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The Toss: Should the French Open alter its seeding for Rafael Nadal?

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Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal hasn’t lost at the French Open since his upset to Robin Soderling in 2009. (Simon Bruty/SI)

Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times is The Toss’ guest this week to discuss a question that will be asked over and over again during the clay-court season:

Today’s Toss: Should the French Open adopt Wimbledon’s policy to allow for subjective seeding to boost Rafael Nadal’s seed?

Courtney Nguyen: Despite titles in Sao Paulo, Acapulco and Indian Wells, Nadal is still ranked No. 5. He’s 685 points behind No. 4 David Ferrer as we head into the clay season, where Nadal is defending titles in Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona. So barring a shocking turn of events over the next two months — Nadal would effectively have to win every lead-up tournament he plays and hope Ferrer (who pulled out of Monte Carlo with a thigh injury) suffers some early losses — the seven-time French Open champion will go into Roland Garros ranked outside the top four for the first time since his 2005 debut at age 19.

We got a glimpse of the significance of Nadal’s seeding in Indian Wells, where he was drawn into Roger Federer’s quarter as the fifth seed. The two met before the semifinals of a tournament for the first time since 2004, and let’s be honest: That’s just too early to have to bid adieu to either man. In the same vein, if Nadal’s ranking holds, we could get a Nadal-Novak Djokovic quarterfinal at the French Open. That just ain’t right.

So is there anything the French tennis federation (FFT) could do about it? Eyes have turned to Wimbledon’s subjective seeding system. The All England Club is the only Grand Slam that does not strictly adopt ATP or WTA rankings for seeding, which gives it the power to bump up players who have demonstrated particular grass-court skill. Contrary to popular belief, Wimbledon can’t just shuffle seeds willy-nilly. There is a formula used for the men, which takes into account ATP points and grass-court points from the last 12 months plus 75 percent of grass-court points from the 12 months before that.

So how about it? Should Roland Garros adopt a similar system to reward specialized clay courters when it comes to playing the one clay Slam of the year?

As tempted as I am to emphatically say “yes,” I’m not so sure. Using an alternate seeding system for Wimbledon has always made sense given the unique nature of grass-court tennis and the limited grass season of four weeks. For the Tsvetana Pironkovas of the world, that’s simply not enough to boost her ranking to be seeded every year, even if she’s a proven grass-court specialist. So the logic works for me on the green stuff.

But that rationale falls away for clay. There are clay tournaments all around the world during four months of the season, and three of the nine ATP Masters events are held on clay, as opposed to zero on grass. If you’re a clay-court beast, you have plenty of opportunities to prove that over the course of the year and inflate your ranking accordingly. These players shouldn’t need the FFT’s help to ensure that their seeding at Roland Garros reflects their clay-court skill.

WERTHEIM: What should the FFT do? What will the FFT do?

Rothenberg: Unlike The Hunger Games, a tennis tournament isn’t winner take all (sorry, ABBA). Because there is prize money, points and prestige commensurately awarded for advancing to each successive round, it is important that the draw stays as balanced as possible. To that end, seedings shouldn’t necessarily need to reflect what’s happened in the past 52 weeks, but rather should handicap the field for what is most likely to happen next in that given tournament. When a seed is undervalued or overvalued, the draw potentially becomes uneven, and one quarter can open up to anyone lucky enough to find himself there while another quarter sees the best do battle early.

I also have to disagree with your assertion that seedings at Roland Garros reflect clay-court skill sufficiently. Nadal (with a 98.1 winning percentage there) could run the table on red clay warm-ups for the second straight year and still be outside the top four. How is that accurate, when the only reason he’s outside the top four is that he missed a bunch of hard-court tournaments last summer and fall? Don’t punish Djokovic (or to a lesser extent Federer or Andy Murray) by putting Nadal in his path before he’s had a chance to live up to his top-four seeding.

There’s also the converse to consider. Take, for example, Andy Roddick, who at Roland Garros found himself seeded No. 2 (2004), No. 2 (2005), No. 5 (2006), No. 3 (2007), No. 6 (2009), No. 6 (2010) and No. 26 (2012). Not once did Roddick live up to any of those seedings. Because he was usually a very high seed, his early exits left the draw wildly lopsided. You want to criticize Victoria Azarenka for withdrawing from Miami and thus leaving the draw unbalanced? Then you also have to criticize the FFT for blindly following the rankings and seeding Roddick as though he were a clay contender, when he was always doomed to implode and leave an open pathway for a less deserving player to make a deep run.

