Drawing Conclusions

by: Peter Bodo | June 15, 2011

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Rena by Pete Bodo

Protestant England probably won't be entirely pleased with the analogy, but no matter how profoundly conditions or attitudes change, when Wimbledon speaks, it's with the closest thing the secular sporting world has to the voice of Papal authority. And Wimbledon has spoken on the matter of seedings for what it still calls "Ladies' Singles," bumping Serena and Venus Williams up into the protected territory despite the Williamses' relatively low rankings.

Serena Williams is ranked No. 26, and the entire world knows it's because injury has kept her from playing for almost a full year. But at Wimbledon, she'll be seeded No. 7 (she was No. 8, but Kim Clijsters' withdrawal bumped her up one spot). Venus leapfrogged from a ranking of No. 33 (ironically, the spot just outside the seedings) to a seeding of No. 23 (originally No. 24), which still leaves her vulnerable to meeting a top player in an early round—although it would be more germane to phrase it the other way around, that it leaves ambitious pretenders to Venus' throne at SW19—the Maria Sharapovas and Victoria Azarenkas of this world—in danger of having to meet her.

Who would have thought the lilywhite suits at this most conservative of institutions would so favor the flower of Compton? That they've done so reinforces what might be called the moral authority of Wimbledon, which has always reserved the right to tinker with the seedings, even though the other Grand Slam events have agreed with the ATP's and WTA's rankings, and seed exclusively on them.

Wimbledon justifies its stance by the fact that grass is not only a unique surface, it's also an uncommon one. The lack of data (grass-court results over a significant time) and the obvious trouble that many highly-ranked, slow-court players have encountered at Wimbledon have driven the club's intransigence on this subject. Consider this: Thomas Muster, a former world No. 1 and Grand Slam champion, never won a match at Wimbledon—not a single one—in four appearances; the record is almost as ugly for Sergi Bruguera and even Gustavo Kuerten, who grew up in Brazil playing on hard and clay courts, and survived the third round at Wimbledon just once in his entire career.

The demotion of clay-court experts at one point was taken as such an affront to (mostly) Spanish players that two of them, Alex Corretja and Albert Costa, boycotted the tournament in 2000 because Wimbledon refused to seed No. 14-ranked Corretja (here's a good backgrounder). At the time, Wimbledon relied on an opaque "seeding committee" to make the call on who gets bumped up or down, but on the heels of the boycott the tournament embraced a transparent, mathematical formula for working up its revised seedings. But they are still a departure from the rankings, and in the case of the WTA this year, an enormous one.

Wimbledon's seeding formula takes a players ESP (Entry System Position, or computer ranking) and adds 100 percent of the points he or she earned for all grass-court tournaments in the past 12 months, and 75 percent of the points earned for the best grass tournament in the 12 months before that. In essense, the system double counts grass-court performance over a two-year period.

It may see like this is a magnanimous act on the part of Wimbledon, or some kind of perk reserved for players simply because they happen to be good on grass, thus earning a nod of approval from the lords of the greatest of all grass-court tournaments. That's not really accurate. Whatever else is said about Wimbledon, one thing has always been indisuputable—the club and all the officials associated with it work tirelessly to ensure that the "product" is as good as possible, even if it puts the All England Club at cross purposes with the ATP or WTA. At the end of the day, the management at the AEC believes that its first and overarching obligation is to the tournament.

The real problem with, say, following the rankings when making the seedings, is apparent if you contemplate the implications of Sharapova having to play Serena in the first round, while Venus might be drawn to meet, oh, Caroline Wozniacki. Whatever happens in those premature clashes may be less significant than what happens downstream, three or four rounds later. A draw is like pantyhose; any hole in it is apt to get bigger, quick. Does anyone really want to see the Wimbledon title awarded more or less by default, or to the player who happened to catch the most breaks in the draw?

If memory serves, the seeding boost given to the Williams sisters this year is the most dramatic—by far—departure yet from regimen dictated by the rankings, but keep in mind that the revised seedings were determined not by human opinon, but that aforementioned formula. On the men's side, Andy Roddick caught a great, digitally-dictated break when the seeding formula moved him up from his ranking of No. 10 to a seeding of No. 8. David Ferrer and last-year's losing Wimbledon finalist, Tomas Berdych, are ranked No. 6 and 7 respectively, but they were flip-flopped in the seedings. Gael Monfils and Mardy Fish each dropped a spot to make room for Roddick, so the closest thing to a loser in this realignment is No. 8-ranked but No.-9 seeded Monfils; being No. 8 is preferable to No. 9 by a larger margin than the closeness of the numbers indicate.

It would be interesting to apply a similar surface-specific seeding formula to clay, or even hard courts, because tennis is unique in the degree to which proficiency is affected by surface. I have no doubt that surface-based seedings would produce a better, more sensible order. If you followed the link above, you know that having surface-specific seedings and rankings is well within the realm of possibility, so the only reason to shun adopting it would be philosophical—the conviction that seeded positions are rewards earned by the best players for their performance over 12 months, on all surfaces and under all conditions, and that denying them that reward undermines a player's incentive to play and secure as high a ranking as possible (that was, in essence, Corrteja's beef with the All-England Club).

Before the seedings were announced, I had resolved to take a look at the list of wild cards awarded by the AEC, semi-itching to take a few shots at the choices. I confess to having a bone to pick when it comes to the wild-card culture, in which any number of dead-enders and no-hopers are rewarded simply because they hail from the nation or region where a given tournament is being played, or because said player's business representatives have found a way to wheedle a wild card for him or her. Grand Slam tournaments award eight wild cards, which takes eight places out of avdraw that's designed to accommodate players based on merit.

Given that you also have 16 qualifiers at a major tournament, the cutoff for direct entry is a ranking of No. 104 (assuming everyone with a lower numerical ranking wants to play). I can see where a pro who's worked awfully hard and nudged his ranking up to No. 106, or No. 108, might feel pretty bitter when he sees one of those eight wild-cards go to a 17-year old ranked No. 343, or a sentimental favorite.

Wimbledon has been as guilty as anyone of handing out free lunches to the undeserving over the years, but it's mainly because the British players have been such hopeless cases. It may seem like the wild card awarded to Emily Webley-Smith is a futile gesture, given that she's 27 and barely inside the Top 300. But then she's had busted up ankles, survived a bout of dengue fever, and cut her ranking almost in half since the last year-end stats were issued. Four other WTA wild cards went to British girls: Naomie Broady, Katie O'Brien, Laura Robson and Heather Watson. Sabine Lisicki and Eleni Daniilidou were the only non-British wild cards on the women's side, and the AEC didn't even bother to award the eighth wild card—the spot will go to the next player based on the direct entry rankings. Hooray.

On the men's side, three British players received wild cards—Daniel Cox, Daniel Evans, and James Ward. The latter certainly earned his, making a run to the Queen's Club final last week. But it's still hard to envision Ward stealing the thunder of Andy Murray. The other ATP wild cards went to an eclectic trio: Arnaud Clement, Alejandro Falla, and Dudi Sela. The eighth men's wild card also was unused, making me suspect that the AEC is trying hard to look like it isn't awarding the wild cards to any old player, just because it can. But you still have to wonder—wouldn't it have been more appropriate, based on a paucity of justifiable wild-card requests, to award most of those wild cards to eligible players based on ranking? I mean, we love Dudi Sela and Alejandro Falla, but what exactly is the point?

Once again, it will be interesting to see which, if any, wild card entries survive the first round. I can see Lisicki winning multiple rounds, so my money is on her. But even that wouldn't change my feeling that eight wild cards per singles draw is probably four or five too many.

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