Serena Williams is busy playing Indian Wells and Miami during the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, but she knows how the NCAA Tournament — also called “March Madness” — works.
Former United States President Barack Obama would be shown on ESPN during his presidency, revealing his March bracket, often with college basketball reporter Andy Katz. Filling out a bracket is something tens of millions of Americans do every March. “Whom do you have in your bracket?” is a question almost everyone in many office workplaces asks during the second or third week of March.
In the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team format, the most lopsided game is always the first-round game between a No. 1 seed and a No. 16 seed. The No. 1 seed is almost always a powerhouse school well known to the country, while the No. 16 seed is just as constantly the tiny school barely anyone knows about… but who gets its big chance to make a name for itself if it can do the improbable.
Before 2018, not a single No. 16 seed had beaten a No. 1 seed since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams — and a four-region format with 16 seeds per region — in 1985.
However, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County changed all that. The Retrievers — that is the school nickname — defeated No. 1 seed Virginia to make history and answer a question American sports fans asked for 33 years. UMBC gained a tidal wave of positive publicity and will always remain the answer to a famous trivia question. The school’s moment in the sun — and its permanent place in American sports lore — shows how the results of fundamentally insignificant kids’ games can provide dollars and other tangible benefits to a university in the United States. 16 over 1 was the engine behind the gold rush for UMBC.
In the fourth round of the Australian Open, a 16 seed will play a 1 seed… but it’s a total inversion.
The 16 seed is the huge favorite. The 1 seed is the massive underdog.
Oh, yes: Serena Williams is not a slight favorite. She’s the overwhelming choice against Halep.
This is not a commentary on Halep, mind you — she has been terrific at this tournament, much as she was the best player on the WTA Tour in 2018. However, Serena is fit and focused and looks like her best self, or something very close to it. She has lost only nine games in three matches. You can do the math and easily note that her average score is 6-2, 6-1.
Sure, Halep should demand a lot more of Serena, but is the greatest player of this generation — if not a far, far greater span of time — going to regress to the point that she loses this match outright?
It’s possible, but it certainly isn’t probable. Yes, Halep battled Serena memorably in the quarterfinals of the 2016 U.S. Open. Yes, Halep has once again lived up to her #FighterGirl nickname at this tournament. She is likely to pose far tougher questions than Serena’s previous opponents. It is also true that Serena has won sets so easily that in a tight set on Monday, she might flinch. That would not be an extraordinary event; it is often true that athletes not tested in a series of competitions get tight when they finally arrive at a moment of real difficulty.
Yet, it remains that Serena has many more ways to win a point than Halep does. She is by any reasonable measure the clear favorite here.
The fascinating aspect of this confrontation. The 1-versus-16 aspect isn’t the only significant inversion of the norm in this match. There is another inversion attached to it.
Namely: The best players on the WTA Tour — those who have so often had their runs at majors stopped by Serena — will want her to win.
This is not a matter of liking or disliking a person. It’s a simple matter of professional self-interest. Much as players would have preferred to have played an opponent other than Serena in the quarterfinals, semifinals or finals of a major in the past, they don’t want to have anything to do with Serena in the early rounds of a major in 2019. If these top-10 players want to avoid Serena in the first four rounds of majors, they will want to see the 37-year-old win this match to more quickly ascend in the rankings. This means that when the tour goes to Indian Wells and Miami, and then into the clay Premier Mandatory/5 at Madrid and Rome, and then to Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Serena will be a top-eight seed, maybe even top-four.
Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, and others will benefit from Serena winning here. Their professional interests — larger paychecks, better results, better brackets in future tournaments — will likely be served by a Serena win.
What a delicious inversion this match is. Let’s see if Halep can invert the script by pulling a 1-over-16 upset, for an upset is exactly what a Halep victory would be.