Matt Zemek

It’s definitely not good for Grigor Dimitrov that he lost his first match in Rome this week on Wednesday. Dimitrov lost any chance at the No. 2 seed, and if Juan Martin del Potro beats Marin Cilic in the semifinals on Saturday (both men obviously have to get there first), Dimitrov won’t even be a top-four seed in Paris. Delpo and Cilic would both pass him and relegate him to the No. 5 seed. The chances of that happening are slim, but Grigor has left the door open for it. By merely making the quarterfinals, Dimitrov could have avoided that scenario… but since when does Dimitrov do anything the easy way? On a broader level, when does he do anything consistently well?

It’s not good for Dimitrov that he lost, but if he is suffering, the French Tennis Federation and a lot of tennis fans are smiling, because the ATP side of the French Open just got a lot more interesting.

If you are familiar with my work, you know that I support the idea of NCAA-style seeding at major tennis tournaments. This means no draws, and instead a straight hierarchy of seeding matchups: 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, 63 plays 66, 64 plays 65, etc. This way, no one has to wonder about whether draws are rigged. This way, the higher seed will play the lower seed at every possible opportunity, while the middle seeds play each other in the same round. Conspiracy talk would vanish, and players would know exactly what to expect.

Alas, we don’t have that system in major-tournament tennis… but players can only address what they can control, at least for now. (Maybe in the future, a players’ union might advocate for NCAA-style seeding. Who knows?) Under the current framework, and keeping in mind that Cilic and Delpo still have very small chances of getting the No. 2 seed, it is so much more interesting to have Alexander Zverev as the 2 seed instead of Dimitrov.

Let’s explain why — the reasons are not that complicated.

First and foremost, Zverev being a No. 2 seed would underscore the point that it is time for him to begin to prove himself at major tournaments. Gaining his first No. 2 seed at a major would put extra pressure on Zverev and create the delicious tension which adds to the attractiveness of a big sports event. Yes, Zverev might get Novak Djokovic in the round of 16, or some other particularly nasty draw. However, the No. 2 seed — should he indeed claim it in Paris — will make Sascha’s place in the field more prominent, not less. It’s a good problem for tennis to have.

A second core reason Zverev — not Dimitrov — would help tennis more at the No. 2 spot is that Dimitrov could therefore play Nadal in the semifinals if the draw falls in that direction. Nadal is and will be — and should be — the overwhelming favorite at Roland Garros, but if one was to devise a worst-case scenario draw, it would involve Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals and Dimitrov in the semifinals. In Nadal’s 50-set clay winning streak, Dimitrov put up one of the better fights from any of Rafa’s opponents during that stretch during the first set of the Monte Carlo semifinals. Grigor faded in set two, but that first set in Monte Carlo was a scrap. Thiem, of course, ended the 50-set streak and beat Nadal in Madrid. The draw could put Grigor in Zverev’s half, opposite Rafa, but at least the chance exists (50-50) that Dimitrov could play Rafa in a semifinal on Court Philippe Chatrier. I wouldn’t bet on it happening, but the possibility is still intriguing. If Thiem and Grigor play Nadal in consecutive matches, and both keep Nadal on court for 3 hours apiece, Nadal might have a battle on his hands in the final if Djokovic is there. (This obviously requires Djokovic to be placed away from Nadal’s half, but it’s certainly possible.)

Speaking of Djokovic, whose place in the field will be the biggest and most important story of the Roland Garros men’s draw, let’s acknowledge this point: While it would be best for tennis if Novak is in the half opposite Nadal (and can therefore play him in the final), the next best alternative to a Nadal-Djokovic final would be Nadal or Djokovic versus Zverev.

I am not speaking about Xs and Os here, but about box-office appeal. Dimitrov and Thiem both belong to the group of players in their mid-20s, while Zverev, at 21, is reflective of the belief (some would call it a reality, but that’s another story…) that the younger generation will succeed whereas the mid-20s generation has failed to deliver on its promise. While it is true that Nadal or Djokovic playing Dimitrov or Thiem would give the #ATPLostBoys a golden, glittering chance to register a huge career accomplishment, a Nadal or Djokovic versus Zverev final would own the “living legend versus the future” storyline which captures the imaginations of fans.

#HUGS, Dimitrov fans. This was a painful day for Grigor believers. Nevertheless, beyond the realm of Dimitrov fans, Alexander Zverev moving closer to the No. 2 seed in Paris — and Dimitrov being eliminated in that same race — should be good for Roland Garros.

The French Open just became more interesting.


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