Naomi Osaka success shows tennis can be a better spectacle without seeding

Michael Graham
INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 18: Naomi Osaka of Japan poses withe the trophy after her victory in the WTA final over Daria Kasatkina of Russia with her coach Sascha Bajin during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 18, 2018 in Indian Wells, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Does tennis really need seeding, or has Naomi Osaka’s success at Indian Wells exposed it as an unnecessary trick to protect the elite? John Nicholson asks the question.

I’m a simple soul. No matter what sporting tournament I’m watching, from the World Cup to Wimbledon I want the ties to be drawn at random.

I feel sport is about chance, luck and skill and to create the concept of seeding in order to attempt to keep the best teams or players apart until the later stages to me seems like a legalised form of match fixing.

Tennis is an especially egregious example where the seeding system throws up easy matches for the top seeds in early rounds, which they invariably win, thus protecting their seeding status for as long as they continue to compete in tournaments.

And so it rolls on with the top seeds, because they get the easiest ties most often, keeping on earning more points and higher rankings. And if they do lose early occasionally, the amount of wins they usually pile up protects their seeding for quite a while.

For the 2017 tournament, Wimbledon determined seeding by:

  1. Taking the player’s ATP Ranking points as of June 26, 2017.
  2. Adding 100 per cent of the points earned for all grass court tournaments in the immediate past 12 months period prior to June 26, 2017.
  3. Adding 75 per cent of the points earned for the best grass court tournament in the 12 months prior to that.

Clearly seeding primarily exists for commercial reasons, or at least that is what we’re told.

But is that really true? In some ways we don’t know because a free draw hasn’t been tried for so long. It is an untested method of arranging a tournament.

If a random draw meant the ‘big’ players meet each other in the first three rounds, half of them would be eliminated, obviously, and it is assumed this would be bad for business because supposedly worse players would go deeper into tournaments. But would it really?

The fact the exciting but unseeded Naomi Osaka thrashed world number one Simona Halep on her way to winning her first WTA title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells didn’t spoil the tournament, rather it was thrilling to see a new name winning.

Along the way she beat Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova as well as Halep.

But remember, this is the sort of situation seeding exists solely to prevent.

Seeding doesn’t want an unseeded player to get to the final because seeding is rooted in the notion that unseeded = uncommerical. It’s obviously nonsense and it needs doing away with. It is undemocratic and predicated on an outdated notion of commerce.

Halep’s statement that Serena Williams should have been given top seeding at Indian Wells on her return from the birth of her daughter because Williams has no official ranking after spending a year off court and thus can’t be seeded for WTA events, just sounded odd.

It didn’t illicit much sympathy because it sounded like the elite complaining about the elite not being treated as the elite. This is the sort of attitude the principle of seeding has promulgated.

Surely what is compulsive about a game of tennis is the degree of competition, not merely the talent of the individual players.

In other words, a tight competitive game between players, whether ranked high or low, offers so much more than all those early round steamrollering by the top seeds over the lowest seeds.

Conversely a five-set first-round game between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic is potentially no less compelling than if it happens in the quarter or semi-final. It’s the quality of the one-on-one game that matters most, not when it happens.

A random draw would potentially allow more players a chance to advance in more tournaments.

Osaka has shown that this is occasionally possible even with a seeded tournament, so imagine how many more players would do well if seeding were abolished?

I don’t understand why that would be a bad thing. Personally I always want to see the top seeds knocked out early. I want to see different players doing well. It is easy to tire of largely the same names playing each other in the semi-finals and finals of most Grand Slams.

Seeding has existed for so long now that it isn’t even questioned. It’s almost as though it is an intrinsic or innate part of the sport, but it really isn’t and it doesn’t have to be.

Imagine how exciting it’d be for all names to be drawn out randomly for each round.

Imagine there is no two sides of the draw. It’d be brilliant to have each round as a free draw. It’d be impossible to plot the route to the final for anyone.

Unpredictability is surely more commercial than its opposite.

There’d likely be more variety of winners, more different names going further.

Seeding is an outdated way of protecting an elite and in that, it is totally out of sync with the era we live in, so it is time it was scrapped.

John Nicholson