The Sports Revolution: 1, 2, 3, 4…

Let me set the scene for you: It’s the Wimbledon semifinals, and, for once, the top four seeds on the women’s side have all resisted an upset. It’s set up for an—in practice—thrilling but—in theory—preposterous final two rounds, because the No. 1 player faces the one seeded third, while No. 2 plays No. 4.

Let me reset the scene for you: It’s the Wimbledon semifinals, and, for once, the top four seeds on the women’s side have all resisted an upset. It’s set up for a practically thrilling and theoretically sensible final two rounds, with the No. 1 player facing the fourth-ranked one, and No. 2 playing No. 3.

Now, I often ask a lot on behalf of my readers: a suspension of traditional thinking, a very creative imagination, the willingness to spend trillions of dollars to solve otherwise fickle problems.

This time, I ain’t askin’ much.

It’s a basic concept in all competition: The top-seed plays the worst seed, second-seed plays second-worst, and so on through the bracket. It’s a simple concept, really, one that all sports follow.

Except tennis.

It’s always been my biggest issue with the sport, and it was thrown in a very conspicuous light Wednesday, when the Ladies’ Semifinals at Wimbledon comprised the top four seeds. But No. 1 Dinara Safina had to play No. 3 Venus Williams while No. 2 Serena Williams played No. 4 Elena Dementieva.

Now, is it just me, but isn’t one better than two, and isn’t three better than four? Why does the one-seed have to play someone better than the two-seed? It’s not like there was an upset. Why was the tournament set up, from the very beginning, so that in an ideal situation, the one-seed has a tougher road to the finals than the two-seed.

What is the point of seeding at all if you don’t follow it through?

It will work out this week for Wimbledon, but a large part of that is because Dinara Safina is one of the worst top-seeds in sports history (for my money, on par with the 1994 Atlanta Hawks). I mean, before Safina’s match with Venus Williams, Mary Carillo didn’t know how she planned to compete with Williams. The top-seed! Unable to “compete” with someone ranked lower!

But just because it has worked out well doesn’t mean it’s worked out ideally. Let’s say they played according to rational seeding principles, and Safina lost to No. 4 Elena Dementieva in a tight, three-set match (a result that, to me, is likely in the circumstances). Serena and Venus then play in a much-ballyhooed semifinal, one that draws TV ratings in a way neither real semifinal could this year. We’ll say Serena wins, just because it fits the analogy better (and those matches are always a toss-up anyway). In the finals, Serena meets Dementieva, and the two play the kind of mesmerizing match they did in the semifinals, only now people are watching because it’s the finals and not the early semi on at 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning in America when a Williams sister final is all but inevitable.

Now here’s the bigger point: This happens all the time in tennis. Like every tournament! It’s not an isolated incident coerced just so the Williams sisters could only meet in the finals; it’s a tried-and-true tennis principle that seeds will lack any semblance of sense or significance by about the round of 16. If the semifinals are right, the quarters weren’t, and so on.

Cursory research (I looked up one tournament on Wikipedia) justifies my point. The 2008 Australian Open is rife with seeding irregularities. On the men’s side, No. 1 Roger Federer had to play No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the semis—a slight made bigger by the fact that, at the time, there were only three good men’s tennis players. On the women’s side, No. 1 Justine Henin lost to No. 5 Maria Sharapova in the quarters—the round Sharapova should have been playing fourth-seeded Ana Ivanovic and Henin should have been playing No. 8 Venus Williams. Instead, Ivanovic beat Williams, Sharapova beat Henin, and the two eventually played in a final that will be remembered more for—oh, how shall we put it?—aesthetics.*

*And, perhaps, explains why I chose this tournament.

Imagine if other sports adopted this capricious “We’ll rank you, but don’t expect those to mean anything” attitude toward seeding. Sure, the Cavs may have been four games better than the Celtics in the regular season, but they’ll have to get through the Magic in the second round while Boston gets a free pass with the Hawks. Yeah, even though the Giants did have the best record in the NFC, we decided to make them go on the road in the first round to Arizona. Hey, if they’re really the best team, they’ll prove it!

This last part is the argument people make in defense of irrational seeding: Whoever wins has to go through everyone else anyway. Putting aside that this is often false (neither of the teams that advanced to the Super Bowl last season had to beat the top-seeded team in their league), it’s illegitimate and unfair—especially in a sport like tennis where players earn money based on how far they advance. If the Williams sisters met in the first round, would people really be saying, “Well, they’d have to beat one another anyway to win”? And would the loser really be happy taking home first-round “prize” money?*

*Which I assume is a certificate of participation.

What’s the solution? Well, beyond the obvious of setting tournaments up rationally, it’s clear to me at least that all championships played with improper seeding—the prepositional qualifier here may be redundant—are null. Think Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player ever? Better back up that statement with more than “14 Grand Slams,” because none of those count. Think Federer-Nadal at Wimbledon ’08 was the greatest match ever? How can it be, when both players took irrational paths to get there? Think Jana Novotna had the biggest choke in sports history? You’re probably still right.

When tennis takes its seeding seriously, that’s when I’ll take it seriously. Till then, I’ve got an old Aussie Open Final to rewatch.

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