Why does No. 1 play No. 3 instead of No. 4? A short explanation of seeding in Grand Slam tennis

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).

Top seed Novak Djokovic faces #3 Rafael Nadal in today's French Open semis. Nadal defeated Djokovic in last year's final.

Top seed Novak Djokovic faces #3 Rafael Nadal in today’s French Open semis. Nadal defeated Djokovic in last year’s final.

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.)

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. “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”

    Not true. There is no re-seeding in the NBA playoffs or NCAA basketball tournament. Once the brackets are set, there is no alteration. If a top seed is upset, the bracket remains the same.

  2. It was poorly worded. I meant to say that, as long as the highest seed wins every game, the top remaining seed will end up playing the lowest remaining. So if 1, 2, 3, and 4 all advance, 1ends up playing 4 and 2 plays 3. If there are any upsets, this is no longer the case. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Kenneth Gray says:

    Tennis ought to work logically too, absurd that it does not reward players in the same “segment” for being higher seeds. Why should 1 and 3 have to play each other in a semi final thus rewarding 2 and 4? The price was paid at the recent French Open where the N-D semi final in essence was the final and may well be paid again at Wimbledon. Ferrer (4) and Nadal (5) logically ought to play in the QF but there is only a 1 in 4 chance of that happening based on the random system in operation. Nadal playing one of the top 3 in the QF if they get there would be a great shame.

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