Bracketology for tennis: Change for its own sake, or needed reform?

Tennis fans might not resist change as a regular inclination. Plenty of fans (and commentators as well) are entirely comfortable with the idea of on-court coaching during the four major tournaments. That’s not allowed at the present time, but if the sport moved in the direction of more on-court coaching, you’d find plenty of support for such a decision. Support would hardly be unanimous, but it would be substantial.

Therefore, it’s not entirely accurate to say that people in the tennis community are generally reluctant to change. It’s more a case of, “Tennis people — those who live and breathe the sport — will fiercely resist the kind of change which doesn’t resonate with them.” Tennis fans, to use a specific word, are often more territorial than fans of team sports.

Baseball moves to a second wild card? Hey, okay. Sure. (I oppose it with every fiber of my being, but I’m not in a vocal majority. I don’t really think most fans care.)

American college football fails to improve its rulebook each year? I’m usually the one writer shouting from the rooftops on this subject; few other journalists or fans take up the cause with equal fervor.

In tennis, though, the vast majority of #TennisTwitter is very good (and this IS a feature of the community, not a bug) at making its voice heard when something new in the sport emerges… and the widely-felt sense from said community is that the development might not be good for tennis. Such was the case early last week, when CoCo Vandeweghe granted the first on-court mid-match interview to ESPN and Pam Shriver. Reaction was swift, passionate, and detailed in saying why the practice — if continued — would not be healthy for tennis.

The debate and its particulars aren’t going to be discussed; the point is that the community responded with an emphatic and informed voice to a breaking news story. Tennis fans are like that. The people who aren’t just “sports fans who happen to like tennis,” but “tennis fans who put the sport at the center of their sports diet on a regular basis,” care deeply about their sport with that territorial quality which makes it harder to convince them of a different course of action.

If you’re going to change #TennisTwitter’s mind, well, good luck… but if you do, you have to really do some work.

The tennis blog Mind The Racket tried to get the ball rolling in this regard by presenting what would be — if implemented — a revolutionary way to organize tennis tournaments. Inspired by the absolute carnage in multiple quarters of the U.S. Open draw, not to mention the pressures faced by the tournament directors at smaller events to sell tickets, Mind The Racket proposed re-seeding the draw of major tournaments after the round of 32 and before the round of 16. In one-week tournaments, this would happen after the round of 16 and before the quarterfinals.

This idea belongs to Mind The Racket, so what follows cannot be — and won’t be — a simple echo of that concept. You’re not going to get a debate on whether this is a good idea or not. What you ARE going to see below is a framework for how to make implementation more realistic… if you do happen to think that the concept has merit. This is not so much a “yes, this has to be done” response as it is an “If you’re going to do this, you have to account for these tension points” outline.

*

At the 56-player Masters or Premier 5 events (not to mention 32- or 48-player events lower down the food chain), play occurs daily over the course of one week. Why did Brodie, the author of Mind The Racket, say that a re-seeding would have to take place after the round of 16? Here’s why: At many tournaments, one of the top players plays a first match earlier in the week (on Tuesday, generally, before taking a day off on Wednesday and then playing their round-of-16 match on Thursday). That practice could not coexist with a re-seeded draw for the round of 32 or the round of 16, so you’d have to wait until after the round of 16 finished.

Here’s the real problem with a mid-tournament re-seeding of the draw in tennis: If you’re going to do it, you don’t have extended (or even any) downtime in which players can recover.

Consider as a counterpoint the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. There are five full off days between the end of the Elite Eight and the playing of the Final Four national semifinals. Some people in college basketball have advocated for the re-seeding of the Final Four, so that you wouldn’t have a situation in which one semifinal is a matchup of heavyweights and the other semifinal is a pairing of underdogs. (Such was the case in 1983, just to give one example.) This is logistically feasible because the teams would not be disadvantaged in terms of rest.

However, in tennis, let’s offer this scenario:

Let’s say that in the round of 16 at a Masters or Premier 5 tournament, the winner of the first match of the day and the winner of the last match of the day — which ends near midnight local time — are the players who will meet in the quarterfinals under the re-seeded process. That’s not good. Therefore, as much as it does conceptually make sense to wait until after the round of 16 at a 56-player event (with six rounds), the concession is that one might have to delay it yet another round until after the quarterfinals. Yet, by that point, the draw might be too thinned out or re-shaped for the re-seeding process to make a real difference.

