What is Seeding in Tennis & How Does it Work?

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Have you ever wondered why you’ve never seen Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal in the opening round of a tournament? Or why Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams always seem to meet in the semi-finals of big events and never any earlier?

You may well have noticed these things before and simply explained them away to yourself by way of rankings. These are some of the very top players in the world, there’s no way they’d play each other in the opening few rounds!

And you’d be right, there is an element of rankings positioning when it comes to seeding a tournament draw. But there’s also a bit more to it than just that, and so in this breakdown, we’ll walk you through a couple of notable things to keep in mind when you next check who’s seeded where at a tournament!

What is Seeding?

A seeded player is going to be one of the top-ranked in the world. Seeds serve as a way to balance a draw so that none of the very best meet too early in a tournament. Being awarded a seed means that you can usually avoid tougher matches earlier and play your way into some kind of form.

The easiest way to comprehend all of this is by starting at the top. Seeds number 1 and 2 are placed at opposite ends of the draw and can only face each other in the final if they get there. Seeds 3 and 4 can only play seeds 1 and 2 in the semis if they get there. Seeds 5 and 6 can only play seeds 1 and 2 in the quarterfinals if they get there, etc, etc, etc…

This continues down through the seeds until the end of the list.

Yes, a lot of the time you’ll notice that the seeds within a draw at a tournament closely resemble both the ATP and WTA tour rankings. At the moment, that would make Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty the number 1 seed at the majority of tournaments that they enter.

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty details.

Smaller tournament draws can go as low as 8 seeded players. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Grand Slams come with much larger draws and so have the longest lists of seeded players at 32. Every tournament has the right to mix with the seeding and adjust them how they see fit, BUT most of them do stick to the rankings to avoid complaints and calls of rigged draws.

As well as the benefits of not facing a top-ranked opponent early, seeded players may also get a bye in the first round of uneven draws, allowing them the chance to play one less overall match if they go on to win the tournament.

And let’s be honest, nobody hates a surprise day off, do they?!

Why Seed?

Seeding is a fantastic way to get the best players clashing at the latter stages of tournaments. In this sense, the idea is that the match quality will increase as the days and rounds roll by. Some of the best tournament matches ever played have occurred as a result of the seeding system meaning that by the time the best in the world had made it to the final, they were ready to properly compete with each other.

There’s an argument to be made that seeding is unfair but in fact, it’s quite the opposite. If the entire draw was randomized, there’d be no clarity or structure when it comes to playing and gaining points to achieve seeds. There’d be massive amounts of luck involved when it came to winning tournaments.

While seeding players isn’t without its problems, it’s also easily the best and fairest way of putting together a tennis tournament draw.

Do Seeds Always Win?

Short answer, no.

Long answer, noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

OK, bad joke, but really, the answer is actually no. There have been numerous examples of players upsetting the odds and the draws by making deep runs and even winning entire tournaments without the benefit of a seeded position.

Sure, it’s fairly unlikely but you do see it from time to time. Whether it’s once-great champions making resurgences like Serena Williams and Andre Agassi, or breakout young stars in the form of Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko, unseeded players should never be counted out from making deep and impressive tournament-winning runs.

How Does Wimbledon Differ?

The US, French and Australian Opens have (for the most part!) stuck to the rankings when dishing out their seeds in the past. They’ve seen that as the best way to avoid confrontation and confusion.

Wimbledon, however, has always done their seeds slightly differently, primarily because… Well… They’re Wimbledon.

OK, it’s mainly down to the Wimbledon grass.

Wimbledon uses what they refer to as the “grass-court formula” to work out which players have performed the best on the surface. This takes into account how they’ve played on grass in the last 12 months but then also the year before that as well!

This means that if a player has predominantly performed well on hard or clay but struggled on grass, they’re at risk of being bumped down a peg or two. This exact thing happened back in 2019, when Nadal traded places with Federer, dropping from seed 2 down to 3 to reflect Federer’s stronger grass court performance in the preceding two years.

It’s an interesting little nugget to keep in mind whenever Wimbledon rolls around… You might want to double-check just how your favorite player has been going about their business on the grass in the last few years to make sure they’re not at risk of being shunted about a bit in the seeding…

In summary…

Seeding has this innate ability to befuddle and confound fans the world over whenever a tournament draw comes out. However, when it comes down to it, as long as you remember that that seeding usually reflects the rankings, you’ll be fine.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that any changes to seeding that you do see happen has likely been made by the tournament directly and the players will have been informed in advance of it taking place.

The seeding system is not without its pitfalls. But currently, it’s easily the best method of measuring where players should land in a draw and who should face who and when?

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