Seeds are used in professional tennis to separate the top players in a draw, so, in theory at least, they will not meet in the early rounds of a tournament.
Based primarily on ranking points accumulated over the previous year, they are meant to be an accurate guide as to the best players in the world at any point in time, and also to ensure that the star names meet in the latter stages of a tournament.
Yet, this year at Wimbledon, something has gone wrong, at least with the women’s game. By the start of the second week, all of the top ten seeds had been knocked out. Is there something broken, or are there other factors at fault?
One argument that might be advanced is that seedings too closely follow world rankings and do not take into account sufficiently the surface on which a tournament is being played.
That may be true for an event on a slow surface like the French Open but does not hold true for Wimbledon, where organisers have traditionally had the discretion to adjust the seedings accordingly. Nor does it account for the fact that three of the women’ seeds to fall were previous Wimbledon winners – defending champion Garbine Muguruza, two-time winner Petra Kvitova, and four-time champion Venus Williams.
Another argument is that the current seeding system does not take adequate account of players coming back from injury or a break from the game.
For example, in the men’s draw this time, sixth seed Grigor Dimitrov found himself playing the 224th ranked player in the world. An easy enough match on paper until it is realised that the player in question was three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka, working his way back to fitness after a long spell out of the game.
Equally, the women’s rankings did not take full account of Serena Williams, who had plummeted down the WTA points table after taking time to have a baby.
And whilst there were some who argued, with some justification, that based on the current system, it was unfair that Williams was seeded at all this Wimbledon, her subsequent progress proved that her pre-tournament world ranking of 183 completely distorted her true playing level.
The issue does not seem so pronounced in the men’s game with the Quarter-Final line-up including five of the top 10 seeds, plus two former Grand Slam winners and a beaten Wimbledon finalist. But perhaps some adjustment needs to be made to the women’s rankings, perhaps by weighing results further in terms of opponent beaten and surface.
And the situation will only get worse next year because, from 2019, the number of seeds in a Grand Slam will revert back to 16 from the current 32.
That will mean a far greater chance of a top-ranked player meeting another much earlier in tournament than is, theoretically at least, the case now. It also offers up the opportunity for an unseeded player with a favourable draw to go deep into a tournament, and even reach a final.
Arguably this is good for the game and will arouse greater interest.
However, whether the sponsors and TV companies that put so much into tennis will agree is another matter. A Simona Halep and Carolina Wozniacki final, or a Federer-Nadal match-up is guaranteed to pull in the crowd and the television audiences. Whether a Serena Williams against a virtual unknown has the same pulling power is open to considerable doubt.