How Does Seeding Work in Tennis?

Every single tournament on the ATP and WTA tour uses a seeding system to help balance out the bracket. This is especially apparent in each of the four grand slams, as 32 seeds are handed out for the men and women.

How do seedings work in tennis? Most people would assume that the 32 best players at that particular time automatically get those 32 seeds. While that may is not exactly true, it does play a huge factor in the seating for every major.

Below is a closer look at why seeding matters, and how all four of the majors handle handing out seeds. This allows people to have a better understanding of when something might seem off. There has certainly been some seeding controversy in the past, and it will happen in the future as well. 

What Is a Seed In Tennis?

The top players entered in every tennis tournament will receive a seed. Some tournaments only give out eight seeds, while the majors give out 32. Not only is the seed a badge of honor for players when they look at the draw, but it is a quick way to show casual fans who the best players are in the tournament.

Seeding is usually figured out a week or two beforehand, so the current rankings might not always show in the same light. Each tournament has the ability to seed mess with the seeds if they wish, although most view the fairest and non-controversial way as to simply use the ATP and WTA rankings.

Having a seed is beneficial for those playing in tournaments that are not exactly 32, 64, or 128 players deep. In those tournaments, every single player needs to play the same amount of matches. If the draw is different than those three numbers, a seed might get a first-round bye.

That bye can come in handy in tennis tournaments. Getting a day or two off to rest the body is a major advantage. There is always a chance that the opponent is forced to play a long match the round before as well.

Why is Seeding In Tennis Important?

The seeding system is in place because tournaments want to have the potential for great matches to mostly occur near the end. The best way to do that is to separate the best players in the early rounds.

No one wants to see the two best players randomly play each other in the first or second round. Although it would make for some compelling television, tournaments lose the opportunity to see one of those players play several more matches.

A recent example is the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic 2019 Wimbledon Final. That match would not be nearly as memorable if the top two seeds faced each other in the first week of the tournament.

Seeding also keeps tournaments as fair as possible. There is just too much luck involved if there is no seeding.

Draws as-is can certainly open up if seeds lose in the early rounds, but there is still an equal opportunity to face challenging players after the first couple of rounds. It’s the fairest way to have a tennis tournament, while still allowing for some variance.

Crucial At The Grand Slams

At the grand slams, the 32 seeds are all separated so that they do not play another seed until the third round. If everyone takes care of business, the third round will consist entirely of seeds. That has never happened in tennis, and it likely never will.

Different tournaments will do different things with the seeds as well. It normally does not work exactly like tournaments in other sports, such as the NCAA basketball tournament in March. If it was set up that way, the #1 seed would always potentially face the #32 seed in a Grand slam in the third round.

The same would go for the #2 seed and the #31 seed, the #3 seed and the #30 seed, etc. In most cases, only the top four seeds are separated into their own quarter of a draw, and then everything else is randomized.

If it wasn’t randomized, there are too many players trying to mess with their ranking leading into the tournament to avoid playing against potentially dangerous players.

Those players who do not receive a seed in a draw can randomly end up facing anyone. There are cases where the #1 seed has to play someone who just missed out on a seed in the very first round. It’s rare to see that actually happen, but there is always a chance. 

Do Unseeded Players Win?

Gustavo Kuerten, French Open Champion 1997

Every single player who is in the main draw of a Grand Slam theoretically could win. With that said, it has only happened a few times in the Open Era of tennis. It is a very difficult task to pull off, since there is a chance to face a challenging draw from the very beginning of the tournament.

In some instances, future greats have their breakout at Grand Slam events. Mats Wilander and Gustavo Kuerten are two examples of that. They both won the French Open at very young ages, before they had the ranking to receive a seed. Kuerten was especially shocking, since that also was his first professional tournament win.

Another common theme with unseeded winners is the once great star. Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and Kim Clijsters all won titles after being at the top of the game before.

Tennis rankings only consider the last 12 months, so it’s not too difficult to fall outside the top 32. Clijsters actually retired two years before her 2009 U.S. Open title. Although she played some tournaments as warm ups, her ranking was not good enough to get a seed.

Finally, there have been some recent female players who have surprised the tennis world with Grand Slam wins despite not being seeded. Jelena Ostapenko shocked many with her 2017 French Open title. Sloane Stephens would pull off a surprising run of her own later that year at the U.S. Open. After battling injuries for a couple of years, she found her form and won it all.

