A Draw by Rube Goldberg

Thursday, August 23, 2012 /by

NEW YORK—At the end of today’s U.S. Open draw ceremony, analyst Taylor Dent, the former player whose career was cut short by a severe back injury, turned on his stool and said to special guest Novak Djokovic, “Everybody wanted to see where (No. 4 seed) David Ferrer would land in this draw.”

A number of the reporters jam-packed into Interview Room 1 in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium collectively gasped, “What?????”

But Djokovic, perhaps feeling guilty for having whacked Dent out of Wimbledon in 2010 (Dent was still fighting his way back from surgery), came to the novice analyst’s rescue, diplomatically sidestepping the issue: “Well, thinking about the semifinals at this stage is not really the best idea.”

But inside, Djokovic must have been grinning. For Dent didn’t have it entirely wrong; he’d just put the cart ahead of the horse. After all, if you knew where Ferrer, who has yet to win a major or even a Masters 1000 event, was placed, you automatically knew whose side of the draw No. 3 seed Andy Murray ended up on.

And that was the critical question regarding the men’s draw: Would Murray, the recent Olympic gold medalist and multiple Grand Slam finalist, end up in top-seeded Roger Federer’s or No. 2 Djokovic’s half? All of this concern was the result of Rafael Nadal’s decision to avoid the U.S. Open in order to rest his tender knees, there by moving Murray and Ferrer up a notch in the seedings.

The symmetry that exists when the top four players, sometimes known as the Big Four, are all entered in an event has been shattered, and you can bet that both Federer and Djokovic were hoping that Murray ended up in the other guy’s half of the draw.

Murray has a 9-8 record against Federer, and beat him in the finals of the Olympis. And while Murray is 6-8 against Djokovic, but he’s topped the Serb in two of their last three meetings—including their last clash, in semis of the Olympics. And by the by, the substitute No. 4 seed, Ferrer, is a respectable 5-8 against Djokovic. (But Federer is pitching a 13-0 shutout against the Spanish grinder.)

Something tells me that a chair went flying through a window at chez Federer shortly after the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds were drawn.

As far as drama goes, that was about it at this draw. These ceremonies are becoming increasingly surreal as the USTA keeps trying its darndest to hype them up and turn them into tennis’ equivalent of the draw for the NCAA basketball tournament, or even the NFL draft.

Today, the official “host” was NBC news sports anchor Bruce Beck, who was appropriately enthusiastic, with Dent standing by on a tallboy stool to provide commentary once the draw was made. But part of the problem is that the draw is already made, at least in the eyes of those, like me, who prefer a more traditional draw exercise. Wimbledon, for one, still does it the old-fashioned way.

At the All England Club, the seeds are drawn and placed first, and then the names of all the unseeded players are drawn, by hand, one at a time, for all to see. This adds considerably to the charm and drama of the event. It’s compelling to hear the roll call, fun to hear the periodic, collective gasp of horror that goes up when, say, the name of the man drawn to play seeded John Isner in the first round is announced: “Nicolas Mahut!” (Something that happened last year at Wimbledon.)

Here at the U.S. Open, a computer fills in the names of all but the (as yet undetermined) qualifiers, as well as the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds (No. 1 is always at the top; it’s a ceremonial honor). So we already knew that top-seeded Federer would face Donald Young in his first-round match, while Djokovic got Italy’s Paolo Lorenzi. (On the women’s side, working under the same methodology, top-seeded Victoria Azarenka will face Alexandra Panova and No. 2 Agneiszka Radwanska got Nina Bratchikova.)

One big problem with this approach is that it’s utterly opaque. Who feeds the info into what computer and just how and when and where does the machine spew out the names? Can someone tamper with the system, or are there neutral observers present? If whomever is overseeing the operation doesn’t like the way the names are rolling out, can he or she just hit the re-start button? I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but once upon a time the making of a draw was completely transparent, and at Wimbledon it still is.

Instead, with the bulk of the draw already filled in by the computer here in New York, the only real “draw” is of seeds No. 3 through 32, and that’s done in a baffling and overcomplicated fashion. The seeds are drawn in groups (once the Nos. 3 and 4 are drawn and placed) so you don’t know if No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro or No. 8 JankoTipsarevic will end up on line 65 instead of, say, line 97.

This to me has always seemed like a classic case of outlandish over-engineering. Why not do it the old-fashioned way, placing the seeds and then drawing the cannon fodder?

I also think the drawing of the seeds flies directly in the face of the very idea of seedings. If seeding is intended to keep the best players from meeting each other prematurely, shouldn’t No. 1 automatically be scheduled to play No. 4, and Nos. 2 and 3 should theoretically meet? What’s the point of seeding if you’re going to draw to determine opponents, even if it is done by groups in order to keep this silly system from producing something truly—instead of slightly—ridiculous. Like a meeting of No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro in the third round.

Once the seeds were placed and the draws completed, we all got to sit around listening to Dent and Beck chew the fat while they waited for the arrival of Djokovic and the female defending champion, Samantha Stosur. We were surrounded by television monitors (the draw was streamed via the Internet), and patiently sat there like movie goers forced to endure those messages that advise you to power down the cell phone, avoid unnecessary talking, and check out the 10-gallon bucket of popcorn.

When Djokovic and Stosur finally arrived, they took their places on stools flanked by Dent and Beck. The most memorable part of the “interviews” (there were no questions from the roomful of reporters; instead, the players were lobbed softballs by the talent) was when defending champ was asked how she feels.

She nearly jumped from her chair as she blurted, “I’m feeling good! It’s been a year of a few ups and downs, but. . .”

Yadda. . .yadda . . .yadda. Something tells me Stosur is in deep trouble, and she knows it. Looking around, I felt a little bit like I were a tourist in from Nebraska, and had scored a ticket to be an audience member watching The View. I told myself it could have been worse; it could have been the Jerry Springer Show.

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