In this 2 part series, Sportz Cosmos’ Tennis Analyst Toby Reiner takes a look at the 32 seed system that the Gand Slams employ in Tennis and how they may have been a factor in the dominance of the Big 4.
For tennis fans, the short off-season is in its final week. It’s time to start thinking ahead to next month’s Australian Open, the only major tournament held in between September and May, and the perfect mid-winter tennis fix for those of us freezing away in the northern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.
Who will win? I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that I don’t have to peer very hard into my crystal ball to come up with a very short list of likely candidates. The men’s singles is most likely a two-horse race that will boil down to a final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Andy Murray has some chance, but given doubts about his fitness, and because he hasn’t played a competitive match since the Davis Cup playoff the week after the US Open, he is clearly third favourite. The women’s is probably in Serena Williams’s hands, although double-reigning champion Victoria Azarenka might have some chance of upsetting the applecart. Everyone else will likely have to settle for a nice little run and some weeks in the Australian summer, including the once mighty, but now aging, Roger Federer.
Does anyone disagree with my analysis? Well, at any rate, those who make their money out of predicting the outcome of sporting events, the bookmakers, agree. Stan James, my preferred bookmakers for tennis-related events, make Juan Martin Del Potro fourth favourite for the men’s event at odds of 10-1, and have Maria Sharapova third favourite for the women’s at 17-2, thus putting their respective chances at slightly below and slightly above 10%. Bearing in mind the built-in profit margin, they think even Sharapova has slightly less than a 10% chance of winning the event.
Nor is this a one-off blip. In fact, for the better part of the last decade men’s tennis has been dominated by Djokovic, Murray, Nadal and Federer, who have between them won 34 of the last 35 Grand Slams. By contrast, there were 17 different winners in the previous 35 Slams, and 14 in the 35 before that. The women’s game has seen more recent variety, but even there Serena has won two Slams a year in each of the last four years in which she was close to full fitness, and has won 109 of her last 114 matches stretching back to Wimbledon 2012. (Considering that she’s just six weeks younger than Federer, who won just one title last year and failed to make a major final, this is an interesting reflection of the differential rates at which sports stars age).
Many tennis fans will explain this dominance as the result of a rare set of uniquely gifted geniuses, whose unprecedented brilliance is likely to be all-too-brief, and should be enjoyed while it lasts. Although I should perhaps not embrace becoming Sportz Cosmos’ tennis jeremiad, I want to explain why I hold the opposite position: The ‘quadropoly’ is the product of a set of structural changes to the sport designed precisely to ensure greater dominance by a small group of elite players, and it has made tennis less interesting than it used to be. It should therefore be deeply regretted and its demise eagerly awaited.
The first reason is the homogenization of the surfaces that I have written about before. If the playing conditions are almost identical to each other, then upsets are less likely than they are when conditions are diverse. At Roland Garros 1990, the top two seeds, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker both lost in the first round, before going on to contest their third straight Wimbledon final a month later. Yet neither Edberg nor Becker was particularly adept on clay, and Edberg was playing a future two-time champion, Sergi Bruguera, and so those two results were really nowhere near as surprising as it would be were even one of Nadal, Djokovic, and Williams to lose in the opening round in Australia. Surface-specific upsets were a common feature of previous generations of tennis: Pete Sampras never even made the second week of Roland Garros after 1996, yet he won Wimbledon four straight times starting in 1997; Mats Wilander won Roland Garros three times and was runner-up twice, but he never got so far as the semi-finals at Wimbledon; and Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg won multiple major events on their favoured surfaces but lost all the Slam finals they played on grass and hard courts, respectively. Some differentiation between the surfaces remains, as shown by Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros, but it is much less marked than it was.
Perhaps even more important than this is the doubling in the number of seeds in Grand Slam tournaments that started at Wimbledon 2001. Prior to then, the 128-player draws had 16 seeds. Now, they have 32. It seems obvious that increasing the number of seeds should have the effect of making upsets less likely, but bearing in mind that the very first major tournament following the change was won by someone who was not only a non-seed but a wild card, Goran Ivanisevic, I should point out that there are both short-term and long-term reasons why this change would encourage elite dominance.
Grand Slam tournaments are tests of both physical and mental endurance. Although, unlike in regular weeklong events, players typically get a day off in between matches, the two-week duration of the event makes it important that players peak at the right time. As a pre-teen, I was very struck when reading John Feinstein’s book Hard Courts, an account of a year on the tennis tour in 1990, by the emphasis Feinstein placed on the fact that all the top players told him that they did not want to “peak too soon” in a Grand Slam. This made them vulnerable in the early stages, when they would still be moving up through the gears. This fact means that doubling the number of seeds is to their advantage, because it prevents them from having to play an opponent ranked between 17 and 32 in either of the first two rounds. A top player can usually get past the world #33 in third gear, but may need to be in fourth gear to get past the world #17. Steffi Graf found this out to her cost at Wimbledon 1994, when drawn against Lori McNeil, the world #22 and winner of that year’s warm-up event in Birmingham. McNeil upset Graf 7-5 7-6, and went on to make it all the way to the semi-finals. Nowadays, Graf would not have had to play someone of McNeil’s calibre in either the first or second round of a major event. McNeil was a quality player, who had beaten Graf before, in the opening round of the season-ending event in 1992, and pushed her to three tight sets in the semi-finals of the 1987 US Open. Yet it is unlikely that McNeil would have beaten Graf had they played in the second week of Wimbledon 1994, by which time Graf would have been accelerating through the gears. Increasing the number of seeds from 16 to 32 therefore has the effect both of making it less likely that top seeds will lose in an early round, and of allowing them to pace their efforts more.
 In other words, Ivanisevic’s ranking was not high enough for him to gain direct entry into the main draw. He was given a place by the tournament organisers because he was a three-time former losing finalist.