The seedings for next week's U.S. Open were announced yesterday, and USTA officials simply copy-and-pasted the WTA rankings, deleted those who had withdrawn from the tournament (most notably, third-ranked Kim Clijsters), and — boom — seedings. Simple enough, right? Well, no, actually. I can't believe you fell for that. Didn't you read the headline? In fact, there's been quite a hullabaloo made over the slotting of Serena Williams, whose 28th seed takes some scrolling to find. Williams, of course, is ranked 29th in the world right now. After almost a year's worth of injury-related absences caused her to plummet in the rankings, Williams has spent this summer hacking her way back toward the top. A toe-related withdrawal from the Cincinnati Open notwithstanding, Serena has been healthy, not to mention fairly dominant. She's won both the Bank of the West Classic and Rogers Cup in the last month, and rolls into Flushing with quite a head of steam. Many in the know consider her a heavy favorite to win the whole damn thing. So, uh, how sure are we about this whole seeding thing?
"After careful deliberation regarding Serena Williams' seeding, we decided to maintain the objective criteria in place to determine the women's singles seeds at this year's U.S. Open," said Jim Curley, the Open's tournament director.
Objective, eh? Yahoo's Chris Chase would like a word with you:
The objective criteria? THE OBJECTIVE CRITERIA? The WTA rankings are the opposite of objective! They're based on weighted number values assigned to making different stages of tiered tournaments. The WTA rankings are the definition of subjective. Just because they have order and clarity doesn't make that any less true.
Indeed, the WTA's structure is, at least in part, a model of sense over science, wherein the fact that not all venues, opponents, etc., are of equal value is appreciated and reflected. One would expect that sensibility to carry over into tournament seedings and, in fact, it sometimes does. It doesn't take much of a search to establish precedent justifying a boost in Serena's seeding. Just a couple months ago, Wimbledon officials had no problem seeding Williams seventh despite her comparable world ranking at the time. It was a different situation, since Williams was the defending Wimbledon champ and hadn't just pulled out of a tournament for health reasons. But with that seeding decision so recent, the USTA's opposite move now is somewhat troubling. The Wimbledon folks probably had more reasons to seed Williams higher, but that doesn't mean the USTA had no reasons.
It does seem like the USTA might have drawn less ire with a more nuanced explanation. And perhaps memories of the fiasco of the 1996 seeding influenced their decision. Here's a refresher from World Tennis Magazine's Charles Bricker, for those of us who don't remember (myself included):
Jay Snyder, who was then tournament director, and USTA President Les Snyder decided that the time had come for the U.S. Open to go Wimbledon and not strictly follow the rankings in the seeding.
The result was a pre-tournament uproar. The players cafeteria became the center for one angry meeting after another. French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov, then ranked No. 4, had been reduced to a No. 7 seed and refused to play.
Fifteen Spaniards, including No. 16 ranked Felix Mantilla, who was refused one of the 16 seeds, threatened to leave New York en masse. Mark Miles, who was CEO of the ATP Tour, issued a strong rebuke to the Open: “This is OK for my country club tournament, but not a Grand Slam,” he said.
As Bricker notes, shuffling the entire field is considerably more seismic than re-seeding a single player, but you've still got a somewhat legitimate indicator that sticking to the script is safest. It's certainly more legitimate than this, "Careful deliberation. Objective criteria. [Drops the mic.]" stodginess.
In any event, the seedings are what they are, and the focus will quickly turn from the draw to the matches themselves, where the USTA's questionable decisions should come into play in about the third round. That's where Williams must face one of the top-eight seeds in what would typically be a semi-final or even final round match-up. Or, put differently, while most of the high seeds cruise through the early rounds, some unlucky lady will have to dig in and take on Williams much sooner than is natural. Chris Evert, who knows about these things, sees that as the major pitfall of the decision:
“It hurts the field is what it does,” Evert said. “It really doesn’t hurt Serena as much as it hurts the other players. One of the top seeds will get her in the third round.”
Oh well. With luck, the events of the tournament will eclipse the seeding weirdness. At worst, Williams's low slotting mucks up the early rounds, remains a major storyline, and, one would hope, convinces the USTA to amend their process. No matter what, we've got some tight match-ups and captivating tennis ahead of us, perhaps earlier than we expected.