Look back at this year's French Open and you will note a paucity of dramatic matches from both men and women. Look ahead to Wimbledon next week and the same scenario could repeat itself. Though it's of course possible to cite many culprits, ranging from random events to the staggering dominance of the top-ranked players, one subtle but pointed reason for the lack of engaging competition at Grand Slam tournaments of late is the presence of 32 seeds.
"The best are usually more beatable early on in tournaments," said former top-10 player Todd Martin. "Thirty-two seeds protects the best at their most vulnerable times, while in the past the top seeds could have significantly tougher earlier-round matches."
The 32 seeds are therefore guaranteed not to come up against a player ranked higher than 33 in the first two rounds. As a result of not being challenged too strenuously early on in the tournament, top players are also likely to be more physically fresh for the later rounds, further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots, creating the athletic equivalent of a closed union shop.
As Roland Garros 2007 revealed, Slams are often two-tiered tournaments -- a qualifying event that narrows the field down to its essential 32 competitors. While in the short term this can serve to ensure that marquee players endure to the late stages, in the long term the narrative flow of these events and the great mass of players is being hollowed out. As an ex-pro remarks, this brand of polarized protection: "might also slow some players' careers by not getting the big win early in a Slam that might be a breakthrough."
Protection has always been the objective of seeding. It first started in 1927 as a way to safeguard the top players from meeting too early. As tennis grew, more players were seeded. For many years, all the Slams seeded 16 players. The Australian Open, Roland Garros and the U.S. Open based their seedings strictly on the computer rankings.
But here's where things went awry. Wimbledon, citing the uniqueness of its grass surface, has always elected to seed as it wished, in some cases seeding accomplished grass-court practitioners ahead of those who earned higher rankings across the entire tennis year. A number of clay-court players took umbrage to this, feeling that by being seeded lower or not even being seeded at all they would therefore be vulnerable to early-round upsets. As a compromise, in 2001, Wimbledon spread the cloak of protection, doubling the number of seeds.
The cloak spread like a nasty virus. If 32 men were to be seeded at Wimbledon, why not 32 women? If Wimbledon could do it, why not every Slam? And so a methodology designed to aid but one gender on one surface insidiously injected itself into both genders at every Slam.
"I would prefer to have 16 seeds still," Martin said.
Adds Tennis Channel analyst Leif Shiras, "Having just 16 seeds makes the first week much more interesting."
Others feel differently. "In some ways having 32 seeds creates a more balanced draw," said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. "You're also less likely to have the horrible holes in the draw that used to emerge when a seed was beaten. The depth is so much better now, so it can work out pretty well."
But consider: Was it really necessary at Roland Garros for Ai Sugiyama to be seeded 21 and Samantha Stosur 27? These are fine players who could have provided spectators with an engaging match if they met one another earlier in the draw. At the same time, players like Sugiyama and Stosur are skilled enough to pose early-round threats to top players. But instead, cocooned away from one another, both top stars and the likes of Sugiyama and Stosur marched through the early rounds in anonymity.
If you're invested in the purely mercantile aspects of tennis that affect the later stages of a specific event -- a tournament director, TV executive or ticket seller -- the notion of safeguarding the immediate future of a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal for the concluding, revenue-generating phase is appealing. But as Martin notes, "The 32-seed format preserves a few better matches for the second week, but those are there anyway."
Those who pay attention only to short-term box office draws are missing the bigger picture. When Federer won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, he received hardly a minute of air time on ESPN until it was contractually required that his semifinal match be shown. Now of course he'll likely have every step he takes documented. But surely it's wise for a game seeking long-term growth and drama over a two-week period to provide ways for many story lines to flow. Fans watch Slams not just to see what happens at the end, but also to enjoy great tennis along the way.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.