May 26, 2013
What is it with the French and Rafael Nadal? Never feeling the full love of the notoriously arrogant and fair-weathered throngs in Paris, Nadal – despite winning the French Open a record seven times – has never felt the affection that is routinely reserved for Roger Federer.
Some say it’s because Nadal took too long to learn to speak French. Others will state that Nadal’s powerful, topspin-heavy brand of baseline tennis doesn’t bring with it the elegance and beauty that the French fans appreciate. Or maybe it’s just because he’s too good and everyone loves an underdog.
But now this year the French Open officials are subjecting Nadal to the greatest affront he’s experienced at Roland Garros by not bumping up his seeding to where it should be – either first or second.
This has been a practice frequently employed by Wimbledon as the All England Club has long seeded those who play well on grass far higher than their computer rankings. John McEnroe and Pete Sampras are just a couple of examples who benefitted from a more generous seeding at Wimbledon.
And now the French Open should follow suit because it would be an injustice, to both Nadal and the tournament, if the Spaniard is relegated to the No. 5 seed. There is no question that he is still the best clay court player in the world.
Because Nadal missed the second half of last year and the start to 2013 due to a knee injury, his ranking plummeted to its current slot of fifth in the world. And the seedings for the four Grand Slam events routinely follow computer rankings. But tournament officials are allowed to make exception. Yet the French Open boss Gilbert Ysern refused to alter protocol, even for the greatest champion the event has seen.
It’s one thing if Nadal were just now coming back after an extended layoff and slowly rounding himself into form. But Nadal has won four tournaments since returning to the tour in February and he’s reached the finals in the other two he’s played. One of the events he won was on hard courts, in Indian Wells, while his other tournament victories have all been on his beloved clay.
“Given what is Nadal in Paris, the best player in the history of the tournament, it seemed incongruous that he’d come in here with a No. 4 or 5,” Ysern said. “The damage was done, so we would have been talking about fiddling of the draw. What would have been viewed as a strong symbol – actually homage – was being seen as underhanded.”
Perhaps something was lost in the translation but Ysern’s comments make no sense. What is the damage that “was done”? The actual damage is the fact that Nadal is seeded too low. If they were to bump him into the top two – or even just one spot to the fourth position in the rankings – it would be a far more fair way of conducting the tournament.
Who saw the possible movement upward of Nadal’s seeding as “underhanded”? To a player, the rest of the field has acknowledged that Nadal is obviously the best player on clay (or at least tied with Novak Djokovic, who is the best player in the world overall) and is deserving of one of the top two spots.
Nadal hasn’t lobbied for any change and his comments have been supporting of the process. “The players that are in front of me are there because they have been playing better than me.
"Well, in fact they have played. I haven’t played; I haven’t trained either. If they were not injured and I have been injured, well, you know, with a handicap, with the format of the rankings that we have currently, good for them for not being injured. The problem is mine.”
The refusal to change Nadal’s seeding hurts the other players far more than Nadal himself.
As it is now, one of the top four players – Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer or David Ferrer – will draw Nadal in the quarterfinals. And if Djokovic and Nadal are slotted to play in the round of eight, that would be an utter travesty, as these two are far and away the best players on clay (in fact, Djokovic just beat Nadal in Monte Carlo and still has the psychological edge over Nadal at the moment).
Imagine having to watch Nadal and Djokovic face off in the quarters? Actually that brings up another point, because it would indeed be nearly impossible for those who work to watch that match as that’d be a mid-week, daylight encounter. One can only hope this doesn’t occur.
There’s still a slight chance that Nadal can secure the No. 4 seed and avoid a quarterfinal against the top players. If he were to win in Madrid and/or Rome and if Ferrer, the current No. 4, stumbled terribly in the same events, then Nadal will move up to the fourth seed.
But this isn’t likely. And nor should it be necessary.