The draw ceremony last week for the Australian Open turned into a draw celebration for the hosts: Australian tennis players got relatively easy matchups in the first round. Their draws were among the most favorable for a host country’s players since Grand Slam tournaments started awarding prize money in 1968. And so far the Aussies have taken advantage, with three men in the third round for the first time since 2004.
Host nations’ national tennis associations run the Grand Slam events, and organizers like to be able to showcase home players. So, a draw like this year’s might look suspicious. But there’s no evidence that hosts rig draws in favor of their players. If anything, home-nation players have had rougher matchups than you’d expect by random chance.
The difference is small, but the toughest Slam, even including this year’s draw, has been Australia’s. Last year’s was as tough as this year’s was easy, a point hinted at by Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia, at the draw ceremony last week.
Draw luck matters a lot in Grand Slam tennis, because most players are placed randomly. In each of the men’s and women’s singles tournaments, just 1 in 4 players gets a seed, which governs roughly — though not precisely — where they’re placed in the first round. The other three-quarters of players could go anywhere. One-third of them have to face a seed, including one unlucky soul who worked all year to make the tournament, only to face the top seed. The other two-thirds get to play another unseeded player.
The winners of those matchups get a seeded player in the second round, unless that favorite was upset in the first round. For unseeded players struggling to make ends meet, good draw luck at one of these lucrative events could mean their biggest paycheck of the year.
The draw has been so favorable to Australians that three men have reached third-round matches Friday without having to face an opponent with a Top 20 seed. Two of them face each other, which means an Australian man will reach the fourth round for the first time since 2012.
That kind of home advantage has been more the exception than the norm. I checked by looking at men’s singles draws back to 1968 and women’s singles draws back to 1981 at all four Grand Slam tournaments, as provided by Jeff Sackmann, who runs tennisabstract.com. The draw sizes and number of seeds varied in the earliest years in the data set. I tossed the draws that had first-round byes and focused only on unseeded players, because they’re the ones most subject to draw luck. I also excluded host-nation players who made their way through the qualifying draw, because they’re usually slotted in after the rest of the draw has been set. Then for each event, I compared how many seeded opponents the home players could have expected to draw in the first round with how many they did.
For instance, this year, with a 128-player draw and 32 seeds, each unseeded player had a 1-in-3 chance of drawing a seed in the first round. Eight Australian men and six Australian women were unseeded and reached the main draw without having to play the qualifying tournament. Just two of them drew seeded opponents in the first round. On average, we’d have expected four and two-thirds of them to draw seeded opponents.
That makes this year’s Australian Open one of the luckiest draws for the hosts in our data set of 178 Grand Slam events. Just twice was there both a bigger ratio and a bigger gap between expected and actual seeds drawn: at the 2003 Australian Open, when unseeded home players got two seeded opponents instead of the expected five, and at Wimbledon in 2001, when unseeded British players drew just one seed instead of the expected four and two-thirds.
But there is no nefarious pattern here. Last year’s Australian Open was one of the worst for hosts, whose unseeded players could have expected to draw 4.5 seeded opponents but instead drew eight. Wimbledon in 2002 was one of the toughest for hosts, a year after the cushy draw. And the favorable 2003 Australian Open draw followed two straight unfavorable ones for the hosts.
Overall in the data set, home-nation unseeded players have drawn 4 percent more seeded opponents in the first round than expected by chance. That’s probably a fluke, particularly for the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, where the difference between actual and expected seeded opponents is in the narrow range between -1 percent to 6 percent. The Australian Open has been the toughest for home players, with 16 percent more seeded opponents than expected. It would take a few more draws like this year’s to even that out.