing surfaces at the major tournaments has undoubtedly helped them rule the roost for so long. We can propose hypotheticals all day, such as how much worse Nadal would have fared at Wimbledon on 90s grass, or if Djokovic would have a far inferior record at the ATP World Tour Finals if it were still played on carpet or faster indoor hard courts. In order to give these legends the respect they are due, however, let’s leave these aside and celebrate their extraordinary achievements in the era they were actually born to play in.
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I am indebted to Heavy Topspin- The TennisAbstract Blog for the seeding statistics and totalsportek.com for the prize money figures .