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The origin of seeding

SOME OLD-TIMERS may be horrified at the thought: 32 seeded players in a field of 128. But that is the compromise the players' union and the Grand Slams have arrived at, and big-time tennis will have to live with it.

The origin of seeds, or seeding, was precisely to protect certain players in a tournament, to facilitate their passage through the field. The All England Club authorities have always felt players who have good grass-court records should get this benefit at Wimbledon. The unions think players should be seeded purely on the basis of their overall circuit performance.

Perhaps Wimbledon's attitude has not been sensible enough. If a player with a good grass-court background, who is not seeded, is to meet another who has never won a match on grass but is seeded by virtue of his consistent showing on the tour, the unseeded player should be more likely to win. There should be no need to ``protect'' players who can look after themselves on grass.

When Wimbledon first introduced seeding, way back in 1924, it was to prevent players from the same country meeting in the early rounds. That year India's representatives Mohammed Saleem, the ICS officer S. M. Jacob, A. A. Fyzee and Hyderabad's S. M. Hadi (later to score the first century in the Ranji Trophy tournament) were placed in four different quarters in the draw. Jacob went on to reach the fourth round, while Saleem and Hadi lost in the third round.

Full seeding was introduced in 1927-irrespective of player nationality - with eight seeds. That year the top seeds were Rene Lacoste in the men's singles and Helen Wills in the women's (eventual winner) but the men's crown was claimed by another of the French ``musketeers,'' Henri Cochet.

Wimbledon continued with its policy of seeding eight players in the singles till 1950, when the decision to enlarge this favoured category to 16 in the men's singles found India's Dilip Bose, the reigning Asian champion, seeded number 15. Bose won his first- round match but, weakened by a bout of malaria, conceded the tie in his next outing.

After having ten seeds the next year, 12 in 1952, eight in 1953 and 12 again in 1954, Wimbledon went back to having eight seeds in the singles. Ramanathan Krishnan, having upset the former champion Jaroslav Drobny on Centre Court in 1956, was in the seedings' committee short-list for a few years, but it was 1960 before he actually earned a place in the select list.

Seeded number seven that year, Krishnan reached the semi-final before Neale Fraser put paid to his chances. In 1961 Krishnan, again seeded seventh, made it to the last four and again it was a left-hander, Rod Laver, who ended his run. Seeded no.4 in 1962, it seemed our Indian champion had a good chance of going further. But an ankle injury caused him to withdraw in the third round.

With the advent of ``open'' tennis in 1968, Wimbledon increased the number of seeds in the men's singles to 16, but it was to be another ten years before sixteen women were seeded.

Though he twice made the quarter-finals, Vijay Amritraj was never seeded at Wimbledon. In 1980, however, he was within a place of being seeded. Incidentally, that year he lost in five sets in the first round to the man seeded no.16, Argentine Jose-Luis Clerc.

While occasionally an unseeded man went all the way to the final- the first to do so was American Wilmer Allison in 1930 - it was a long time before an unseeded player took the men's crown - the 17-year-old Boris Becker in 1985.

In the women's singles, of course, there never has been an unseeded champion, and only four unseeded finalists. The last of these was Billie-Jean Moffitt (later Mrs. King), in 1963, when she lost to Margaret Smith. It was curious Billie-Jean was not seeded that year, because in 1962 she had upset the top seed (once again, Margaret Smith) in her first match.

In 1967, the top seed and defending champion in the men's singles, Spain's Manuel Santana, went out in his first match, a five-setter against Chadie Pasarell. Interestingly, in 1973, there were two seedings lists for the men's events.

Stan Smith was no.1 of 16 seeds in the original list, rendered useless by the players' union boycott `over Wimbledon's decision to exclude' Nikki Pilic, the Yugoslav suspended by his national association. Only two from the original list remained in the revised panel of eight, in which Bjorn Borg first appeared as a seed, having won the boys' title the previous year.

The first Indian to triumph over a seeded player at Wimbledon was Mohammed Ghaus, who in 1939 made the quarter-finals beating Ignacy Tloczynski, of Poland. Drobny was seeded sixth when Krishnan beat him, in 1956, and in the boycott year of 1973, Vijay Amritraj beat the no.7 seed, Owen Davidson of Australia.

In 1981, Vijay Amritraj beat the no.6 seed, Brian Teacher, and then in 1985 had a Centre Court win over the seeded Frenchman, Yannick Noah.

The following year Ramesh Krishnan had his moment of joy on Centre Court, winning over the seeded Swede, Joakim Nystrom, en route to the quarter-finals. It was this corespondent's good fortune to enjoy all these three Indian triumphs from the press- box.

Seedings at Wimbledon have been ``based on'' ranking since 1975, which gave the All England committee freedom to move up players who they felt were likely to do well on grass. The crux of the matter is that so little competition-level grass-court tennis is now played, a majority of the players are quite unfamiliar with the surface.

In some cases, for otherwise fine players, grass becomes a psychological barrier. There are some experts who opine that one reason why Ivan Lendl, seven times semi-finalist and twice runner-up at the All England Club, could not win Wimbledon was that he never overcame his own misgivings about playing his best on lawn-courts.

Eight seeds first in 1927, 16 seeds first in 1950, and 32 seeds in 2001. Players' union point-of-view apart, perhaps eight was the best number-leaving the bold and the talented, among the unseeded, to blossom on the surface.

SUBROTO SIRKAR

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