In truth, I think that the Grand Slams should all be given power to moderately tweak the seedings as they see fit, perceived “fairness” be damned. If only because it would make the release of the seeds before each tournament an actual story, instead of the foregone conclusion it is now. What better way to create water-cooler talk the week beforehand?

Nguyen: See, I don’t have a problem with Roddick or, nowadays, Murray being seeded artificially high at the French Open, because he’s earned it. They’ve compiled the points over the course of the year, whether the surface be clay, hard or grass, to receive a cushion at the French. I don’t find that as problematic as at Wimbledon, where players simply do not have enough tournaments to raise their rankings on grass. It’s pretty hard to come into the French Open ranked high without having a decent clay season. All of the top-10 guys can grind it out on clay.

If you’re going to talk about artificially inflated clay rankings, then Nadal is actually the king of it at the moment. As much as I want to lament that he’s ranked fifth, he has just two non-clay results on his rankings sheet. Of the 18 tournaments that make up his ranking, he failed to play nine because of his knee injury (thus giving him zero points); two of them, Indian Wells and Wimbledon, were not on clay; and the remaining seven are all, except for the blue-clay fiasco that was Madrid, clay events he won. So he’s No. 5 based on just nine results, seven of which were on clay. Nadal doesn’t need any more help from the clay gods to raise his ranking.

I do think it’s an unfortunate situation for the French Open. It’s basically running a 50-50 risk that either Nadal ends up in Murray’s or Ferrer’s quarter, which wouldn’t be entirely problematic, or in Djokovic’s or Federer’s quarter, which would be tough on the tournament from both a tennis and marketing standpoint. But hey, it’s just a one-off anomaly because of Nadal’s lengthy injury break.

Should anyone really feel sorry for Nadal that he might have a tougher road to the title this year? We’re looking at a situation in which the King of Clay, after a seven-month layoff, could have to go through Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic to win his eighth Roland Garros title in nine years. It could be his greatest challenge yet. Pass the macarons!

Rothenberg: You’re right — because of surface homogenization, we have a top 10 filled with capable clay courters who have racked up points on slow hard courts. That’s not ideal, but it’s what we have. But in cases like Nadal’s, some sort of “power rankings” would be far more fair.

I disagree in that this is somehow a one-time issue. Top players are coming back from injury constantly, and often dominating quickly upon return.

For example how fair was it for Serena Williams, fresh off dominant runs in Stanford and Toronto in her second and third tournaments back, to be seeded 28th at the 2011 U.S. Open? Specifically, how fair was that to Azarenka, the No. 4 seed, to have to be steamrolled by Serena in the first week of the tournament? To have Djokovic face a similar fate in the 2013 French Open quarterfinals would be similarly unfair. Again, because tennis awards points and money based on how deep a run you make, the sport has an obligation to make the paths as even as possible.

Discretion is the better part of tennis valor. And I see no reason why tournament directors shouldn’t be able to use a little of it when making the seedings.

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  • Published On Apr 11, 2013
  • 25 comments
    PhilCoates
    PhilCoates

    Seeding is very unfair. If you must have it make it just the top eight. Giving the B player big guys a virtually free pass to the later rounds makes for a meaningless and very boring first week and gives emerging talent an unfair road to contention.

    CM
    CM

    So the French Open should suddenly adopt a special seeding rule after, what is it, 100 years? The guy who held all the clay records before Nadal was Vilas; maybe Guillermo would have won more than a single French Open if they had used surface-specific seeding in his time. Plus, there are so many points available to win on clay that a "specialist" can amass enough points basically to skip the rest of the year and still remain in the top ten.

     

    It also seems like rewarding Nadal after missing 7 months. Besides, he might be at #5 now, but I believe Rafa will be at #4 by next week, when Ferrer's Monte Carlo points from last year drop off.

     

    What would the point be of giving him preferential seeding when he'll most likely beat all comers, regardless?  

    msrn
    msrn

     @CM Vilas is n/a as the new seeding system was introduced in 2001.

