(June 11, 2016) LONDON, England – “Don’t look,” cautioned the man bearing the silver bowl.
Tennis conspiracy theorists always think tournament draws are fixed. Sometimes – for example, the 1996 US Open, when the players threatened to boycott unless the draw was remade – there are good reasons. In that case, the seedings had been announced after the draw had already been announced, and because they didn’t strictly follow the rankings, there were legitimate questions asked about whether the tournament was favoring American stars. A 2011 study of ten years of men’s and women’s singles Grand Slam draws found that the other Slams did indeed seem to produce random draws, but that that the US Open draws showed anomalies.
More common claims are that the draw is fixed to ease one or another player’s path or that the placing of seeds 3 and 4 is fixed in order to keep a particular pairing apart until the final. Every time a new draw for one of the majors is announced, you’ll find someone in a tennis discussion forum complaining that Roger Federer always gets an easy draw and Rafael Nadal a hard one, or Novak Djokovic a tough road and Nadal an easy one…or some variation of that with whatever players the poster cares about.
Others would just like to tinker with the rules governing how draws are made. Over the years people have suggested that the semifinal pairings should always be 1-4 and 2-3, or that the entire draw should be remade before the quarter-finals to rebalance the gaps left by defeated seeds. Another favorite suggestion is that the majors should go back to seeding 16 players instead of 32, the rule until 2001. Doing so, the argument goes, would make the early rounds a little more tantalizing. I incline toward this latter idea myself, but it’s unlikely to happen because seeding 32 players was a concession Wimbledon made as part of a settlement of player complaints. The Spanish players were offended by the All-England’s habit of revising the seeding list to take into account past results on grass, which sometimes dropped the Spaniards out of the seeding list. This, they felt, was unfair: sure they often lost in the early rounds, but, they reasoned, they got no reverse consideration at the French Open, where they could be expected to do well but Pete Sampras was still top seed despite his habit of losing in the first two rounds.
Back to the man with the silver bowl. We are in the Presidents’ Room at Queen’s Club, surrounded by oil portraits, one of which is a dead ringer for Kaiser Wilhelm (it’s actually the Rt Hon Lord of Dalkeith, the club president from 1874 to 1879). The room is full of journalists and various people involved with running either the club or the tournament. (You can easily tell them apart. The people involved with the club are dressed for a cocktail party; tournament staff are wearing sponsored sports stuff; and the journalists look like they’ve been dragged in off the street.) At the front, next to a populated head table is a large screen with a blank 32-slot draw, and a load of numbered plastic tokens. We are introduced to three people who together have bid £250,000 (to be given to a children’s charity) for the right to be here today. Also on hand: Marin Cilic, the 2012 champion of this event. All of this, including the presence of a player, is fairly standard, though the exact mechanics vary.
The ritual begins with slotting the name of the top seed – Andy Murray – on line number 1 and second seed Stan Wawrinka on line 32. Next, the tokens for 3 and 4 are placed in the bowl and Queen’s man in the grey suit asks one of the dignitaries to pick one. This is where “Don’t look!” comes in. The one that is drawn – fourth seed Richard Gasquet – is placed on line 9, and the other, McEnroe-enhanced third seed Milos Raonic, on line 24. That settles the projected semifinal pairings. Next, the tokens for seeds 5 to 8 are placed in the bowl, and the man bowl is offered to three different people to fill the quarterfinal spots. Finally, the rest of the tokens are placed in the bowl, and the man goes around offering it to various people in the audience, even soliciting volunteers. Each person draws out one of the remaining numbers and the team at the front places it in the next empty line of the draw. There are tokens for qualifiers, whose names won’t be known until tomorrow (assuming the rain delay ends in time). These will also be drawn randomly to fill the empty spaces left for them.
As they go, the on-screen board fills in and profiles of the players and their match pairings pop up alongside. Some of the matches sound much tastier than the first round at Wimbledon will be. Cilic, interviewed, noted that the cut-off for the main draw this week was 44, which he thinks is the highest for any tournament on the tour. Murray, seeking his record-breaking fifth title here this year, draws Nicolas Mahut in the first round. Definitely a tough one: Mahut has grass cred. Besides being, famously, the loser in 2010’s three-day first-round Wimbledon encounter with John Isner, he’s a former finalist here who might have won the title but for an unlucky netcord, and recently the world’s number one doubles player. Other first-round contests that catch the eye: Nick Kyrgios versus Raonic sounds like an old-style serving contest; John Isner will have to contend with just-back Juan Martin del Potro; and Cilic faces Feliciano Lopez, the good-on-grass Spaniard who has troubled plenty of players here over the years.
Most draws, while not attended with quite as much ceremony, are pretty much like this: public events, with at least one player, some press, and various others in attendance. While it might be possible to fix the draw somewhere sometime, the intent is to make the process transparent and trustworthy. Conspiracy theorists should look elsewhere.