WIMBLEDON — Last fall, the Grand Slam Board announced that the four major championships had committed to cut back the number of seeds in both men’s and women’s singles draws from 32 to 16. But given what has been happening at Wimbledon this past week, the GSB might have a change of heart before it is set to give the plan a final stamp of approval in October.
Seeds have fallen fast at Wimbledon this year. By the end of two rounds of play, almost half the seeds in both main singles draws were eliminated. By the end of the third round, just one of the top 10 women’s seeds, No. 7 Karolina Pliskova, remained in contention heading into the Round of 16 (an Open era record), while just five of the top 10 men survived.
Some have blamed the grass for the robust number of upsets; others looked to the increasing parity on both tours, a trend evident on the WTA Tour, while well-disguised (and yet still real) on the men’s tour, thanks to the continuing excellence of iconic champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
But all of the early exits here has forced many to look back at the seeding structure proposal.
The argument for cutting back to 16 seeds was borne from the Big Four era, and is still currently more relevant to the men’s tour. With Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray dominating the men’s tour, and with the rest of men’s top 10 dominated by other too-familiar faces of players like Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the belief was that the elite players were receiving too much protection (an additional perk: first-round byes at Masters 1000 events) while younger players faced too great a struggle to get to the top.
Federer made the case for change at the ATP World Tour Finals in November.
“Having 16 seeds, that might be interesting, The draw could be more volatile, better matches in the first week,” said Federer, who is still alive at Wimbledon heading into the second week. “The top guys have made a habit of, not cruising, but getting through the first week quite comfortably for a long period of time. Playing against the numbers 17, 19 or 20 in the world [in the first round] is not something I really want to do, but it is what it is.”
The Grand Slams adopted the 32-seed system in June 2001, following a 2000 boycott of Wimbledon by some clay-court specialists, including Alex Corretja and Albert Costa. The players were miffed they were left unseeded despite being ranked among the top 16. They were left out because Wimbledon reserves the right to take a player’s history on grass into consideration when it makes its seedings, instead of simply seeding by the ATP rankings.
Wimbledon’s compromise was to seed the top 32 ranked players, but in any order it chose. That was fine with the US and Australian Opens, whose then-greater concerns with the needs of broadcasters had already led them to support a 32-seed regimen.
The main complaint about the 32-seed format is it produces fewer high-value first-round matchups and fewer shocking results. According to Reuters, in the five years after the change, the number of upsets at the Australian Open was cut roughly in half (7.2 to 3.63) from the five previous years. At the other three majors, it fell by about 33 percent. Interestingly, the women’s draw showed no significant statistical change; upsets were simply more common no matter the number of seeds.
“You have these stairs that can make you feel safe and I feel like there’s too many to get to the top,” Federer said. “It’s hard to drop out and it’s hard to get into [the top echelon of the list].”
The real winners in the switch to 32 seeds were the players on either tour ranked 17th to 32nd. According to the website Tennis Abstract, from 1989 to 2000, men’s players ranked between 17 and 32 reached the third round at majors about twice as often (35 percent compared to 17 percent) as their lower-ranked peers. Women players held a wider advantage, 39 percent to 15 percent.
Now that the 17 to 32 group is protected, the gap is wider. From 2002-13, men seeded outside the top 16 have reached the third round 53 percent of the time, compared to 12 percent for unseeded players. Seeded women in the 17-32 range have reached the third round 49 percent of the time, while unseeded women have equaled their male counterparts at 12 percent.
Cutting back to 16 seeds would be a double-edged sword in a number of ways. Some of the players currently ranked between 16 and 32 are Kyle Edmund, Maria Sharapova, Nick Kyrgios, Naomi Osaka, Denis Shapovalov, Johanna Konta, Kei Nishikori, Agnieszka Radwanska and Milos Raonic. Sure, such players could create a sensation with a first-round upset; but odds are greater they would lose, taking talented, appealing players out of the tournament pool.
“Aesthetically, it sounds sexier and seems better, but I don’t know it would create impact we want,” Paul Annacone, former coach of Roger Federer and now a Tennis Channel analyst, told ESPN.com. “I’m not sure the positives would outweigh the detriment to those players ranked 16 to 32.”
Players and broadcasters are largely in favor of keeping the current format. The aspiring, low-ranked players know they will have to battle it out, whether against a peer or a seeded player. The “protected” 32 have a greater sense of security. As exciting as a Day One upset is at a major, it also takes a very important piece off the chess board. With the increasing depth on both tours, a 32-seed format in a post-Federer-Nadal-Serena Williams era might be a bulwark against chaos.
“The 16 seeds, I don’t understand the point of it,” Madison Keys said in a press conference last January in Australia. “I guess we need more drama and more upsets. It will be interesting, to say the least.”
Sam Querrey said on Friday: “I am a fan of trying new things in tennis. So, you know, if they want to try that for three years and see if we get great matchups and it works and the fans like it, that’s fine with me. Me, personally, I don’t want it.”
And why would that be?
“Because a lot of times I float around between 17 and 32,” he replied, without missing a beat. “And that’s the honest truth.”