It's question-and-answer time again at TENNIS.com. If you have a query or comment that would like addressed in this column, please email me at email@example.com.
What do you think of the idea that Rafa’s seeding should be moved up for Roland Garros? John McEnroe says he thinks he should be No. 1! Do you agree with this?—Cristina
Let’s be honest, John McEnroe thinks a lot of things. To put it mildly. He thinks the players should call their own lines and maybe even use wood racquets. In general, as an ex-star player, he believes the sport is all about its marquee players.
I definitely don’t think Nadal should be the top seed, and I doubt Nadal believes he should be either, after losing to the current No. 1, Novak Djokovic, in straight sets on clay in Monte Carlo this weekend. The better question is: Should Rafa be moved up from his current No. 5 to No. 4, in order to avoid a possible meeting with Djokovic (or Murray or Federer) in the quarterfinals? Nadal is ranked No. 5 right now, though the man at No. 4, David Ferrer, seems to be doing what he can to help out. This afternoon Ferrer lost to Dimitry Tursunov in his opener in Barcelona, a tournament where he was defending runner-up points.
It’s true that as things stand now, a Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal would be...strange, a letdown, faintly ridiculous. Would I want to see them play that early? No. They’ve been the two best players on clay since at least 2011, so if they’re going to meet, the final is the place for it to happen. Djokovic probably believes the same thing; I doubt he wants to see Rafa across the net in the quarters.
But as great as Nadal is on clay and at the French Open, I don’t think you can make a special exception for him here. If you do it in this instance, you’re setting a precedent that the rankings can be ignored. Other tournaments could begin to feel pressure to do the same, and, in a worst-case scenario, other tournaments may be tempted to fiddle with the seedings to help get their own dream finals.
As of now, we have a definite, if slightly illogical, protocol: Every tournament (so far as I know) seeds by the rankings, except Wimbledon. The All England Club, because of the relative uniqueness of its surface, puts more weight on past results on grass. On the men’s side, an objective formula is used and it applies to all players (ATP ranking + 100% points earned on grass in past year + 75% points earned for best grass result the year before that). This wouldn’t be the case if Rafa is moved up at Roland Garros. Wimbledon's system has made sense in the past, and I suppose it still does. Even though grass is much less of an outlier as a surface than it used to be, I usually don’t have a problem with the bump-ups that Wimbledon gives certain under-ranked grass-courters, most notably Serena Williams.
The bigger question is whether other tournaments should weight their seedings with their own surface-based formulae. There’s a case for it, especially at the French Open. Pete Sampras’s annual top seeding there in the 1990s would have been laughable if anyone had paid attention to it. Roughly two-thirds of the ranking points available come at hard-court events, so the rankings don’t typically deviate much from who is the most proficient on that surface—the U.S. Open, for example, is the only major that has been won by each of the men’s Big 4. There are fewer points available, obviously, on clay. Despite the fact that there aren’t as many pure dirt-ballers as there once were, you can still get situations like Rafa’s in Paris.
Still, I think the by-the-ranking system has worked well, and I wouldn’t chuck it because Nadal happens to be No. 5 going into the French Open. Clay is still different from hard, but the players now play similar games everywhere (there’s less reason for surface seedings now than there was 20 years ago). The top men and women are competitive on all courts, and this set-up encourages them to compete on all of them. It’s clear to the players and everyone else where they’ll be seeded, and unlike the Wimbledon approach, the rankings don’t go farther back in time than 12 months, so you get as accurate a picture of current overall form, using statistics, as you can. There can also be no complaints from players who get bumped down. And if you do surface seedings for clay, it’s hard to justify not doing them for hard courts, and even indoor hard courts, as well.
Another issue here is injuries: Nadal is fifth right now because he was out for 10 months with knee problems. Should that be taken into consideration with seedings? The tours do have protected rankings for players who are out for extended periods. Maybe, for players who are out for a certain period of time (six months, say) there’s a way to factor in some of their old results into a seeding formula. That might help in Nadal’s case this time, and with other players, like Serena, who have been sidelined long-term. But it would also mean less clarity.
Nadal with a No. 5 by his name at Roland Garros would be weird, but it won’t change who he is. And numbers haven’t meant much to him in Paris in the past. He’s only been seeded No. 1 at Roland Garros twice. The first was in 2009, and that was the only time in his eight years there that he didn’t win the title.