It begs the question: How could re-seeding after the round of 16 at a 56-player event work better?

Here’s a true reformist solution, one doubles fans would absolutely love: Have an off day for singles and institute the practice of playing the whole rounds of 64 (Monday) and 32 (Tuesday) on the same day, instead of splitting them up. Play the full round of 16 on Wednesday.

Thursday would be given over to doubles, enabling the sport to have a one-day showcase on the ATP and WTA world feeds and all the networks which pick up those broadcasts worldwide. Doubles could gain a platform it currently lacks. Yet, you’re not cutting into the Friday-through-Sunday weekend ticket sales (or customer demands) for singles.

Then, on Friday, with the narrowed and reduced field, you could proceed with re-seeded quarterfinals.

That’s for the lower-tier tournaments. Now, let’s consider the majors, with their seven-round, 128-player fields.

*

There are a number of items to add to Brodie’s big idea at MTR — not just to piggyback on the idea, but to move this conversation forward into other realms, so that the idea, if discussed, can be taken more seriously by more people who are reticent to want change on this front.

At a major, the reality of play every other day makes re-seeding easier in some respects yet more challenging in others. The biggest thing to point out about re-seeding at the majors is that it’s perfect for Wimbledon. The tournament, by having an off day on Middle Sunday, could easily facilitate a re-seeding for its “Manic Monday,” when all round-of-16 matches for both the WTA and ATP are played. Every WTA round-of-16 match could be played early on that Monday, and every ATP match would be later. With the men getting the next day off, the tournament could proceed without creating a profound rest disadvantage for anyone. The key is to play all the women’s matches at the beginning of the Monday schedule.

The fact that Wimbledon is already perfectly situated to facilitate a re-seeded mid-tournament draw should amplify the need for the other three majors to pursue the same point about second-week scheduling.

You will notice that the U.S. Open has a different schedule this year. In this different schedule, the tournament has just a one-day break between the women’s quarterfinals (Wednesday) and semifinals (Thursday) for one half of the draw, which happens to be the bottom half. The other (top) half gets a full day off, playing quarters on Tuesday and then semis on Thursday.

Only Wimbledon gives every WTA player a rest day between the quarterfinal and the semifinal. Wimbledon has long been the gold standard among the four majors in this regard, but the counterpoint many will rightly make is that it’s not possible to have a Middle Sunday without play in Paris for Roland Garros; Melbourne for the Australian Open; or New York for the U.S. Open.

Quite right.

So, what do you do?

First, you start the tournament on a third Sunday (the first Sunday chronologically, but the third Sunday in terms of adding a third Sunday to the two Sundays which already host a day with main-draw tennis).

Second, having started play on the “third Sunday,” you then play the first two rounds through Wednesday. On Thursday of the first week of a major, you would give over the entire day to doubles, again giving that part of tennis the global platform it deserves. All singles players would take a break, and since the day is Thursday, you would not be cheating weekend crowds or weekend TV outlets out of top draws for either the women or men.

Friday in the first week of a major, the women would constitute the entirety of the singles schedule, and Saturday would be the case for the men. Majors would proceed along a Wimbledon-style path for the rest of the tournament, with every WTA player getting a full day off between quarters and semis. If all the majors operated this way, doubles would get more visibility; singles players would get more rest between matches; and TV would get more attractive matchups.

Re-seeding draws, if simply left by itself as a concept and unattended by other reforms, would pose a ton of problems for tennis. If accompanied by several other reforms (and to be sure, there are many more discussions which would have to take place about prize money, compensation, and how tennis allocates money to its various levels of competition, including the challenger circuit), this idea could work.

However, tennis — as a loosely-governed and not-very-organized sport — has not established a track record of reforming itself cleanly, decisively or consistently. This is why fans rightly resist change in a lot of situations.

It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that resistance should remain in place if the architecture of an idea is fundamentally sound.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

Quantcast