Matt Zemek’s NCAA bracket plan for tennis

Talk is cheap. It’s easy to be a keyboard warrior and lament the state of tennis and the way it is governed, especially in relationship to the four major tennis tournaments. If an issue is problematic, it’s worth trying to actually do something about it.

I talk a lot about NCAA brackets in tennis. I lamented the fact that NCAA brackets weren’t used at Roland Garros, where the longstanding random draw format did not serve the sport’s best interests — mostly by putting Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals while Casper Ruud, ranked several places lower than both men, had a dream draw into the final. That is obviously not how seeded tournaments are supposed to work. Higher seeds — higher-ranked players — have earned their position and should be rewarded with better draws. This did not happen in Paris.

On the women’s side, the big-name players in the top 10 keep losing early. This is partly the product of a deep and balanced tour, but it is also the product of a draw system in which quality players play each other in Round 1, not later in the tournament. This reduces ticket sales and prevents big-name rivalries from happening as often as they could. That’s not good for the sport’s TV visibility. I wrote about both issues during the second week of Roland Garros here at Tennis With An Accent.

It’s time to take all this frustration and disapproval and channel these energies into an actual plan.

Here is that plan, which tennis would do well to consider as it tries to reward top players and also improve its bottom line as an entertainment business.

We start with the simple change of using NCAA brackets. The No. 1 principle of an NCAA bracket is that in an any given round of a multi-round tournament, the highest seed plays the lowest seed and the middle seeds play each other. That rewards the highest seed for being the highest seed. It pits the middle-tier competitors against each other. This is always how seeded tournaments should work.

It’s ridiculous that Naomi Osaka and Amanda Anisimova, both top-40 players, should meet in Round 1, as they did at Roland Garros. They earned world rankings which should give them much easier opponents in the first round.

Anisimova was seeded No. 27 in Paris. In an NCAA bracket system, she would play the No. 102 seed in Round 1. Osaka, ranked 38 going into Roland Garros, would have played the No. 91 seed. You can instantly see that top WTA players are likely to play deeper into tournaments — and therefore sell more tickets — under an NCAA bracket system.

Just so everyone can actually see what this looks like in full, here it is for the first round of a 128-player major tournament, with a dividing line between each 16-player section of the bracket:

1 vs 128

64 vs 65

33 vs 96

32 vs 97

17 vs 112

48 vs 81

49 vs 80

16 vs 113

9 vs 120

56 vs 73

41 vs 88

24 vs 105

25 vs 104

40 vs 89

57 vs 72

8 vs 121

4 vs 125

61 vs 68

36 vs 93

29 vs 100

20 vs 109

45 vs 84

52 vs 77

13 vs 116

12 vs 117

53 vs 76

44 vs 85

21 vs 108

28 vs 101

37 vs 92

60 vs 69

5 vs 124

6 vs 123

59 vs 70

38 vs 91

27 vs 102

22 vs 107

43 vs 86

54 vs 75

11 vs 118

14 vs 115

51 vs 78

46 vs 83

19 vs 110

30 vs 99

35 vs 94

62 vs 67

3 vs 126

7 vs 122

58 vs 71

39 vs 90

26 vs 103

23 vs 106

42 vs 87

55 vs 74

10 vs 119

15 vs 114

50 vs 79

47 vs 82

18 vs 111

31 vs 98

34 vs 95

63 vs 66

2 vs 127

That is how a 128-player bracket would look with an NCAA-style bracket. You can see that each seed is rewarded with an appropriate first-round matchup. The highest seeds are rewarded for their hard work and achievement with low seeds. A modestly good seed — 35 — is not forced to play World No. 40 or 50, but gets a player seeded 94. In turn, a player seeded 84 is forced to play a top-50 player. That serves as incentive for a No. 84 player to get better.

Now, let’s get to the rules and regulations. Obviously, players might be tempted to tank matches and re-engineer seeds.

The easiest solution here: Re-seed each half of the draw after every round. Boom. That instantly prevents a good amount of manipulation.

Also: Tournaments can require players to play and/or win a certain number of matches before their tournament in order to justify their ranking-based and formula-based seed. If they don’t meet those qualifications, the tournament can lower their seed by a predetermined number agreed upon by all parties.

One note brought up by skeptics of NCAA brackets is that draws will all look the same at each tournament. This is where surface- and tournament-specific formulas can be used to shake things up. I hasten to add that re-seeding each half of the draw after every round also works as a preventive measure in this case as well. It’s the easiest soution to a number of problems and concerns.

Finally: wild card seeding.

The obvious solution here is that wild cards can’t receive a top-tier or bottom-tier seeding. In a 128-player draw, wild cards would be seeded 40-49 on the high end and 80-89 on the low end, so that they don’t get a privileged seed but also don’t play any of the top 10 seeds in the early rounds of a tournament. High-end versus low-end wild cards could be determined based on previous rankings, achievements, and other obvious measurements.

It is always good to take a general argument and turn it into an actual plan. Now you — and all the major tennis tournaments — can see what the plan actually looks like.

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