Unseeded players win smaller tournaments on tour more frequently, but it’s extremely difficult to pull off at a Grand Slam.

Grand Slam Seeding

Each major has the ability to seed however they want. They are separate from the ATP and WTA tour, so they have free reign. How does each major handle seeding?

It is surprisingly very straightforward for the most part. Despite sometimes being questioned, all four majors are pretty firm on their current setup.

Seeding at Australian Open

The very first Grand Slam of the year takes place down under in Melbourne, Australia. It is able to escape controversy when it comes to their seeding system, even though they pretty much do the same exact thing as the U.S. Open and the French Open.

Since it is at the beginning of the year, isolated from the other three majors, there is less debate overall. Players aren’t necessarily coming in on hot streaks, looking for a slight bump in the seeding system.

Out of all the majors, the Australian Open has a certain sense of unpredictability to it. That also might have to do more with the time of the year and the long travel to get to the tournament, rather than the seeding system. Whatever the case is, the committee has no real incentive to change how they are doing things currently.

Seeding at French Open

The French Open is notoriously stubborn when it comes to handling the seeding of players. They follow the book, regardless of unique circumstances.

Two recent circumstances have really drawn attention to the tournament and their reluctance to budge. In 2015, Rafael Nadal entered the tournament #4 in ATP rankings. This is a man who has dominated the tournament throughout his career, and historically he is great on clay regardless of how he plays on other surfaces. It made sense to a lot of people to give him a higher seed, but the French Open stuck by their rules.

A few years later in 2018, Serena Williams was making her return to the Grand Slam stage after taking maternity leave. Even though she was considered one of the favorites to win the title, she entered the tournament without a seed.

It seems like the French Open has no intention on changing their ways, despite receiving some backlash. It is a hard decision according to some, but it at least leaves very little room for debate. 

Seeding at the Championships (Wimbledon)

Wimbledon is the one major that has the most difficult seeding procedure to understand out of the four. Part of this is due to being one of only a few remaining grass court tournaments played at a high-level. The grass is very different in how it plays, which means that the best players in the world might not necessarily with the most or have the most success on grass.

Wimbledon uses a system that is very surface-based, and that allows them to seed in an appropriate manner in their eyes. The formula is as follows:

  • The player’s current ATP or WTA ranking the week before the draw
  • 100% of points earned for all grass tournaments in the last 12 months
  • 75% of the points earned for the best grass Court tournament in the last 12 months prior

Totaling up these three numbers up to get a new ranking of the top players in the world on grass surfaces. This benefits players who not only participate in the lead-up tournaments, but do well in them.

The most recent example of this having a major effect on the draw came in 2019. Nadal currently is the #2 player in the world, but he dropped to a #3 seed because of Federer success on grass. It didn’t end up mattering all that much, because the two met up in the semi-finals. In Wimbledon defense, Federer ended up victorious, proving that at least on that particular day, he was the better player on grass.

In a tournament where tradition is everything, it’s doubtful that they intend to change up this unique seeding system in the future. They like the idea that they are a little unique compared to the rest of the Grand Slams as well.

Seeding at the U.S Open

The U.S. Open keep things relatively straightforward as far as seeding is concerned. The top players going into the final week before the tournament will receive the best seeds.

There is one exception though, and that came just last year. In response to specifically to new mother Serena Williams, the tournament decided to allow some leeway for any women coming back from maternity absences. If the committee feels like a player is worthy of a seed, they have the ability to hand one out.

In the 2018 U.S. Open, the committee ultimately decided to give Williams the 17th seed. She would go on to the finals, where she lost in straight sets to Naomi Osaka.

Don’t expect this exception to come up too much, but it is nice to see that the U.S. Open is willing to adapt under unique circumstances.

The Future of Tennis Seeds

For right now, the plan is to stick with 32 seeds for all the Grand Slam tournaments. There has been some recent discussion to move to just 16 seeds, as that would encourage a little bit more variety and draws. Although discussions have occured, there is no immediate plan to switch to this option. It seemed inevitable just a year ago, but the thought is tabled for now.

The four Grand Slams, especially on the men’s side, belong to the top players in the world right now. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have had a stranglehold on the rest of the field, and the ratings show that people love to see them face off against each other deep in tournaments.

Reducing the number of seeds can potentially put top players at greater risk of losing early in tournaments. Upsets are always intriguing, but those making money on the tournament don’t benefit.

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