Tennis could learn from the FA Cup

The new tennis season is in full swing, with the first Grand Slam of 2016 currently under way in Melbourne. Bar Rafael Nadal, the usual suspects have reached the last-32 of the men’s draw, while on the women’s side things have been a little more unpredictable, with big names like Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams crashing out in the opening two rounds. While Grand Slams are the pinnacle of the tennis calendar, with the winner needing to come out on top in seven often intense matches over the course of a fortnight, there is one qualm I have with the current set-up – the draw structure is biased in favour of the best players.

Understandably, the current system is in place to ensure that, if the favourites win their matches every time, the final of both the men’s and women’s competitions will be contested by the top two players in the world. If you are good enough to be awarded a seeding for the tournament (there are 32 seeds), you will be the guaranteed favourite for at least the first two games that you play. Moreover, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the first and second seeds respectively in the Australian Open, know that the only round in which they can face each other is the final. Djokovic and Murray tend to enjoy fairly comfortable passages through the first two ties due to the fact that they do not face anyone inside the top 32 in the world during these matches.

Contrast that with the FA Cup. The world’s oldest cup competition retains its magic primarily because non-league minnows can pit their wits against Premier League giants. However, it also allows big clubs to face each other from the third round onwards, meaning that established sides can be culled at a relatively rapid rate. If the draws were structured in such a way that a contest between, say, Arsenal and Manchester City could only take place at the semi-final or final stage, it is arguable that the competition would lose its romantic quality. Six Premier League sides were eliminated in the third round of this year’s competition, with five of these teams eliminated by fellow top-flight clubs (the exception being Swansea City’s defeat to Oxford United). If the FA Cup draws were devised along the lines of top-level tennis, there would be no Premier League clashes early on, with the result being that the latter stages of the draw would be dominated far more by the big sides.

Admittedly, Arsenal have won the trophy for the past two seasons, but the semi-final line-up last campaign – Arsenal, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Reading – was fairly refreshing. The 2013/2014 season was even more open, with the Gunners, Hull, Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic making the last four. If a tennis-style draw was used for the FA Cup, it is hard to imagine such a diverse quartet making it through.

It is my belief that despite the thrilling moments provided by the likes of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, predicting the outcomes to tournaments is becoming easier than it should be. Having Djokovic face Federer and Murray in the opening few rounds would certainly keep the Serbian on his toes, and would also allow the lower-ranked players a bit more breathing space, as there would be a smaller possibility of coming up against these sorts of players early on. Furthermore, if the underdogs advance further in more tournaments, they would begin to accrue more prize money, bringing their earnings closer to the game’s big-hitters and creating a more even playing field. While the tournament organisers would not have it any other way, a more indiscriminate draw would certainly add a level of suspense to tennis which, in my view, is currently missing.

Alex Bowmer


Featured image credit: AFP