Bracketed tournaments — in basketball, soccer, tennis, water polo, and anything else under the sun — always elicit certain kinds of conversations when the brackets are first revealed. Some people are bracket zealots, in that they think the draws mean everything. Other people, tired of the bracket zealots, think that draws mean absolutely nothing, or something close to it. Which side is right? Both? Neither?
These questions are worth asking on many occasions, but the unveiling of the 2014 United States Open men’s draw, shown here at the tournament’s website, offers a particularly good time to explore the value of a draw.
Rafael Nadal (pictured above in the cover photo) won’t play in this tournament, but his absence casts a large shadow over the proceedings. It is Nadal’s withdrawal, after all, which enabled Roger Federer to move to the No. 2 seeding slot, avoiding No. 1 Novak Djokovic until the final… if the two men get there.
That last phrase is the central reason why the opponents of the bracket zealots — call them the bracket skeptics — place little to no stock in draws. The line of reasoning is sound and reinforced by quite a bit of wisdom… and history.
Roger Federer had a bad draw at Wimbledon two months ago… until Rafael Nadal, a projected semifinal opponent, lost in the fourth round.
Andy Murray was supposed to have faced a nasty, landmine-laden path at Wimbledon in 2013… until a stream of upsets created a “bomb-shelter bracket” and blew everything wide open, with Murray gleefully stepping through the rubble and marching to the final, where he defeated Novak Djokovic to end Great Britain’s 77-year gentlemen’s singles title drought.
It’s true: Draws don’t mean everything. On this point, the bracket skeptics are right.
Yet, this is half of the story. Sometimes, draws:
A) remain largely intact, giving tournaments the projected quarterfinal/semifinal/final matchups the seeds point to;
B) change the course of history.
In the 2013 Australian Open, the release of the draw led a lot of people to say, “Welp, congratulations, Novak Djokovic, on your latest Australian Open title.” Djokovic avoided Andy Murray and Roger Federer, who both landed in the bottom half of the draw, and instead gained David Ferrer as the semifinalist in his half. What everyone suspected is precisely what unfolded. That’s a case of Example A, not B.
What would qualify as a legitimate citation of Example B?
In a specific tournament, last year’s U.S. Open fits the bill. It does so because at Wimbledon in 2013, Rafael Nadal was seeded fifth. Sure, he lost in the first round, but the point to emphasize is that he was fifth, and not in position to expect an advantageous seed at the majors in his near future.
When Nadal unexpectedly claimed the Canada-Cincinnati double and gained 2,000 rankings points (because he didn’t play either event in 2012 due to a seven-month injury layoff), he rocketed up the leaderboard and gained the No. 2 seed — his favorite seeding, the one from which he’s won more major titles than any other — for the U.S. Open.
The No. 2 position opened up positive possibilities for Rafa. First, it enabled him to avoid Novak Djokovic (the top seed) until the final. Second, the reshuffled seedings enabled David Ferrer to become a potential semifinal opponent. Had Nadal been the No. 3 seed with Andy Murray second, Nadal would have had to face the prospect of meeting either Djokovic or Murray in the semis. Ferrer, seeded fourth last year in New York, could not have been a semifinal foe for Rafa. With the 2 seed, however, Rafa had a 50-50 chance to land Ferrer in his half, and that’s what happened. Ferrer lost to Richard Gasquet in the quarters, and Nadal enjoyed a perfect draw in the semis while Djokovic taxed himself in a five-set battle of attrition against Stan Wawrinka.
Every little advantage matters, and while Nadal — as shown by his herculean effort in the semis and final of the 2009 Australian Open (two matches, nine hours and 37 minutes, 10 sets, one hardcourt major championship) — is entirely at home when overcoming odds and suffering on the court better than any other player known to man, the following point still contains an undeniable degree of legitimacy:
Had Nadal played five long sets against Wawrinka while Djokovic strolled through in straights over Gasquet in last year’s U.S. Open semifinals, the flow and ultimate outcome in a Rafa-Djoker final might very well have been different.
Is that speculation? Sure it is. Moreover, Djokovic had every chance to win that 2013 final, late in the third set of a match that was trending in his direction at the time. Nadal simply bested his rival when it counted. Nothing will — or should — change or diminish those central facts.
The point, of course, is simply that the way the bracket unfolded last year at the U.S. Open had quite a lot to do with the contours and ultimate outcome of the tournament. Given that Nadal won a specific hardcourt major for the second time, the tournament represents a dramatic enhancement of Nadal’s career legacy, one he needed for the history books.
Yes, it’s not hyperbole: Seeds really did change the course of tennis history 11.5 months ago at Arthur Ashe Stadium and neighboring courts.
With this long prelude finally over, the men’s tournament at this year’s Open becomes fairly easy to process… though perhaps not as easy to predict as you might first think.
I was born in Arizona, and there really is a place in Arizona called Dreamy Draw. (You could look it up.)
If a fictional nation called “Bracketville” existed, its capital city would be called Dreamy Draw. Roger Federer lives there, at least after seeing the path given to him in New York.
No one is disputing how favorable a path Federer has received — aided, in no small part, by a combination of his seeding (No. 2) and the injuries, chiefly Nadal’s, which enabled him to gain said seeding. Grigor Dimitrov (quarterfinals) is the most imposing foe on Fed’s slate through the semifinals. You’re not going to find many people who will bet against the Swiss to reach the final.
