Sweeter 16

Sunday, June 23, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, England—As far as early story lines at Wimbledon go, the men can’t hold a candle to the women. While Maria and Serena have given the hungry press a public war of words to gnaw on, the talk on the guys’ side is all about...the draw. Hey, even Roger Federer himself admitted this week that the top men are “boring”—happily and strategically boring, that is.

The chatter around the men’s draw has focused on its imbalance: Federer and Rafael Nadal are scheduled to play in the quarterfinals, for a chance, most likely, to face Andy Murray in the semis. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic will avoid any encounters with his fellow members of the Big 4 until the final. Djokovic’s draw has mostly been described as a cake walk, and his presence in the championship match two Sundays from now is all but taken for granted. 

A few contrarians have pointed out that Djokovic’s road isn’t that easy; there are two players in his quarter, Tommy Haas and Tomas Berdych, who have beaten him this season. And he also must play, from the ATP computer’s point of view, the toughest first-round opponent of any seed, Florian Mayer. The unorthodox German is ranked No. 33, which makes him the highest unseeded player in the draw. Mayer, he of the leaping two-handed forehand and the two-handed slice backhand, is technically the most dangerous floater on the men's side.

How dangerous is he, exactly? After inspecting Mayer’s record against Djokovic, it appeared the answer was: Probably not all that much. The two have played three times, and Djokovic has yet to lose a set. That doesn’t mean Mayer couldn’t do a whole lot better when they play on Tuesday. He owns a victory over Rafael Nadal, and has been been ranked as high as No. 18. Plus, he’s 29 years old, which in today’s game means he’s probably just entering his prime.

Which brings us to the next question: Is this dangerous enough? Does the 32-seed system protect the top players too much and rob the majors' early days of excitement and anticipation? Federer himself, a long-time beneficiary of this system, has hinted recently that he thinks it does. Asked last month about his countryman Marc Rosset’s assertion that the Grand Slams should go back to seeding 16 players, as they did before 2001, Federer said, “He’s not wrong about it, that’s for sure.”

“I came through both systems, where you had 16 seeds back in the day,” Federer said. “[With 16 seeds] you do have much tougher draws early on.”

Still, Federer wasn’t emphatic about wanting to return to those wild west days. “I guess separating the best a little bit is good for spectators, fans, media maybe,” he said. “Also, the players' hard work throughout the season gets compensated and gets paid off in a small way. Does it make a huge difference? I’m not sure. But I understand what [Rosset]’s saying.”

Federer is smart enough to be careful what he wishes for. All of his Grand Slam titles have come in 32-seed events. The switch was made at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2001, for different reasons. In those days, when the All England Club would alter its seedings to reflect the players’ abilities on grass, it was easy for highly-ranked clay-court specialists to get bumped into the netherworld of the unprotected; naturally, they didn't like that and complained. Around the same time at the Open, aggressive new tournament director Arlen Kantarian encouraged a 32-seed system because it increased the chances that star players would survive until the tournament’s first weekend, which also happened to be the first days of coverage by its network broadcaster, CBS. In 2002, the Australian Open and French Open followed suit and went the 32 route.

The upshot has been more protection for the top players over the last 12 years than ever before—there was a time, in the distant past, when the majors seeded just eight players (in the very first versions of those tournaments, there were no seeds at all). Is it a coincidence that the last decade has also been an era of unprecedented period of dominance on the men’s side? As Federer says, it’s impossible to know for sure. We didn’t see the same ruling class develop on the women’s side until last year, and that had more to do with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova returning to health and form. If anything, the WTA was more orderly in the days of 16 seeds—Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 14 Grand Slam finals against each other without any extra protection.

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray would have won majors in any era—this period of dominance begins with their excellence as players, not with how many seeds there are now. Their consistency at the majors has been nothing short of miraculous: Federer has reached a record 36 straight quarterfinals, and Djokovic has made 10 straight semifinals. The reason that Lukas Rosol’s win over Nadal here last in the second round was such a resounding shock was that upsets of the Big 4 that early had seemingly become a thing of the past. Before that match, it had been two full years since Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer had lost before the quarters.  

Still, it’s logical to think that the 32-seed system has helped them. Most players will tell you that they’re at their most anxious in the first round, and that they improve as they relax and get used to the conditions. If there had been 16 seeds at this year’s Wimbledon, the highest-ranked player that one of the Big 4 could have faced in the first round would have been Gilles Simon, currently ranked No. 17. The Frenchman took Federer to five sets at Roland Garros last month and just reached the final the grass-court event at Eastbourne; he's a definite step up in quality, and danger, from Florian Mayer. The situation is similar on the women’s side. Players ranked from 17 to 32 right now include Sabine Lisicki (she beat Sharapova at Wimbledon last year), Sloane Stephens (she beat Serena at the Australian Open this year), and Svetlana Kuznetsova (she nearly beat Serena in Paris).

Of course, it isn’t just the Top 4 men and women who are protected from an immediate face-off with Simon, or Lisicki, or Kuznetsova, or No. 21 John Isner, or No. 22 Jerzy Janowicz, or even No. 31 Grigor Dimitrov. The reverse is true as well: Those players are also protected from the Top 4. Another trend in tennis in recent years has been the aging of the tours. The 32-seed system isn’t responsible for that, but it does promote long-term stability throughout the ranks. Everyone in the Top 32 knows that they’ll have their chance at winning two matches, and earning the ranking points that come with that result.

Which leads to a final question: Is that too much protection in general? I’d say yes. The purpose of seeds is to keep the serious contenders for a title from colliding in a random early match. It wouldn’t be fair to Djokovic and Murray, or Serena and Sharapova, or Wimbledon as an event, if they had to play in the first week (though I think most people would take a Serena-Maria showdown any time they could get it right now). But is it also important to make sure that, say, No. 26 Andreas Seppi and No. 30 Alize Cornet don’t go out before the third round? With all due respect to those two players, something tells me the BBC’s ratings wouldn’t suffer.

If the goal is to protect the contenders from having to play early, you could even go to eight seeds. That’s roughly how many players are typically in the title conversation these days. The No. 8-ranked woman right now is Petra Kvitova, champion at Wimbledon in 2011; No. 9 is Caroline Wozniacki, a former No. 1, but not a favorite here. On the men’s side, No. 8 is former Grand Slam champ Juan Martin del Potro; No. 9 is Richard Gasquet. Imagine a first-rounder between Djokovic and Gasquet, or Djokovic and No. 10 Stan Wawrinka. Stan might even like the opportunity; he told The Observer yesterday that he sometimes gets worn out by the time he faces one of the Big 4 later in an event, as he did against Nadal in the quarters in Paris. Either way, a Djoko-Stan first round would be must-see tennis.

And that, rather than anything having to do with the players themselves, is the best reason to reduce the number of seeds: It would make the entire tournament, rather than just its last nine days or so, more intriguing and unpredictable for fans. There may be more upsets, which would mean fewer epic finals and semifinals between the game’s most famous players. That would be a trade-off. But I think the top men and women right now are too good not to keep rising to the occasion. They, and we, could do with a little more danger in their lives.

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