On Friday, Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked player and the No. 1 seed at the French Open, took on No. 3 seed and seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal on the red clay in Paris. (Nadal won in a five-set thriller.)
If you don’t follow tennis, but do follow other sports with seeded tournaments, you might assume that this Djokovic-Nadal match is for the championship. In most such tournaments the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds are in opposite halves of the bracket and could not meet until the final game or series. And, had Roger Federer beaten No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals, the other semi would have pit No. 2 Federer against No. 4 David Ferrer. So you would have a situation where the four top seeds advanced to the semifinals, but the semifinals were unbalanced, with No. 1 playing No. 3 in one match and No. 2 playing No. 4 in the other (instead of the No. 1-No. 4, No. 2-No. 3 matchups we’re used to seeing in other sports).
The women’s draw played out in a more conventional manner. In one semifinal No. 1 Serena Williams played the winner of the quarterfinal match between No. 4 Agnieszka Radwańska and No. 5 Sara Errani. (Errani beat Radwańska then lost to Serena in a 6-0, 6-1, 46-minute beatdown.) In the other No. 2 Maria Sharapova defeated No. 3 Victoria Azarenka. No. 1 Williams and No. 2 Sharapova will play in tomorrow’s final.
So what’s going on with the seeding at the French Open, and at tennis tournaments in general? And why did the men’s tournament play out differently than the women’s?
In the NBA Playoffs and in the NCAA basketball tournaments, if the top seeds keep winning, the top seed will always face the lowest seeded team remaining; the second highest seed will face the second lowest and so on. When the seeds hold, No. 1 plays No. 8 in the quarterfinals, No. 2 plays No. 7, No. 3 plays No. 6, and No. 4 plays No. 5. In the semifinals No. 1 faces No. 4 while No. 2 takes on No. 3. No. 1 and No. 2 then meet in the finals. Throughout the tournament, the top seed never plays a team seeded higher than the number or remaining teams.
But that doesn’t always happen in tennis. As we are seeing with today’s Djokovic-Nadal match, sometimes No. 1 plays No. 3 in the semifinals. In the round of 16 the top player may have to beat No. 12 or No. 13 (instead of No. 16) after having defeated, say, No. 26 or No. 27 (instead of No. 32) in the round of 32. Top seed Serena Williams, for instance, defeated No. 26 Sorana Cîrstea in the round of 32 and No. 15 Roberta Vinci in the round of 16.
Tennis’s Grand Slams aren’t concerned with giving the top seed the most favorable path to the championship (or the second seed the second most favorable path, etc.). But they do take care to ensure that, if the higher seeds keep winning, the top 16 seeds will all be in the round of 16, the top eight seeds will advance to the quarterfinals, and so on.
Here’s how to seed a Grand Slam tennis tournament: Cut the bracket in half. Put the No. 1 seed in one half and the No. 2 in the other half. Then chop the bracket into fourths. The No. 1 seed will be in one fourth and the No. 2 in another. Place the No. 3 seed at random in one of the remaining fourths and the No. 4 seed in the other remaining fourth. Then split the bracket into eight sections. Four of the sections will already include a top-four seed. Randomly place each player seeded No. 5 – No. 8 into one of the remaining four sections. Continue until all 32 seeded players are in the bracket.
Under this arrangement, no seeded player has to face another seeded player until the round of 32. A player seeded No. 9 – No. 16 will not have to play an opponent seeded No. 1 – No. 8 until the round of 16. A player seeded No. 5 – No. 8 won’t face a player seeded No. 1 – No. 4 until the quarterfinals, and so on.
Unseeded players are placed in the remaining slots at random. If you’re the 33rd best play in the draw, you could end up playing the top seed in the first round, but you could just as easily end up facing the 128th player.
So that’s seeding in tennis. Tournament brackets are put together with a mixture of balance and randomness. Tennis’s Grand Slams don’t always give us the No. 1 vs. No. 4, No. 2 vs. No. 3 match-ups that we’re used to seeing in other sports (though they sometimes do). But the draws always ensure that the top two players won’t meet until the championship.
The WTA rulebook has a good explanation of tennis’s seeding procedure. (See page 68.)