If seedings mattered for Federer in a good way, they mattered for Andy Murray in a bad way. Murray, seeded eighth, received the worst possible fourth-round draw in the men’s event by landing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has regained a measure of confidence by winning the Canada Masters 1000 stop in Toronto (defeating Murray along the way). Murray also has Novak Djokovic in his quarter, something that could not have happened if the 2013 Wimbledon champion had been ranked fourth (or, with Nadal’s injury, fifth).
Djokovic really doesn’t have a bad draw at this tournament — if you’re hearing as much, you need to reconsider some things. John Isner, Djokovic’s potential fourth-round opponent, hasn’t escaped the third round of the Open since 2011, and he’s reached the quarterfinals only once (2011). Stan Wawrinka, who took Djokovic to five (long) sets in last year’s Open semifinals, has found it hard to be a marked man on tour in the wake of his Australian Open and Monte Carlo titles. Djokovic, in the first six rounds of this tournament, has a tough quarterfinal draw, not a tough overall draw. If he’s not in the final, it will rate as a surprise, even though he crashed out of Toronto and Cincinnati before the quarterfinals. The biggest question in this top half of the draw is if Djokovic would rather face Murray or Tsonga in the quarters, at least if that’s the choice he’s given. In a best-of-five-set format, though, Djokovic should be able to prevail over either opponent.
The story in this part of the draw isn’t the path laid out before Djokovic, but the one set before Murray and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tsonga. It’s Murray who received the worst possible luck, but the story told by seedings is a story that, contrary to what the bracket skeptics tell you, holds a considerable degree of value.
The only quarter of the draw we haven’t yet talked about is the one least likely to produce the champion on Monday, Sept. 8. David Ferrer is the highest seed in this quarter (No. 4), but Tomas Berdych (No. 6) and Ernests Gulbis (No. 11) would be much tougher opponents for Federer in a possible semifinal. A year ago at the U.S. Open, Ferrer did something he rarely does at majors these days: He lost to a lower-seeded player (Richard Gasquet).
Ferrer couldn’t live up to a No. 4 seed last year. He has a chance to get it right this year, but in a statement few would dispute, Ferrer is hardly the foremost example of a player for whom seedings matter in the land of Bracketville and its capital city, Dreamy Draw.
We’re brought to the final question of this draw, one which transcends the four quarters we’ve just discussed. If Federer and Djokovic do meet in the final, who is the favorite?
This kind of tweet flowed like water across #TennisTwitter in the wake of the realization of how great a draw Federer snagged:
Oh just give Fed the trophy already.
— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) August 21, 2014
If you believe that Djokovic — distracted by his recent honeymoon and the fact that his wife, Jelena Ristic, is scheduled to give birth to the couple’s first child in the not-too-distant future — is not ready to win in New York, then yes, you should be tabbing Federer to lift the trophy.
However, can we stop for a moment and remember a few basic points?
First, this is best-of-five-set tennis. It’s not the quick-gunbattle world of the Masters 1000s, where a “hot” player (see: “Tsonga, Jo-Wilfried”) can get on a roll and win a title. Majors are for the best competitors, and with Rafa out of the mix, Djokovic inhabits the top spot in this field.
Second, Djokovic has changed the dynamic of U.S. Open matches against Federer. Sure, this is a small sample size, but Djokovic used to always lose. Now he regularly wins. Djokovic, in his physical prime at age 27, has almost six full years on Federer, and that age difference seemed to matter in the Wimbledon final several weeks ago. Djokovic might start slowly against Federer, but he reels in the Swiss more often than not in the latter-day stage of their rivalry. Up to the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal between the two men, Federer carried the run of play on most days when he faced Djokovic, especially at the majors.
That was then. This is now.
Third, and most fundamentally, are we really going to say with such uncomplicated, uncluttered directness and simplicity that a 33-year-old man is the clear favorite for what is usually a physically demanding tournament played in always-shifting and difficult weather (and sunlight) conditions?
The tennis world is much like American sports fans in that it has what Andrew Burton calls a “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” attitude. In a language known as “acronymese,” this attitude is spelled “WHYDFML,” with the question mark being optional.
Few things upset fans of Roger Federer more than what they perceive to be a knee-jerk and severe response to any setback suffered by the Swiss. When he lost to Tommy Robredo at last year’s U.S. Open, the collective reaction from the media sounded many notes of appropriate caution, but that larger reaction also included quite a lot of essays and commentaries which contained a funereal tone and a grim, underlying tenor.
The not-so-subtle hint: Federer is in an irrevocable state of continued decline. The end is nigh. The obituaries aren’t too far away from being prepared.
It is richly ironic, then, that so many fans and pundits have been quick to anoint Federer as the favorite a year later. The very tendency to react far too severely to a two-week span of events — precisely the thing that has buried Federer over the years — is now serving to establish him as the clear favorite in a major tournament, despite an age (33) at which few players lift the biggest trophies in tennis.
If caution was demanded in assessing Federer in his darkest hours as a tennis player, that same caution is just as necessary now, in a period of renewal.
Novak Djokovic, not Roger Federer, is the best male tennis player on the planet if Rafael Nadal is injured or otherwise removed from a tournament bracket. (Didn’t we already make this statement and rediscover this truth at Wimbledon, on a surface favorable to Fed and not nearly as favorable to Djokovic? People, man. People.)
Federer is the hotter player right now (or Djokovic is the much colder one, take your pick).
This does not mean he’s “Betterer.”
Federer has to get to the final first, and if he does, he is the one who will have to prove that he can knock off a superior player.