2001 was the year. Wimbledon was the tournament. It was the first time that a Grand Slam tournament had decided to introduce 32 seeded players in the singles competition. And lo and behold, the rest of the Slams followed suit.
First, a bit of background as to why all the hue and cry was created, compelling Grand Slam tournament organizers to switch to seeding 32 players instead of the usual 16 previously.
Of the four Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian, French, and US Open used to follow the ATP computer-based rankings to seed players. Therefore, if a single-surface specialist like Thomas Muster is world No. 1, he would be seeded No. 1 for those three Slams as well.
The Wimbledon organizers, however, continued to use their own seeding mechanism, whereby players' ability on grass was more important compared to their actual rankings. Case in point, 2001.
Pete Sampras seeded No. 1, despite being ranked No. 5; Pat Rafter seeded No. 3, despite being ranked No. 10; and Juan Carlos Ferrero seeded No. 8, despite being ranked No. 4, to name a few.
During the time frame under discussion in the above paragraph, players like Gustavo Kuerten (world No. 1) and Alex Corretja (French Open runner-up) had thrown down the gauntlet by subtly boycotting the other Slams (citing as excuses one injury or the other), especially Wimbledon.
Their gripe was that despite being ranked so high, they may still end up competing with someone ranked in the top 20 in the first or second round of a Grand Slam, making it tougher for them to progress.
So, the workable solution devised by Wimbledon and the other Slams was to name 32 seeds so that even the clay-court specialists got seeded, and would avoid meeting any other top-32 player 'til the third round. This 'protection' was met with cynicism initially, but has now become the norm.
Let me just say that I'm glad that Wimbledon realized the futility of seeding Kuerten at No. 1, because he would barely last beyond the second round. But for the French Open to continually seed Pete Sampras as No. 1 was a similar exercise in futility.
Is it an easier ride for the top stars now than in the 1990s?
Consider the 1990s, when top players like Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Pat Rafter could potentially face players ranked 17-32 in the earlier rounds. Top players are usually considered to be more vulnerable to upsets in the earlier rounds as they try to adapt to the conditions.
Therefore, it does seem as if the going is a bit easier for the current generation of top-ranked tennis players as far as Grand Slams go. In order to meet someone ranked 32 or above, a top-ranked player would be happily placed in the third round of a Slam.
This situation has two drawbacks. Firstly, it creates several meaningless and cumbersome matchups in the earlier rounds where chances of upsets are not that great.
And one has to wait for the infrequent occurrence of a potentially tricky opponent falling outside the top 32 in rankings (e.g. Safin vs. Djokovic in Wimbledon 2008), thus creating higher probability of an upset.
But that is not always the case, and we can be sure that players like Tomas Berdych, Stanislas Wawrinka, and Marat Safin will be avoided by the top stars in the first two rounds. Why? Because they're in that ranking bracket that goes from 17 to 32.
Secondly, it allows the top seeds time to settle into their strides, knowing that they can get away with a couple of bad performances and still make it to the third round. Some complacency does set in, but then it also allows the top players to find their feet in the early part of the tournament.
I would imagine things would not be so straight-forward if players like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray had the prospects of being paired with the likes of Robredo, Stepanek, Andreev, or Berdych in the earlier rounds. You can very well imagine that everyone will bring their A-games to the court right from the first round.
Top-ranked players are better all-court players now
Tennis nowadays is definitely played at a different level as compared to the 1990s, where players have more of a chance to be good on all surfaces with similar, baseline-based games.
Therefore, the argument that surface-specialists had in the early part of the decade may not hold that much water anymore.
You wouldn't normally see the likes of Nadal or Djokovic trying to serve-and-volley their way out of trouble. They would much rather prefer to settle the argument from behind the baseline with a scorching winner, or try to draw an unforced error from the opponent.
This has allowed the top players to become better all-surface players as compared to the times of Thomas Muster, Gustavo Kuerten, Pete Sampras, and Goran Ivanisevic.
The main argument is usually between clay and grass, and we've seen that Grand Slam semifinalists these days continue to include at least three of the top four players, no matter the surface.
Reverting back to 16 could add some unpredictability and flair
Surprising first and second-round matchups did tend to excite tennis fans in the 1990s. Therefore, I believe it is time once again to think about reverting back to the past practice of seeding 16 players per Grand Slam.
This would add some much-needed spice to the earlier rounds, and would allow for players to be ready to produce their best from the first round. Agreed that the surprising and tricky matchups may not always be thrown up, but it would make for at least one or two tricky early round matchups per Slam.
Ideally, if a player is ranked in the top ten, he should be able to see off someone ranked 17-32 with ease, so he should have no qualms about facing such an opponent in rounds one or two, either.
And along the way, if a player's form in the pre-Slam Masters Series tournaments is used as an added statistic for considering seedings, it would allow for a truer picture to emerge despite the much better all-surface ability of top-ranked players these days.
Just imagine, players like Andy Roddick (ranked sixth) could be seeded higher than someone like Juan Martin Del Potro (ranked fifth) at Wimbledon, but the roles could well be reversed on clay.
And players like Stanislas Wawrinka and Tommy Robredo could be seeded in the top 16 at Roland Garros despite being ranked at 18 and 17, respectively, taking the places of someone like 16th-ranked James Blake and 13th-ranked Marin Cilic.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!