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.
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.