Seedings doubled as Wimbledon counters boycotts

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Wimbledon yesterday unveiled a new seedings system designed to stave off boycotts by players unhappy with the championships' bias towards grass-court specialists.

Starting with this year's event in SW19, the number of seeds at all Grand Slams will double from 16 to 32 at each major and be drawn from the top 32 places on the men's ATP tournament entry system and women's WTA Tour rankings.

No player ranked in the world's leading 32 will be excluded from the Wimbledon seeds in favour of one with a grass court pedigree. Alex Corretja, the French Open runner-up, and another Spaniard, Juan Carlos Ferrero, had both threatened to withdraw from Wimbledon because the seedings have favoured those players who prosper on grass. Ferrero pulled out of last year's Wimbledon with a back injury while Corretja and another Spanish clay court specialist, Albert Costa, decided not to play. Gustavo Kuerten, the world No 1 and reigning French Open champion, has already said he will miss Wimbledon but has avoided the controversy by claiming he needs a rest.

The new system will, however, retain a small element of preferential treatment for specialists: seedings will be based on past performances on a particular surface. But this will be calculated by a formula, and not by a seedings committee. In the men's singles at Wimbledon, that formula will take into account each player's ranking on 18 June, plus a weighted assessment of all his grass-court results since 1997-98.

The committee will, however, determine the 32 women's seeds as in previous years. The women's seedings are generally regarded as less contentious than the men's, because performances differ less markedly on different surfaces. From next year, an objective system based on surfaces will be adopted.

Under the new method, Pete Sampras, currently ranked at No 4 on the ATP entry system, is likely to be seeded No 1 in the men's singles at Wimbledon, having won the event for seven of the past eight years and being the world's dominant player on grass. But the British No 2, Greg Rusedski, ranked at No 46 in the ATP system, has no chance of being seeded at Wimbledon, despite his relative expertise on grass.

In the past, a ranking outside the top 16 did not rule out a seeding at Wimbledon. The organisers defended the old system, saying it avoided too many first-round casualties among the seeds. But that has led to growing disaffection among some leading players, especially the clay court specialists. They argue that rankings are earned by year-round performances on all surfaces and that should be rewarded with appropriate seedings, regardless of the arena. The new system will seek to counter those criticisms.

Tim Phillips, chairman of the All England Club and the Wimbledon championships, said: "We have consulted widely with the players together with the ATP, WTA and our Grand Slam colleagues and believe we have reached a sensible solution to this important issue.

"We have stayed true to our beliefs that seeding at Wimbledon should take into account players' grass court credentials and, at the same time, have addressed players' concerns by accepting that the Wimbledon seeds will be the top 32 players in the entry system of each player association.

"We are delighted that our partners in the Grand Slams have also adopted a surface-based approach."

The Grand Slam Committee said the new system would ensure tennis's four majors stayed faithful to the two primary aims of seeding ­ a balanced draw that more evenly distributes the best players on a particular surface and respects players' rankings and entry systems.

Mark Miles, chief executive of the ATP, welcomed the expansion of seeding to 32, but said the governing body of the men's game would monitor the new arrangement. There was a danger, he believed, that it could become too technical for fans to understand. The APT would also seek the players' opinions on the change.