     

    Missing because of injury/illness.  How is an absolutely deserved (52-1 event record) higher seeding being given to the Spaniard rewarding?  Ferrer lost R2 MC'12.

     

    There would nothing preferential about it.  Murray ranked three and seeded two at Wimbledon'13 would be a case of preferential treatment as Federer's the Wimbledon champion.

     

     

    Caprice
    Caprice

    The ideal seeding system is Wimbledon's. The French should do the same as Wimbledon.

     

    Count ATP points gained over the past 12 months, then add 75% of points gained from the last French Open. Ignore all other clay tournaments.

     

    I am sure Djokovic, Federer and Murray would bend over backwards to make that policy happen this year if they could :)

    barjona
    barjona like.author.displayName 1 Like

    I couldn't agree more with Courtney, there are plenty of points to be had in the clay court season and so anyone who's adept on clay will have that reflected in their ranking. People will typically play 2 grass court events per year, Wimbledon and a tune up, so that does not accurately reflect any particular prowress on grass. And this is a bit of a slippery slope, why stop at Nadal? Clearly the big servers on tour don't do as well on clay (Raonic, Isner, Karlovic, Querry etc...) we should probably drop them a few notches, heck, lets drop Isner out of the seeds altogether. The reality is Nadal has been injured for half a year and his ranking has taken a hit because of it, but hey, that's sports. He's still going to be a huge favorite going in. It'll suck for whoever gets him in the quarters but it's a one off assuming this doesn't happen again. Why open a can of worms over it?

    MisaelMaldonado
    MisaelMaldonado

    If Fed, Murrey or Novak meet Nadl in the quarters , they would most likely lose. He's only lost to two players since 2005.

    MisaelMaldonado
    MisaelMaldonado

    Federer, Novak, Murrey will all want to meet Nadal in the semis as oppossed to the quarters.

    CM
    CM

     @MisaelMaldonado Why not? They are all currently ranked higher because they played for the entire past year  and earned the points. They all want to go as far as possible in Paris. 

    rampal
    rampal like.author.displayName 1 Like

    I think Ferrer and the others should be rewarded for playing a game of tennis which allows them to be healthy enough to play for most of the year.  I also think it's plenty entertaining to watch Nadal or anyone else lose in the quarterfinals and see someone else in the semis. 

    pyro21
    pyro21

    Nadal has won this tournament 7 times. He is also the 3-time defending champion. If anyone has ever deserved a seed boost, it's him. The top seed is theoretically supposed to be the favorite to win. Has there ever been a bigger favorite at any tournament? 

    CM
    CM

     @pyro21 yes, he's won it 7 times - doesn't it stand to reason that he'll be able to win it again, regardless of seeding? 

    barjona
    barjona

     @pyro21 Where is it stated that the top seed is supposed to be the favorite? Nadal has entered the FO numerous times as the number 2 seed and still been the overwhelming favorite. We had no problem with that. Why are you now appealing to some theoretical seeding ideal that has never existed before?

    Yolita
    Yolita

     @barjona  @pyro21 Being the #1 and the #2 seed is the same for draw purposes: they are in different halves and will meet either #3 or #4 in the semis, at random.

     

    But being the #5 seed means that he will meet one of the top 4 in the QF. I'm not thinking of Nadal: I'm thinking of the top 4. They have the right, they have earned the right to face Nadal later. As it stands, the players who can be sure of not meeting Nadal before the semis are the players ranked 6-8.

     

    It's the first time we have a draw where it's better to be ranked #8 than to be ranked #1.

     

    This draw could decide the year-end #1. Because if Nole/Roger/Murray face Nadal in the QF, they'll lose and get 360 points, whereas if they avoid him, they have a cahnce to make the finals and get 1200. 840 points based on the luck of the draw.

     

    I'm not happy about it.

     

    Rafa couldn't care less: he'll win anyway. But the others are dependant on luck. Not nice.

