In the middle of 2001, the Grand Slams doubled the number of seeds in the draw from 16 to 32, a change “designed to protect star players and satisfy clay and grass specialists.”
The intended beneficiaries of the change were, of course, all seeded players. Those in the top 16 no longer had to worry about facing a fellow top-32 player until the third round. Those ranked from 17-32, who before the change may have faced a top 16 player in the first round, now received the same protection.
The costs of the 32-seed system are borne by two groups: unseeded players, who are now more likely to face a top-ranked player early; and first-week fans, who would like to see more “compelling” early-round matches. While it’s easy to point to shock upsets like Serena Williams’s exit today as a counterpoint, the first two rounds at Slams often feel like warm-up matches for the biggest stars, with fringe players as their hapless foils.
On the other hand, it’s tough to get an intuitive sense of just how much is at stake here. It may not be as much as you think. From 1989 to 2000, men’s seeds were upset 263 times in the first two rounds of slams. Only 51 of those losses were to players in the top 32. In other words, more than 80% of those upsets would have occurred even with a 32-seed format, and presumably, some of the remaining 51 matches would still have resulted in upsets.
From the perspective of the top 16 seeds, there may not be that much difference between opponents ranked in the next 16 and those ranked lower still. To cherry-pick just one example, there are many seeded players Stanislas Wawrinka would have rather faced this week than Guillermo Garcia Lopez.
For top-four women, it hasn’t made a difference at all. In the twelve years before the switch, they reached the third round in 176 of 190 attempts. In the twelve years after the format change, women seeded 1-4 no longer risked facing a top-32 player in the first two rounds, and reached the third round in 178 of 191 attempts.
In fact, for top-16 women’s seeds in general, the 32-seed format has not helped. From 1989-2000, women’s seeds reached the third round 77.6% of the time, the fourth round 63.5% of the time, and the quarterfinals 40.8% of the time. From 2002-13, with lower-ranked early-round opponents, the corresponding numbers were 78.2%, 60.1%, and 37.1%.
It’s likely that some of the differences have to do with the increasing depth of the women’s game, but it’s hardly the case that the 32-seed format has drastically changed the nature of the majors, at least for the players who have been seeded all along. Men’s top-16 seeds have benefited, reaching the third, fourth, and quarterfinal rounds about 10% more often since the switch to 32 seeds, but even here, we’re not seeing radically different second weeks.
The real change, as you might suspect, appears when we consider the balance of power between the new seeds (17-32) and the rest of the field. From 1989-2000, when there were only 16 seeds and those two groups were treated the same way, men’s players ranked 17-32 reached the third round about twice as often (35% to 17%) as their lower-ranked competitors. Women in the 17-32 range held a wider advantage of 39% to 15%.
Now that there are 32 seeds and the 17-32 group is protected, those gaps have substantially grown. From 2002-13, men seeded outside the top 16 have reached the third round 53% of the time, compared to 12% for unseeded players. Seeded women in the 17-32 range have reached the third round 49% of the time, while unseeded women have equaled their male counterparts at 12%.
These differences, big as they are, aren’t going to affect most fans’ enjoyment of the majors. The format change means that Rafael Nadal faces a player ranked 60th in the world in the second round and a player ranked 30th in the third round. He’ll almost always win both matches, so the end result is the same. A surprise run to the quarterfinals isn’t much different if it’s made by world #25 than by #50.
However, the 32-seed format does amplify the gap between tennis’s haves and have-nots. Yes, he Grand Slams have massively increased prize money in the last few years for all main-draw competitors–first-round losers in Paris earn more than $32,000 for their efforts. But players who reach the third round are able to triple that money.
As we’ve seen, the format change has made it much more likely that #32 reaches the third round (and takes home a nearly six-figure purse) at the expense of everyone ranked lower–despite having little effect on the makeup of the field in the fourth round and beyond. Plus, the ranking points on offer at Slams mean that third-rounders are that much more likely to earn a seed at the next major, starting the next round of the same cycle.
Seeding 32 players instead of 16 doesn’t have much of an effect on the fates of top players, especially on the women’s side. It can, however, lessen interest in the first several days of play, and it certainly supports an arbitrary middle tier of players at the expense of the rest of the field.
If the 32-seed era were to end here, there’s little reason for tennis fans to miss it.