SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/This Weeks Issue

Grand Slams tweak seedings to help ratings

Perhaps the biggest problem broadcasters have televising tennis is not knowing who will play: Pete Sampras makes the finals one week, but some no-name the next.

Now the powers behind the sport hope their decision to increase the number of seeds at Grand Slam events will at least mean that more stars make their way into the later rounds of major tournaments. By doubling the number of seeds from 16 to 32 (25 percent of the total field), no one ranked in the top 32 would play each other until round three.

At the French Open last month, 22nd-ranked Barbara Schett beat second-ranked Venus Williams in the first round. As it turns out, that was the last gasp of the old seeding regime.

"This provides a greater percentage chance of top players playing in week two of a tournament," said Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of professional tennis at the U.S. Tennis Association, which owns the U.S. Open, one of the four Grand Slams.

For example, Kantarian said, CBS Sports, which pays more than $30 million to televise two weekends of U.S. Open tennis, does not even begin broadcasting until the third round. It was at the request of broadcasters and others, Kantarian said, that the USTA lobbied for the change.

Gregg Picker, who produces tennis for USA Sports, a division of USA Network that televises weekday matches at the French and U.S. opens, said in the long run tennis would be better off. But he said some classic first-round matches would now go by the board. The early round Schett-Williams matchup, for example, was a boon to USA's French Open ratings, which were up 40 percent this year.

Kantarian sees sponsors benefiting from the new seeding system, too, because most of their hospitality is geared toward week two of the tournaments.

The decision to double the number of seeds at the French, Australian and U.S. opens and Wimbledon was made by the Grand Slam committee, which includes representatives from all four tournaments. The new seeding will take effect next week at Wimbledon.

That has not stopped some players with clay court expertise from threatening to boycott Wimbledon. Wimbledon is alone among the four Grand Slams in seeding players subjectively and not based on ATP or WTA rankings, using instead prowess on grass courts.

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