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Steve Flink: Why seeding matters

5/27/2013 11:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Once upon a time, before the establishment of the ATP and WTA computer ranking systems in the 1970’s, back when the game was younger, a very long time ago, the major tournaments used their own internal authorities for the purpose of seeding players. They would weigh the results of all the players as closely as possible, debate the merits and demerits of all the leading players, and then determine the seeding lists for those prestigious events. It was, of course, an imperfect system, and the Grand Slam events fared better in seeding the players some years than they did in others. 

But those days are long behind us. The computer rankings are now universally accepted by both the men’s and women’s tours as the most equitable way to seed players at all tournaments, and the majors have embraced that concept almost entirely. There have been exceptions. Wimbledon has tried to weigh the grass court records of the leading participants. But seldom have there been serious disputes regarding the seeding of players at Grand Slam events. The computers go back a full 52 weeks and they are accepted and even revered by all of the players, with good reason.

But this year at the French Open, I believe the powers that be missed a glaring opportunity to arrive at a different conclusion from the official Emirates ATP [computer] Rankings and bring common sense and clear reasoning into the equation, to make a sensible exception to the rule of seeding strictly by the dictates of the computer. Despite the fact that Rafael Nadal has won Roland Garros seven of the past eight years, despite his stellar record across 2013 after a seven month absence from the sport, despite the widely held view of so many authorities that the Spaniard is the greatest clay court player ever, the French Open played it safe and seeded the Spaniard third this year behind Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. That simply doesn’t make sense.

As fate would have it, Nadal opened his campaign today with an unexpectedly hard fought 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3 first round victory over a bold and ultra-aggressive Daniel Brands. The 25-year-old German is ranked No. 59 in the world. He had lost all four of his career matches at Roland Garros. His career match record on clay was 40-58. He had won only 5 of 15 previous contests he had played at the majors. But Brands came out swinging freely and serving potently against an apprehensive Nadal, cracking his inside-out forehand with tremendous pace, driving his backhand crosscourt fluidly at acute angles for outright winners. He was largely unconscious, playing with nothing to lose, competing with equanimity.Brands took the opening set after recording one break (at 4-4) against the Spaniard, who served a pair of double faults in that ninth game, including an abysmal one at 30-40. They went to a second set tie-break, and Nadal—who had not yet broken his adversary in the match—was serving at 0-3 down. But he captured seven of the next eight points to seal the set, concluding that sequence with a couple of outstanding returns. Nadal methodically moved on, and inevitably his form will improve decidedly in the rounds ahead. In 2011, big John Isner took a nervous Nadal to five sets in the opening round at Roland Garros, but the Spanish gladiator went on to win that tournament.

In any case, Nadal has landed on the same half of the draw as Djokovic, which, in my view, is fundamentally unfair to both players, and not beneficial to the fans. Djokovic and Nadal are likely to meet in the semifinals of this tournament, guaranteeing that one of them can’t make it to the title round. If the tennis gods had been smiling down upon the event, Nadal and Djokovic would have ended up on opposite halves, but there was no divine intervention. I wish Roland Garros had summoned the gumption to seed Nadal No. 1 where he belonged, but they chose not to make an exception to their annual rule of allowing the ATP and WTA rankings to become the law of the land. They have moved past tradition over the last several years by adding a Sunday session at the start of the tournament in Paris, and they have modernized the event in other ways, but that is another matter.

Here is why I feel so strongly about the seedings this year. Nadal has won 41 of his 56 career tournaments titles on his beloved clay, including seven French Opens. He has been the dominant force on that surface for nine years, ever since he captured Roland Garros for the first time in 2005. In fact, Nadal’s career match record on clay is stupendous: 286 wins against only 21 losses. This year, Nadal’s comeback has been magnificent. He returned from a nagging knee injury in February, and since that time has played eight tournaments. He has won six of those events, including five on clay. He has taken three Masters 1000 crowns in that span, including two of those esteemed titles in a row on clay at Madrid and Rome. His two losses in 2013 were both in finals.

By virtue of that supreme consistency, Nadal has demonstrated irrefutably that he is playing a brand of tennis that is not far away from his salad days of 2008 and 2010. In the former of those years, he ruled at the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympic Games; in the latter, he secured three of the four Grand Slam events, losing only at the Australian Open. Had Nadal not come back with such fervor and resolve this year, had he struggled inordinately over the past four months, and had he not been the same dynamo he has always been on the dirt, I would better understand the decision of the authorities at Roland Garros not to move him up in the seedings to his rightful place at the top. But the way I look at it, Nadal had clearly earned the No. 1 spot. The only reason he is ranked fourth in the world and seeded third in Paris (world No. 2 Andy Murray withdrew from the tournament) is because he didn’t play after Wimbledon last year. He will inevitably rise to No. 2 on the ATP computer soon enough, and he could well finish the year at No. 1 with a reasonably good second half of 2013. In that part of the year, Nadal has absolutely no points to protect.

But no matter how Nadal fares on the Emirates ATP Rankings in the 52 week cycle, the fact remains that the ATP has a separate computer system called the “Race to London” that weighs a player’s record strictly on the basis of their results for the year.

Nadal—despite not being ready to play the Australian Open in January—is leading the Race to London for 2013 with 5000 points, and he holds a lead of 690 points over Djokovic, the No. 2 man in the standings. They have been the two best players of the year, without any doubt. The bottom line is that both Djokovic and Nadal deserved to avoid each other before the final; they had essentially earned that right. Djokovic has become an increasingly accomplished big match player. In his last ten majors dating back to the 2010 U.S. Open, the Serbian has been at least a finalist in three of those events, a semifinalist twice, and he has been the champion in five.

Djokovic was runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros a year ago and he had an important win over the Spaniard in the final of Monte Carlo on clay this season. On top of that, Djokovic is the only player who has actually held his own in recent years with Nadal on clay; they have split six head-to-head matches on that surface since 2011. And Djokovic has made it abundantly clear for some time now that he regards this edition of Roland Garros as a landmark opportunity in his career. And yet, fate has dealt him a very unkind hand with the draw.

Djokovic wants to establish himself as only the eighth man ever to reside in the career Grand Slam club, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal in that elite category. Nadal wants to set himself apart in another way; he currently shares the French Open record for singles titles with Chris Evert at seven; he wants title No. 8 very badly. Nadal regards Roland Garros in many ways as his home away from home. The notion that the two best clay court players in the world are probably going to meet in the semifinals of the world’s premier clay court event is difficult to comprehend and hard to justify. If they do clash in the penultimate round, it could turn into a blockbuster if both men perform with their customary verve and sparkle. But the feeling persists that the loser of that potential skirmish would be a victim of circumstances that could so easily have been avoided. A seeding should be as accurate and fair a projection as possible of the way a tournament should logically unfold, but that won’t really be so this time around.

I deeply regret that.

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.