Last night when top seed Novak Djokovic beat fifth seed David Ferrer he ensured that for the first time since at least 1987 the top four men’s seeds all made it to the semi final in consecutive Grand Slams.
Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all made the semi at last year US Open, and are all there again in Melbourne.
But while this in itself shows how dominant the four have become, it becomes even more clear when you consider three of the four (only Federer missed out) made it to the semi at Wimbledon, and all of the four made it the semi in last year’s French Open, thus in three out of the last four slams, the seeding has actually gone to plan.
Another measure of how tough it is to break into the top echelon of the tennis world at the moment, last year the highest seed to make any of the Grand Slam semi finals was the 12th seed at Wimbledon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That is the lowest “worst seed” to make a semi final going back to at least 1987 (I stopped gathering the data at that point – if I get time I may keep going further back). It was also only the second time in the period 1987-2011 that all four Grand Slams in a calendar year had semi finalist from the top 16 seeds. The other time this happened was in 2007.
Since the 2005 Australian Open the top 4 seeds (and this has always included Nadal and Federer) have made it to the semi final of 5 of the 29 slams (17%). In the 72 slams from the 1987 Australian Open to the 2004 US Open it happened 3 times (4%).
In the 10 years and 41 Grand Slams since the 32 seeds rule was introduced the semi-finals have contained 3 of the top 4 seeds 19 times or 46 per cent. In the ten year prior to the rule change this happened only 9 times (23%).
There are possibly a number of reasons for this dominance by the top players. In 2002 the seedings at Grand Slams expanded from 16 to 32. This lessened the chance of a top player meeting a “floater” in the early rounds – especially at the French Open. Also in the past decade clay courts have become more important to the rankings, and due to the racquets and strings technology baseline play has become more vital, which has reduced the likelihood of previously regarded “clay court specialists” being ranked outside the top 10.
So a case could be made that while Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are a step ahead of any previous top 4 (and just watching them play it certainly appears this to be the case), the other possibility is that the tennis seedings have become more friendly to the top seeds, and also the ranking system has become better at reflecting true ability.
Does this mean men’s tennis has less depth than earlier times? I think it is hard to argue that is the case. The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of great transition from the Sampras/Agassi dominated decade and thus it is not surprising to look back and see the top seeded players were not as likely to make it through to the final four – they just were not as dominant.
But the counter view is to look at the 2002 Australian Open semi final where the seeds were Numbers 7, 9, 16 and 26.
The players were: Tommy Haas, Marat Safin, Jiri Novak, and Thomas Johansson.
If those same seeds had made the semis this year, the players would have been:
Thomas Berdych, Janko Tipsarevic, John Isner, Marcel Granollers.
I’d argue the 2002 foursome were much stronger.
The question is a bit trickier if we compare the 2001 Australian Open. That year the seeds to make the semi final were Numbers 6, 12, 15 and 16.
The players were: Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter, Arnaud Clement, Sebastian Grosjean.
This year those seeded players would be:
Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Giles Simon, Andy Roddick and John Isner.
Agassi beats anyone in the 2011 top 4, Rafter and Roddick cancel each other out, which leaves Tsonga, Simon and Isner v Clement and Grosjean.
Whether it is due to the talent of the top 4, the lack of talent of the other players, the seedings, we are witnessing something unusual, but something that while impressive.
Here’s the list from 1987 (the year the Australian Open moved to January). The slams with the top three seed in the semis are in blue, the ones with all 4 are in red.