Soft Draws and Conspiracy Theories: Can Grand Slam Draws Be Rigged? Part 1

Vee JayAnalyst ISeptember 19, 2010

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 13:  Roger Federer of Switzerland returns a shot to Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic during the quarterfinals of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 13, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Grand Slam draws are released with much fanfare a few days before the start of a tournament. Fans and analysts eagerly scan the draw to see whom Dame Fortune has blessed and whom she has not. No draw can be equally easy for all the players. Everybody accepts the luck of the draw. Some get a soft draw and some get a rough path through the tournament.

How is a Grand Slam draw created? In a nutshell, there are 128 players; 32 are seeded based primarily on ranking. Let's look at the men's singles draw. In the draw, 104 players get direct entry and the rest of the field comprises 16 qualifiers and eight wild cards.

Seeded players have certain preferential positions in the draw to ensure that they do not meet each other in the early rounds. When seeded players (or their victors) do meet, it is in a graduated manner.

For instance, the No. 1 seed can meet the No. 3 or 4 seed no earlier than the semifinals and can't meet the No. 2 seed before the finals. The No. 1 and 2 seeds occupy fixed positions 1 and 128 respectively. The distribution of the other seeds is done through a live public draw. The unseeded players (there are 96 of them) are distributed randomly by a computer.

For those interested in knowing in greater detail how a Grand Slam draw is created, I refer you to the 2010 Official Grand Slam Rule Book.

Can a soft draw help a player win the tournament? No, not if he is not one of the best. When he meets the top seeds, as he must inevitably, he will be massacred. But, a soft draw for a top player can definitely give him the edge. Top players are vulnerable in the early rounds but as they progress, they start peaking. So if a top player receives a soft quarter, he is less likely to be upset. He would also be relatively fresh when he meets the other top seeds, who may have come through grueling early rounds.

Can the draws be rigged to favor a particular player?

The seeds, if you recall, are drawn randomly in public to occupy certain preferential positions while the unseeded players are distributed through a computer program. So, should we even be discussing the possibility of rigging a draw?

I refer you to a report by Kathleen McElroy in August 2007. McElroy attended the live draw ceremony for the seeded players for the 2007 US Open. The random placements of the unseeded players had already been made and printed draw sheets for the men and women were kept ready. Roger Federer's drawsheet showing the 1st eight positions had him at No. 1 (a fixed position) and qualifiers in positions two to six, and a wild card (Isner) in position No. 7. The eighth position was determined by the live draw of a seed from the group seeded between 25 and 32.

The positions two through seven are supposed to be filled up by random placement from the 96 unseeded players in the draw. How likely is it that these places would be filled up by five qualifiers and No. 7 by a wild card?

Assuming there are 16 qualifiers and eight wild cards, the probability of this happening is 16*15*14*13*12*8/96*95*94*93*92*91, which is approximately equal to six times in one million draws. We are all familiar with the illustration of a barrel full of monkeys who, if set to type randomly on typewriters would, given infinite time, be able to produce the complete works of Shakespeare.

So, if Shakespeare's works could be produced by mere chance, this placement in Federer's draw is certainly not impossible, but given the extremely low probability, one maybe forgiven a certain skepticism. 

McElroy's report is also referenced in Craig Hickman’s tennis blog and the improbability of the above draw is commented upon. 

However, I am inclined to believe this happened not because of mala fide intentions but because whoever wrote the computer program did not understand that the unseeded players were to be picked completely at random. He may have programmed the computer to pick the lowest ranked players for the top seed's draw. It is unfortunate that the powers-that-be did not issue any clarifications, thereby adding rational theorists to the ranks of conspiracy theorists. 

After the 2007 US Open, Grand Slam draws have not contained such blatantly improbable placements. But whispers about biased draws have not ceased. 

Curious coincidences have been pointed out by conspiracy theorists to show that the draws may not have been fair. For instance, Novak Djokovic has made it a habit to fall in Rafael Nadal's half of the draw in French Opens from 2006 to 2010, with the exception of 2009. As Djoko is a fine clay-court player, his not falling in Federer's half seems, according to the conspiracy theorists, to suggest a favorable bias toward Federer.

According to me, however, these are baseless allegations. The players have not maintained the same seedings at every Grand Slam. The drawings are made by seedings, not by names, and if you look at the draws from this perspective, whatever has happened is not strange at all. Djoko falling so often into Nadal's half at the French Open is just bad luck and it only serves to explain why the poor fellow has been finding it difficult to make it to a Roland Garros final!

In any case, talking about dark doings in the seeded section is pointless and a distraction from the main issue. The drawings in the seeded section are done in public, for God's sake. How could that be rigged?

Unless you think that the organizers employ a variation of the stage magician’s trick of forcing a hand. Sorry, it is too improbable. A good shuffle of the chips before drawing is all that is required to ensure a random drawing. 

The real issue which is obscured by this wild talk is that the draw of the unseeded players is not done in public. This section holds the potential for mischief or manipulation, as the positions of seeds 1 and 2, being invariable in the draw, are known beforehand.

I will conclude my look at Grand Slam draws on September 24th.     


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