It’s now 13 years since Wimbledon became the first of the four grand slam events to go from 16 seeds to 32 seeds, a move that was quickly followed by the other three. At the time, it was seen as a way of appeasing the traditional clay-courters, many of whom often skipped the tournament, in part because they were not seeded.
Initially, there was a lot of discussion as to its merits. Having 32 seeds means two seeded players cannot meet until the third round. In 2014, a third-round loss is worth £71,000 so I guess if you asked the top boys if they’d be happy for it to go back to 16 seeds, they might not be too happy. The rest, on the other hand, may well be. Knock out a seed early on and you take their place in the draw and could have a good run. Now, if you’re unseeded, you’d have to beat two of them to get that same advantage.
In recent years, there have been complaints in some quarters that having 32 seeds protects the big names too much. If they’re good enough, surely they’ll come through anyway. And what’s wrong with having big shocks in the early rounds? Television would certainly love to have some closer contests early on.
Now before anyone shouts at their screen, yes, Rafa Nadal lost to Lukas Rosol in round two at Wimbledon two years ago and to Steve Darcis in round one 12 months ago. Other big names have struggled early on occasionally. But it certainly feels like most of the big names do have a lot of straight-set wins in the first two rounds these days. (Of course that could just be because they’re a lot better than the rest).
It’s easy to see both sides of the argument but perhaps a good way to look at it is to compare the number of straight-set wins in the first two rounds in the three years before the rule was changed, and in the three after, so that’s 1998-2000 and then 2001-2003.
Well, there was definitely an increase from 2001-2003. In the years 1998-2000, the number of first round matches won in straight sets (including retirements when on course for a straight-sets win) read 30, 34 and 28. In second-round matches, it was 11, 16 and 15, creating overall totals in those years of 41, 40 and 43 over the first two rounds.
After the rule change, between 2001 and 2003, the first-round totals were 33, 33 and 30, but the second-round totals were 15, 15 and 17, making the overall totals over two rounds of 48, 48 and 47. That’s an overall increase of just over 15 percent. In the past two years, the totals were 46 and 59 – 59 is obviously very high and there could be a number of reasons.
Something to consider is that the courts have slowed down dramatically in the past decade or so, so that would suggest longer rallies and give the baseliners more of a chance to break the big servers. The big servers still get some help from the surface but it evens things out considerably to the point where serve and volley, if not quite dead, is dying.
So should they bring it back to 16 seeds? It’s arguable that if the top players are saving energy in the earlier rounds by not playing the really dangerous floaters, then they’re going to be better off as the tournament progresses. The domination of the top four at the grand slams over the past five or six years might not have been possible had they stuck to 16 seeds. Is it better to have 32 seeds? It’s hard to see them going back – the slams are always looking to move forward – but perhaps they’re too cossetted.