In the second and final part of To Bye or Not To Bye, 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. You can read the 1st part here.
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.
At Roland Garros 2013, for example, Nadal started the event very slowly, dropping the opening set in each of his first two rounds against Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan, improving somewhat against Fabio Fognini in the third round, and only really clicking into gear against Kei Nishikori in the fourth. Fognini was the #27 seed for the event and is just the sort of player who might very occasionally be able to upset a top player if he were to catch them cold, but who has much less chance when that player is warmed up. I’m not saying that he would have beaten Nadal had they played in the first round, but that it wouldn’t have been impossible.
Moreover, the way in which the seedings work is that the top eight players each play someone seeded between 25 and 32 in the third round, while the players ranked between nine and 16 each play someone seeded between 17 and 24. In the fourth round, the top four are drawn to play the numbers 13 through 16, while those seeded between five and eight are drawn to play someone between nine and 12. This again has the effect of tiring out the lower-ranked seeds by giving them more difficult draws, so that by the time they do play higher-ranked seeds, they are often too tired to give their best efforts.
I am aware, of course, that that is the point of having a seeding system in the first place. The point, however, is that the seeding system has become more hierarchical than it used to be, which means that it works better at ensuring the top players make it through the opening rounds than it used to.
The change to the seeding system also helps the higher-ranked players in the long term. It does this by making it harder for young players to climb up through the rankings. I think it is no coincidence that there are fewer and fewer young players in tennis, and that this change is as much a part of the reason as is the much-vaunted “increased physicality” of the game. A player ranked #33 will now definitely face a top 32 player in either the first or the second round of a major championships, and thus faces a daunting task just making the third round. Furthermore, the increase in the number of seeds makes it much rarer for a draw to fall apart, with all the seeds in that section losing early, and so means that lower-ranked players do not progress deep into the tournament so often as they used to. Wimbledon 2013 was a rare exception, with Jerzy Janowicz taking advantage of the early losses of Federer and Nadal to become the first player not seeded in the top 16 to make the semi-finals of a Grand Slam in more than three years.
In the regular ATP events, other changes have exacerbated the difficulty of climbing through the rankings. The final of Masters 1000 events used to be a best-of-five set affair; now, in order to make it easier for the finalists to recover in time for the next week’s tournament, it is best of three. This may seem fairer to the finalists, but why one tournament should change its rules for the sake of another tournament is beyond me. Men’s tennis has long held five-set matches up as the pinnacle of the sport, and by making the final best of three, the Masters 1000 events diminish their gravitas.
These events have also increased the number of byes that they offer. Until the last few years, the outdoor events at this level had 64-player draws (except for Indian Wells and Miami, which always had 96 players). Now, they are 56-player events and offer the top eight seeds a bye in the first round. This means that fewer players make it into the tournament direct, and increases the likelihood of a young player having to qualify. Given that most players ranked around #50 play almost every week, such players may have to pull out of qualifying in order to finish their previous event. It also makes it easier for top players to wrack up event after event if they only have to win five matches and can conserve energy. At the 250-level, the lowest tier of the ATP Tour, many events now have 28-player draws and the top four seeds get a bye into the last 16. Those four lost spots also increase the difficulty of climbing the rankings, and increase the advantages of higher-ranked players.
In short, tennis has become a more regressive sport in many ways. Seeding a draw is an anti-egalitarian measure and makes it easier for top players to win. A seeding system is not fair, but it may increase the spectacle. Doubling the number of seeds and increasing the number of byes has made it even easier, for both short-term and long-term reasons. When Djokovic, Murray, Federer, and Nadal all made it through to the semi-finals of the Australian Open 2012, I posted on my Facebook wall that I was looking forward to the Australian Open, which started that day. With the diminution of Federer’s status, at least one slot in the semis should be up for grabs this time round. Given the questions about Murray’s fitness, there may be two that are relatively open. But the list of likely potential winners is very short indeed.
Those who enjoy watching the same players face each other time and time and time again for the better part of a decade may not see why this matters. But it remains an open question how young players are going to break through in the brave new world of contemporary tennis. In 2013, for the first time in the more than 25 years that I have followed tennis, not one man aged less than 25 finished the year ranked in the top 10, while the youngest player in the top 50 was 22. When Milos Raonic turns 23 on 27 December, Grigor Dimitrov will become the only member of the top 50 aged 22 or younger. By contrast, at the end of 1998, four members of the top six were 22 or less. Women’s players have traditionally been competitive much sooner than men’s, but even on the WTA year-end list, the youngest top ten player was months past her 23rd birthday, and at the US Open, Victoria Azarenka, 24, was seven years younger than any of other semi-finalists.
I turned 35 in 2013, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that the increasing competitiveness of 30-somethings in professional tennis isn’t something to cheer about. Nonetheless, tennis needs young blood alongside the old. Yet with the increasingly hierarchical structure of the elite events, I think we may have to wait quite some time until we find it. At the US Open, Mary Carillo and John McEnroe disagreed on whether we’ll ever again see a major tournament won by a teenager. (Carillo thought it unlikely. McEnroe disagreed). I don’t know who was right. But I do know that the chances would improve a great deal if major events stopped seeding the players ranked between 17 and 32.
 Given the way the seeds are placed in the draw, a top eight seed could not play the #22 seed until, at the earliest, the fourth round (last 16) of a major event today.