    PhilCoates
    PhilCoates

     @Yolita  @barjona  @pyro21 Earned the right? What right? They entered a tournament and want it rigged so that they don't lose early. That is really cheating isn't it?

    barjona
    barjona

    I would argue about "Rafa couldn't care less" there's a real possibility (around 50/50) that he would have to beat the rest of the big 3 (Nole/Fed/Murray) to win the title. If Ferrer is drawn in the other half (50/50 for that to happen) and the draw holds to seedings (a bit of an assumption but not unreasonable) then Nadal would have to beat the rest of the big 4 to win- that's a tough ask, even for Nadal. I wouldn't bet against him, in fact given a choice to bet Nadal or the field I'd take Nadal, but that doesn't mean Nadal won't care. A 50/50 chance of having to beat the 3 best players not named Nadal is a daunting task.

     

    As for the top 4 and their stake in the draw, I agree, it would suck to have to play Nadal in the QF, can you imagine Nadal vs Djokovic QFs?! That's crazy! But again, it's also sports. You can make the same argument every year about being the 3 or 4 that draws Nadal, Federer can beat Nole on clay, no shot against Nadal, and that has implications on the year end ranking just the same. And where does this leave us? The draw's being adjusted just so one of the top 4 doesn't have to play the greatest clay courter of all time in the QF? That doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

    Yolita
    Yolita

    "In truth, I think that the Grand Slams should all be given power to moderately tweak the seedings as they see fit,.."

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    As a matter of fact they are: the ITF rules aloow the Grand Salm organisers to produce their own seedings as long as tey take the ATP rankings into account. I think Roland Garros could produce a formula just like the Wimbledon one, to be used only this year because it's a unique situation with Rafa not having played for 7 months. Otherwise the draw would be really lopsided and the spirit of the seeding would be lost.

    IdaAnnaTaylor
    IdaAnnaTaylor like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

     @Yolita

     This is not a unique situation.  No way should a major make a 1-time rule just for one guy.  Wimbledon doesn't pick and choose what years to implement their calculation.  Nadal was out for months and dropped in the rankings.  That's life.  Will it suck if Nadal plays Fed, Murray, or Djoker in the QFs?  Of course, but it is what it is. 

    Yolita
    Yolita

     @IdaAnnaTaylor I see your point, but it is a unique situation.  Rafa is the overwhelming favourite to win this tournament. I wouldn't sufggest this for any hard.court torunament.

     

    I'm thinking of the other top players who will have to depend on the draw and who could lose a lot of points if they have to face Rafa in the QF. 840 points could decide the year-end #1. I'm not comfortable with a draw being so powerful as to decide which player will lose in the QF and which player will have the chance to make the finals.

     

    Because let's face it: the chances of any player beating Nadal in the QF, based on Nadal's performance on clay in his entire life, are really, really small. Personally, I would like to see the 2 best clay-court tennis players in different halves: that's the spirit of the seeding system.

     

    The RG people could use a formula based on the fact that the defending champion, who has won RG 7 times and who stopped playing for 7 months, is not properly ranked. And of course, it will not be unique: the next time that a player wins Roland Garros 7 times, is the defending champion and goes down in the rankings due to not playing for 7 months, it could be done again. :)

     

    Anyway: it's not up to us...

     

     

    barjona
    barjona

     @Yolita  @IdaAnnaTaylor It may be unique but it's not that strange. And why not do it on hard court tournaments? What if Djokovic gets hurt, doesn't play for 7 months and is going into next years US Open as the 5th seed. Wouldn't the same argument apply? Or are ranking bumps due to injury only for 7 time winners? Or only at the FO?

    Yolita
    Yolita

    *allow *they

    Why doesn't livefyre have an EDIT button?

    jo76
    jo76 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

    Tennis could do what some other sports do - automatically seed the defending champion at number 1.

    barjona
    barjona

    And just out of curiosity what sports are those? I follow a lot of sports and don't recognize that seeding system in any of them.

    barjona
    barjona like.author.displayName 1 Like

     @jo76 That's ridiculous in tennis. So let's say Nadal get's Murray in the quarters and Djokovic in the semis and loses. Djokovic is worn out for the finals and Federer picks up his second French Open (not out of the realm of possibility). He then continues his decline and doesn't win anything else the rest of the year and comes in to next years FO ranked 5th or worse with no wins. He's the number 1? Why are we trying so hard to fix a system that isn't broke? Nadal has been hurt and his ranking has suffered- it happens.