Of the eight singles semifinalists in Melbourne, only two entered the tournament seeded in the top four. Rafael Nadal, the top seed in the men’s draw, has survived, and Li Na, the fourth seed in the women’s draw, is the highest-ranked player still alive on her side.
We haven’t exactly followed the script.
The women’s singles draw, with the top three seeds eliminated, is particularly unusual. It is only the 10th time in the last 35 years that none of the top three seeds have made it through to the final four of a Grand Slam. Such events have been heavily concentrated in the last decade or so–the fourth seed was the highest-ranked surviving player at Wimbledon in 2011 (Victoria Azarenka) and 2013 (Agnieszka Radwanska), and the fifth seed was the apparent favorite at Roland Garros in 2011 (Francesca Schiavone).
You might notice a pattern. In these nine Slams when no top-three seed reached the semifinal stage, the best remaining player didn’t fare so well. Both Vika and Aga fell to lower-ranked opponents when they were the remaining favorites at Wimbledon, and Schiavone lost her shot at the French Open to Li. Only twice in these nine majors did the highest-remaining seed in the semifinals go on to win: Martina Hingis, when she was seed fourth at the 1997 Australian Open, and Anastasia Myskina, when she was the sixth seed at the 2004 French Open.
In a tournament full of surprises, we might not be done yet. It stands to reason that once the favorites are eliminated, the odds of subsequent upsets increase. The lower you go in the rankings, the less difference there usually is between players–there’s a bigger gap between Azarenka and Maria Sharapova than there is between, say, Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber. The smaller the gap, the more likely the upset.
While only one top-four seed remains in the men’s draw, the odds of upsets are moving in the opposite direction. While Nadal can always count on a tough fight from second-seed Novak Djokovic, he typically has little trouble with lower-ranked players. He has won his last 15 matches against the other three players left in the draw–Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych, and Stanislas Wawrinka–and lost only 4 of 41 matches against the trio since 2008.
The historical precedent for this sort of semifinal draw also favors Rafa. 14 Grand Slams in the Open Era have featured a semifinal round in which the top seed is the only one remaining of the top four. The top seed has gone on to win 9 of the 14, including 8 of the last 10. The most recent final four that fit this profile was in Melbourne four years ago, when Federer swept the final two rounds without losing a set.
But even this rosy picture for Nadal offers Roger a glimmer of hope. The last time the top seed was alone in the final four and didn’t go on to win was the 2002 US Open. Lleyton Hewitt was the #1 who failed, paving the way for a 31-year-old Pete Sampras to win one final slam before he retired.
Roger isn’t going to call it quits this week, but he’d sure like to emulate Pete’s success in seizing a wide-open Grand Slam draw.