To make the most of their abilities, young tennis players need training, coaching and good health. Then there’s another factor, also important and beyond their control: the luck of the draw.
The careers of young Americans Ryan Harrison and Christina McHale show what a difference luck can make. When Harrison has been lucky in Grand Slam tournaments, he has been very good. But he’s usually been unlucky, drawing one of the tournament’s top players in the first round and losing. The latest Harrison conqueror was Grigor Dimitrov, the No. 13 player in the world, who straight-setted Harrison out of Wimbledon on opening day Monday in London. Harrison’s frequent early exits from Grand Slams have contributed to his fall out of the top 100.
McHale, meanwhile, has been much more fortunate. She opens her Wimbledon campaign Tuesday against the 97th-ranked player in the world, Chanelle Scheepers. In the 17 Grand Slam tournaments where McHale could have faced a seeded player in the first round, she has done so just three times — and never had an opponent in the top 20.
Along with the intended intrigue and variety, the random draw at tennis tournaments creates inequity. For the 128-player Grand Slam singles draws, this is, roughly, how the draw works: The best 25 percent of players are given seeds, and each of the 32 seeded players is slotted in a four-player pod in which the other three players are unseeded (kind of like our Burrito Bracket). In the first round, the seeded player plays one of the unseeded players in the same pod, and the other two unseeded players play each other. Drawing players randomly into these pods, rather than seeding all 128 of them, helps keep things interesting, creating tough sections of the draw and openings elsewhere.
Every unseeded player has a one-third chance of drawing a seeded opponent in the first round, which is, generally, an unlucky draw. That’s not always the case: Sometimes the seeded opponent isn’t as tough as rankings suggest, because of weakness on the tournament’s surface or a recent injury. Drawing a weak seed near the bottom of the top 32 players can open up a player’s draw, since the next opponent wouldn’t be seeded.
All else equal, though, if you’re unseeded, you don’t want to match up against a seeded player in the first round. Yet Harrison seems to be drawn inexorably toward seeded opponents by some as yet undiscovered magnetic field. In the 16 majors he’s entered as an unseeded player, he’s drawn seeded opponents nine times. By chance alone, he could have expected just five such tough matches. More than 98 percent of players with 16 opportunities to draw a seed in the first round should do so eight times or fewer, according to the binomial distribution. Harrison is in the unlucky 1 percent.
Not so with McHale. About 13 percent of players who have played 17 majors as an unseeded entry, as she has, could expect to get three or fewer seeded opponents. She has also never drawn a top 10 opponent in the first round, something just 15 percent of players in her shoes could say.
Against unseeded first-round opponents at majors, Harrison is a dominant force: He’s 5-2, including wins in his past five matches. Against seeded opponents, he’s 1-7; Harrison’s loss to Dimitrov Monday was his seventh straight against seeded opponents. All those first-round losses have contributed to Harrison’s drop in the rankings to 150 from 43 two years ago.
Luck of the draw matters for non-Americans, too. I studied 18 young men and women at Wimbledon who have entered at least five majors without a seed. Together they have won half of first-round matches against unseeded opponents, but fewer than one-third of matches against seeded players.
As hard as Harrison’s had it, he’s been blessed to avoid the fate of David Goffin. The 23-year-old Belgian has entered nine majors unseeded. Seven times he has drawn a seed in the first round, including four top 10 seeds. Of 1,000 players with his Grand Slam history, 999 could expect to have drawn fewer seeded first-round opponents, and fewer top 10 seeds.
Goffin hasn’t won a Grand Slam match in two years, and his ranking fate has resembled Harrison’s: He’s dropped from No. 42 in the world to No. 105. His latest rough draw came against defending champion Andy Murray, the No. 3 seed at Wimbeldon. Murray dispatched Goffin in straight sets on Monday.