The plan to cut the number of seeded players from 32 to 16 came and went like so much we witness today in our tennis lives. That’s too bad, because the stagnant nature of the men’s game, with its almost two-decade dominance by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, has provoked negative attention, some of it being vocalized after Roland Garros, where Nadal won his 12th men’s singles title. All tournament draws, like the one coming up this week for Wimbledon, play a role in this dominance because they protect these, and the other players ranked in the top 32, from facing more challenging opponents earlier in a major, thus ensuring the status quo.
Arguments abound that these three tennis geniuses belong at the top, that they’ve earned and keep earning their lofty spots. That their games, mental and physical skills, coaching staffs, and family lives, support their greatness. That the Golden Age of Men’s Tennis is a miracle borne on the wings of these mighty men. Much of this, of course, is true.
However, we’ve heard these men and others admit that anyone ranked in the top 100 can get hot and blow anyone off the court during any match of any length during any tournament. Nonetheless, “anyone in the top 100” doesn’t seem to get that chance because tournaments still seed the top 32 players and, as a result, they don’t meet powerful yet unseeded players in early rounds.
The jump from 16 to 32 seeds began in June of 2001, when Grand Slam committees received complaints from clay-court specialists who “wanted more draw protection at Wimbledon,” as ESPN wrote. Wimbledon, as we know, is the only major played on grass and, supposedly, the archenemy for those specialists because it plays faster and the ball bounces low, which didn’t fit their loopy, longer-rally game styles. But let’s be clear … there’s more to this than meets the eye.
A little over a year after seedings went to 32, Wimbledon changed the type of grass it planted on the courts. It was called perennial ryegrass. The tournament had to do this, it professed, due to changes in the game. Not only had racquets been refined, using space-age materials that could be designed to bend and flex along any part of the frame — giving players assorted powers to whip it well — but strings also had evolved from natural gut, to monofilament, to multifilament, and to poly-blends that allowed players to swing the racquet as quickly as possible with no fear of overcooking shots.
Add to this equipment evolution the players’ shift from all-court to baseline-hugging strategies at the time. As a result Wimbledon faced another layer of grass-related challenges: preserving the grass, mostly along the baselines, for the thousands of footsteps that would ravage them over the fortnight.
So within a little more than a year, complaints from the claycourters converged with tennis advancements to produce a perfect storm that left the traditional and didactic tournament transfixed. Whom do we satisfy? Because if we accommodate the clay specialists and change the grass composition, and then increase the seedings, we will have influenced the sport on the side of the better players, which consequently leaves the “others” to feed on crumbs.
In 2017, the Grand Slam board voted to reduce seedings, again, to 16, beginning in 2019. Dash the claycourters because, honestly, the lawns of Wimbledon were now playing more like clay — slow with high-bouncing tennis balls. If the greats are great, well, they’ll be fine and can keep getting their due exposure, which Wimbledon could therefore sell to advertisers as it would like to promise them.
“This is how it used to be when I came up, way back when,” Federer said, as reported by Forbes. “There’s definitely something intriguing about having 16 seeds. I do see the problem of the 32 seeds.”
Nonetheless, in 2018 the Grand Slam Board reneged on its decision.
“Following a full year of Grand Slam match analysis and feedback from all other constituencies, especially players and broadcast partners, the Grand Slam tournaments have decided there is no compelling reason to revert to 16 seeds,” ESPN reported.
Sounds nice and neat with no real explanation other than “feedback … constituencies, especially players and broadcast partners.”
The story becomes more complex.
Not only does the system of 32 seeds block lower-ranked players from meeting higher-ranked players earlier in a Grand Slam, but now the ITF, in an effort to streamline the pro game in 2019, created the World Tennis Tour, which “put its Pro Circuit, Futures tournaments and Juniors under a new umbrella,” Tennis magazine reported in its summer issue.
The initiative’s goal was to “reduce the pro-tour population to roughly 750 men and 750 women,” which would block what “the sport determined” was “some 14,000” players who couldn’t earn a living. These 14,000 players languished at ground zero because there weren’t enough tournaments to plan a season around, not enough pay per tournament, and match-fixing was dirtying the lower levels because, again, not enough money was involved.
The conclusion is clear, if your mind can synthesize the complex nature of a system with such disparate objectives that it completely blindsides itself into thinking and acting as if new blood for the pro tours is something to put in a box and ship off to another sport so it can flourish.
Thus, as The Championships — Wimbledon — begin on July 1, 2019, an uncomfortable notion lingers over the hallowed ground. It’s called discrimination. And, just as in most business ventures, money has taken a place of utmost primacy … not the players, not the survival of the game, not the fans. Money wins.
Consider what’s coming up in the men’s singles draw at Wimbledon. Novak Djokovic will be seeded number one and Roger Federer will be seeded number two. If they “make their seeding,” they would be the two men who battle for this prestigious title on Sunday, July 14, which will certainly please advertisers, many fans, and the tournament.
But what if only 16 were seeded? Using the ATP rankings from Monday, June 24 — not Wimbledon’s seeding formula — that would mean these men would not get a seed: Basilashvilli, Raonic, Cilic, Wawrinka, Berrettini, Auger-Aliassime, Baustista Agut, David Goffin, Schwartzman, Simon, Pella, Shapovalov, Pouille, de Minaur, Djere, Edmund, and Paire. Instead, these players would be scattered throughout the 128-person draw, perhaps to meet a top-10 player in round one.
As an example, imagine Milos Raonic, the 2016 Wimbledon finalist, falling opposite Roger Federer on Day 1. The Canadian advanced to the 2016 final because he defeated Federer in the semifinals that year. Therefore the Raonic-Federer matchup would throw conventional predictions into a tailspin, which would be fabulous because tennis needs a whirlwind to steady its growth. Otherwise, initiatives such as the one from the ITF to suppress the influx of willing candidates will become an avenue of negative consequence. Who in their right mind wants to be part of a sport that curtails interest?
Yet if Wimbledon, and all other Grand Slams, wanted to elevate themselves as brands, which they are, they have to consider the possibilities and benefits of a draw in which only 16 men and 16 women are seeded in singles. This move would begin to solve problems related to all levels of tennis, which have been enumerated here. Breaking down barriers that keep new players from earning a living in tennis and keeping the sport from growing at its natural rate only shows allegiance to outside interests.
Allegiance always has to be to the game. Then it will grow, players’ satisfaction levels will rise, fans will increase, and advertising dollars will continue to support expenses.