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Steve Flink: 32 Is Too Many

8/31/2007 4:23:00 AM

by Steve Flink

As is always the case at the U.S. Open, the tennis has been first rate in the early stages of the tournament. As I have walked around the grounds scouting players, catching bits and pieces of the early round matches, I have observed fans enjoying themselves immensely. They have relished the chance to watch hard court tennis of the highest caliber, to see the leading players out there on the New York stage in ideal conditions, to be a part of a wonderful American sporting festival.

And yet, something has been lacking at the Open on the early days for a long time. Moreover, something has been missing at all of the majors since the middle of 2001. We are talking now about the absence of drama brought about by the fact that both the men's and women's singles draws feature 32 seeded players. That means 25% of the players in both 128 player fields are protected. One out of every four competitors is given that luxury. And that development is hurting the game of tennis in a serious way, taking too much life out of the early rounds.

I firmly believe the Grand Slam events need to revisit the policy of seeding 32 players. It isn't working. In fact, it is setting the game back considerably. I am sure that many if not most of the players would strongly disagree with me. They play the game for a living. They think it makes sense to allow more players to avoid danger for the first couple of rounds. But I am convinced they are fundamentally wrong.

Getting seeded at a Grand Slam tournament should be a much tougher proposition than is now the case. Until these last seven years, only 16 men and women were afforded that opportunity. That was enough. The first couple of rounds in those days were filled with much more intrigue. The top players in the business had to be more concerned about what might happen in their first two matches. The No. 1 player could face the No. 17 in the first round. In those days, more excitement was in the air from the outset of the major tournaments. It was not simply the potential for more upsets that made fans yearn for those kinds of confrontations. It was also about enticing showdowns that lifted the spirit of the big events and kept everything on a high level from the first day until the last.

This is not to say that the first two rounds of this U.S. Open have not given us exhilarating moments. The remarkable 6'9" John Isner made a spectacular debut in his country's Grand Slam event, most notably in a stirring victory over No 26. seed Jarkko Nieminen in the first round. He earned the right to meet Roger Federer, which was no mean feat. And he dazzled the American followers of the sport with his explosive game and immense court presence. Isner was irrefutably a shining star in this first week.

And who among us could not be impressed by the gripping second round clash between Fabrice Santoro and James Blake under the lights late Thursday night? The 34-year-old Santoro added weight to his reputation as "The Magician" during this astonishing five set skirmish. Santoro's boundless imagination and improvisational genius was fully on display. Adding to the drama was the fact that the Frenchman was cramping in the latter stages. In the end, Blake survived to win the first five set match of his career. After nine five set defeats, Blake finally got over a terribly hard hurdle.

Another sparkling second round meeting was the one between 35-year-old Jonas Bjorkman and 20-year-old Andy Murray. Murray was victorious in five enthralling sets. These two players put on one amazing show, playing the game with almost unimaginable flair and court craft. I watched every point of this match lasting nearly four hours, and it was worth every minute of it.

And so I want to be clear that the first week of the 2007 U.S. Open has not been devoid of sparkle. It has been a delightful stretch in many ways, a time to celebrate tennis at peak time in the American marketplace. But the fact remains that we must strive always to widen the appeal of the game and keep raising the bar. By going to 32 seeds in the two singles events, we have taken a step in the wrong direction. And it is high time that the Grand Slam community recognizes the crucial need to right a wrong and bring back the 16 seed concept.
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