Too often, early-round games are without danger or excitement due to a system that suits the needs of the top players
Most players enter the tournament hoping to fight through a round or maybe two before inevitably clashing with a big hitter created by an unfair draw.
The second week of a Grand Slam. It’s sacred turf for many players and quite unrealistic for most.
It is a depressing thought, if perhaps a truism in the sport, that the majority of players enter a tournament without believing they can win. Maybe that’s how it should be, that’s how it has to be – but what if not?
Currently, the draw is being effectively rigged in favor of the better players, and particularly heavily in favor of those who have the best chance of winning. The number 1, in addition to having playing time and schedule, effectively has their choice of opponent.
The next best player will be kept as far away from them as possible in the other half of the draw, the top 10 are extremely unlikely to get in their way before the quarter-finals, and they won’t even face another top 30 player until you have two Matches to show their eye. Even then, the chances are good that your first real test will come after more than 100 players have been unpacked.
The average placement of Novak Djokovic’s first-round opponents at Grand Slams over the past 10 years is 88. Roger Federer has 99. Rafael Nadal’s number is 110. Together they have lost on stage twice for a grand total of 30 years of tennis. Less than once a decade is hardly at risk.
The irony is that when an underdog story comes up in tennis, the governing bodies and tournaments milk it for all it’s worth. When Aslan Karatsev reached the semi-finals in Melbourne last year or Emma Raducanu won the US Open from qualifying, that was the history of the tournament. Most British fans will even remember the name Marcus Willis, a related nobody who reached the second round of Wimbledon in 2016 but then ran into Roger Federer, whose tie kept him out of a Seeds until the quarter-finals .
There is little spirit of the FA Cup in top tennis. The draw ceremonies are invariably carried out by the referee and a few selected witnesses, the reality being not clandestine corruption, but rather boredom; There are so many regulations governing which players can or cannot play certain slots that it is hardly worth a look.
So I’m proposing something new, something to revitalize the underdog’s spirit and ensure that the first week of the Grand Slam is no longer a warm-up for the best players.
For our new Australian Open draw, we’ve reversed the 2001 change to include the top 32 players in the event. The tie protection was originally extended from 16 to 32 to prevent clay court specialists from boycotting Wimbledon and complaining that it is hardly worthwhile for them to get to the later rounds without a safe passage. But the surfaces are now so castrated that the Wimbledon tracks are hardly faster than a hard court in some years. The old argument is no longer valid.
We will also remove eight more from the seeded group so that only the eight best players get a seeded spot in the draw. They are placed in certain positions – the advantages that the top players want we couldn’t quite take away – before the other 120 players are randomly seated next to them. Then we let them fight out as normal. (I also only took the top 16 players out of qualification instead of something more challenging because the tournament isn’t over yet.)
If you want to see the individual brackets, I put them together here on Twitter. Below is a “projected” row of quarter-finalists and some comments on the other ties that resulted in the draw.
As you can see below, in the quarterfinals of our imaginary draw, it is still the most names you would expect, which of course is in part because you would expect the top eight players to win the most games. But how they got there would be much more interesting.
In our alternative universe, Djokovic had to assert himself through Ugo Humbert, Fabio Fognini, Reilly Opelka and Lorenzo Sonego in order to secure the right to a place in the quarter-finals, while the number 50 in the world rankings Jan-Lennard Struff opened the draw for himself meets Maxime Cressy in the fourth round. This isn’t a classic match-up, but there are at least two formidable players who managed to get there rather than a top 10 monster who will only use 75 percent of their talent to make it to the neighborhood.
There would have been epics in the first rounds too: Denis Shapovalov opened against John Isner, a draw before the third round impossible and even then unlikely under the current system; Felix Auger Aliassime will face Aslan Karatsev in the second game; Sebastian Korda and Dan Evans in third place, who had both faced lower opponents up to this point and had the chance to start a career. There would also be smaller names who would double their career earnings with decent performances and a partially cleared path through the draw.
And also think about the value for money. First week Grand Slam tickets are two things: getting a ground pass and hoping two players you’ve never really heard of will get into a proper ding-dong fight, or the luck, To see one of the great places to see one of the eight best thrown out in straight sentences. If there were better, closer matches in the first week, there is always the chance that you could pay a ten to see world # 16 vs world # 25, and they won’t take it any less seriously because they are on court no 4 stand.
Organizers don’t have to worry either: you will always sell out your finals and semifinals, but imagine the scramble for tickets for the first week, which could have some really notable matches.
And don’t be fooled into saying that match-ups between great players “mean less” because they happen in the opening rounds. You tell Andy Murray and Stefanos Tsitsipas after their epic duel in New York last summer.
Now it is unlikely that this will ever happen. The Grand Slam Board was pushing to reduce 32 seeds to 16 in 2019, but had to abandon the idea under pressure from players – which came from above, not below. But we can always dream.
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