The vast majority of tennis tournaments, at both professional and amateur levels, are run on a knockout basis. This means that once a player loses a match they are eliminated, and the last unbeaten player is the winner. This is what you will see at the major events like Wimbledon and the US Open.
Constructing a draw is quite complex, however, as the organizers need to make sure that up and coming players are given the opportunity to progress, and the best players are not to be forced to play each other until the latter stages. Whilst people who have tickets for the first day of an event might be delighted to see Federer and Nadal clash in the first round, the majority would prefer that the tournament did not lose such a big name right at the start.
The way tennis draws work is that top-ranked players are positioned in specific places of the draw so they don’t face each other in early rounds. Other players, including wild-cards and qualifiers, are randomly positioned in the remaining slots. From there, players go head-to-head against each other with the winner advancing to the next round.
For a professional tournament, the highest-ranked players go straight into the main draw, with the top ones being seeded. A small number of players, often local, will be admitted by means of ‘wild cards’ awarded by the organizers. Finally, there will be a separate ‘qualifying’ draw for the lower-ranked players, and competitors who win two or three rounds in this will also get a place in the main draw.
What Does ‘Draw’ Mean in Tennis?
It would be possible to run tournaments where the organizers chose which players played each other at each stage, perhaps using rankings as a basis, or possibly according to some other agenda. This would obviously be heavily dependent upon the integrity of the organizers, and players would complain if things did not go in their favor.
At all levels of sport, it is vital that things are seen to be fair, so in almost all events match-ups are largely decided by a random ‘draw’. Although, many years ago, names were probably drawn from a hat or other container (hence ‘draw’), these days a computer program will instantly produce a random draw with whatever restrictions the organizer sets.
The main draw might typically contain 32 or 64 players, with the number remaining halving after each round until there are two left to play the final. Ideal draw sizes are powers of 2 (32 is 2x2x2x2x2, for example), as this means that, as the number of players reduces, a final 2 will be arrived at without giving anyone a ‘bye’ (where they are awarded a win without playing).
In a 64 draw, the highest-ranked 52 players might be given direct entry, with 4 wild cards being given to players of any ranking whom the organizers would like to include. There might be a 32-player qualifying draw for the next highest-ranked players, and these competitors would need to win two matches to earn one of the final 8 places in the main draw. Although the numbers will vary, most tournaments operate like this.
The Meaning of Seeded and Unseeded Players
The idea here is very simple. The seeded players are those whom the organizers believe to be the strongest. It is considered fair that the best players should not have to play each other until the later rounds of the event. In a 64 draw, there will probably be 16 seeds. The seeds are numbered, with 1 being the strongest and 16 being the weakest.
These players are then spread out through the draw. Numbers 1 and 2 are put in opposite halves, so they cannot meet before the final. Equal numbers of seeds are put into each section, such that the 16 seeds can all reach the last 16, the top 8 seeds can reach the quarter-finals, and the top 4 can play in the semifinals. Unseeded players are all of those who are not seeded. These players have no ‘protection’ from difficult matches, so they could play the stronger players at any stage.
How are Draws and Tournament Seedings Determined?
At almost every level of the game, there will be some kind of rating or ranking system which tells you the relative strength of the players. At a professional level, world rankings are used. These rankings can be quite interesting and complex, so we have written an easy-to-understand guide which you can check out here – How Do Tennis Players Earn Ranking Points?
Using the typical 64 draw described earlier as an example, the highest-ranked 52 players go straight into the main draw, the next 32 go into the qualifying draw, to produce 8 qualifiers, and 4 wild cards are granted entry into the main draw.
Sometimes there will be wild card places in qualifying, which may mean that a few lower-ranked players who would otherwise have played are replaced by local competitors. Of the top 52 players, the highest-ranked 16 will be seeded in order of their ranking. A similar procedure will be operated for other draw sizes, which will feature a different number of seeds.
How to Make Your Own Tennis Draw
There are many commercial programs which will construct a knockout draw for you. You just need to enter details of the players, set the parameters in terms of draw size and seeds, and the program will do the rest. If you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, the procedure is:
- Decide on the draw size, based on the number of entrants and court availability. If a qualifying draw is needed (unusual at the amateur level), decide the size of that.
- Put the entrants in ranking order.
- Allocate seeding numbers to the highest-ranked players.
- Put the seeded players into the sections of the draw in order, ensuring, for example, that the top 8 seeds cannot meet until the quarter-finals, the top 4 are all in separate quarters, and the top 2 are in different halves.
- Fill the remaining places with randomly selected unseeded players. Leave random spaces for qualifiers if there is a qualifying draw.
- Repeat the above procedure for any qualifying draw, seeding the highest-ranked qualifying players.
Designing a tennis draw to ensure fairness and good competition is not as simple as it looks, but follow the steps and your tournament should run smoothly.