So you want 16 seeds at high-end tennis tournaments, do ya? This invites situations such as the one seen on Friday morning (and early afternoon) at the Miami Open.
Elina Svitolina, seeded fourth, beat World No. 22 Naomi Osaka. Tournament-goers did get an attractive round-of-64 match on the schedule, but at the expense of not seeing Osaka — the Indian Wells champion — play deeper into the event in Key Biscayne.
The debate surrounding the use of 16 seeds as opposed to 32 is something every tennis fan grasps in terms of what it means for the flow of a tournament. The idea that early-round tournament schedules need better matches to drive more revenue to tournaments — thereby making life better for tournament directors — should not be dismissed out of hand. Enabling tournaments to exist on sound financial footing is an important goal for tennis as a sport and for its individual tournaments. Whether 16 seeds is the best way to do that is open to debate. We can discuss that point all day.
However, the argument for only 16 seeds at big tournaments loses weight and credibility for a different reason which might not be as widely accepted throughout the sport.
It is believed in some corners of the tennis community that the top seeds in a tennis tournament should not receive too many benefits or protections in terms of court assignments or scheduling slots. This was a big discussion point at the Australian Open, and my point of emphasis has always been that giving certain players consistent protection is not necessarily a problem; the problem is that OTHER top players do NOT receive the same consistency of protection or accommodation.
When looking at 16 seeds from a tournament director’s viewpoint, the move makes sense, or at the very least, it seems like a reasonable — if debatable — reform. However, when looking at 16 seeds from a player’s point of view, it’s a disaster for reasons which require little explanation.
Tennis players make money based on match wins. Seeds afford protection in a bracketed tournament. Extending the protection afforded by seeds is therefore a gateway toward more match wins and therefore more player income. Reducing that protection makes it more of a challenge for players to gain certain levels of income.
Players compete and work to be seeded at big tournaments and thereby gain leverage in draws. A move from 32 to 16 seeds decreases the value of a seed for the 16 players still seeded, and it removes the protection of the 17-32 seeding slots. Elina Svitolina — in future tournaments — should not have to play the World No. 22 and Indian Wells champion in the round of 64. Naomi Osaka obviously could not have been seeded at Miami since the tournament has to use pre-Indian Wells rankings, but on a general conceptual level, Osaka would have been shafted by a 16-seed setup in this tournament if it had existed.
There’s no way a No. 22 high-climber in the rankings, someone who has worked to make big gains and has in fact attained them, should be penalized with a draw this bad. Osaka might have not felt fully healthy in this match — an on-court coaching interaction with Sascha Bajin suggested that Osaka might have felt like throwing up; we’ll see what post-match reactions emerge from the Osaka camp — but even if she was sick, it remains that Svitolina represented a brutally tough opponent who was energized, efficient and prepared. Had Osaka drawn the World No. 70 instead of Svitolina, she might have been able to fight through imperfect health (if she was indeed affected by it) and increase the size of her Miami Open paycheck.
It is only right and fair that strivers and achievers on tour get rewarded with the extra protection a seed offers. This applies both to someone in Svitolina’s position and someone in Osaka’s spot.
You want only 16 seeds? Be careful what you wish for — you just might get it.