The rules don't apply

Updated: January 22, 2004, 11:07 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

If just-back-on-the-circuit Venus Williams plows on through the next week or so and ultimately lives up to the No. 3 seed bestowed upon her by the good folks at the Australian Open, she's going to prove one of two things, if not both:

  • The seeding process in professional tennis is just exactly as arbitrary and easily manipulated as it needs to be; and

  • The Williamses rule the world.

    Venus Williams
    Venus Williams is so good that very few of the other women protested her new and improved ranking at the Australian Open.

    As to the second count, we should probably go ahead and declare a winner. If you don't understand by now the myriad ways in which the women's pro tennis industry revolves around the stars named Venus and Serena, well, there's no helping you.

    But what could be genuinely interesting here is the concept of leap-frogging seeds in order to place someone like Venus at or near the top, on the grounds that ... well, she was terrifically good last July, anyway.

    It was back then that Venus suffered the abdominal injury that essentially ended her year. She didn't play in another competitive tournament, her ranking slipped from No. 2 to No. 11, and it was generally agreed that she was likely to make a long, slow and steady climb back up near the top of the list, the length and height of that ascent primarily depend upon how much tennis Venus really wanted to play.

    But with sister Serena still sidelined by a knee injury suffered last August, there was suddenly an opening at the Aussie for a No. 3 seed. And just like that, the officials of this major tournament announced that they had decided to ignore the traditional system, follow a seeding suggestion by the Womens Tennis Association, and place Venus at No. 3, ahead of Amelie Mauresmo and Lindsay Davenport.

    What gives? Well, stature, on so many levels. Venus Williams' seeding at the Australian is the rough equivalent of someone receiving a lifetime Oscar or being voted to an All-Star team despite having an off year. The woman was so good for so long, and good enough as recently as last summer's Wimbledon, that the thinking was basically, "She's good for it."

    Good for the attention, certainly; by now it has been established beyond question that any tournament with one of the Williams sisters in it is much the better for that player's presence. It is money, it is attention, it is competition. People want to see Venus and Serena, but they'll happily settle for one or the other if they can't have both.

    And give Venus Williams her due: She is still held in such regard as a tennis force that there was minimal squawking over the Australian Open's decision to vault her eight spaces above her world ranking, even if she hadn't played against top-level competition in six months.

    Mauresmo was unhappy, but Davenport was strikingly noncontroversial on the topic, saying, "The Williamses have obviously, when they've played, been extremely dominating." And Kim Clijsters, the No. 2 seed in Melbourne, saluted Venus' high seed: "She's definitely the player that should be up there."

    What we're seeing, once again, is the curtain being pulled back on seeding and ranking systems that don't always have a fat lot to do with one another. A player's world ranking is generally compiled on a rolling 12-month scale; it's to do with numbers of tournaments entered and points accrued and the like. You can be having a lousy August and still rank terribly high overall come the end of the month. It doesn't mean you're in any shape to contend in a good tournament.

    Ideally, a tournament's seedings are determined on a more timely, topical basis: Who's good right now? Who's best on this surface? It's a tough question to ask about the Australian, of course, coming as it does in January, and as a result the championship generally uses the ATP and WTA year-end rankings from the previous December to seed the men's and women's fields.

    Then again, who are we kidding? These are the Williamses we're talking about. Even if we understood the rules, they don't apply.

    There won't be a right or wrong answer coming out of Australia over the next 10 days. If Williams bows out relatively early in the tournament, she'll likely join a host of other high seeds who don't get all the way through the championship's competitive field. It isn't as if there's no precedent for top seeds being upset at the majors.

    For that matter, the leapfrog system is hardly new, just infrequently used. Davenport once benefitted from such a generous seeding shuffle when coming back from an injury. It was almost credit for time served, and it didn't feel inappropriate at all.

    Come now Venus Williams, the woman who went from No. 11 to No. 3 faster than you could say, "Serena's out." That long, slow climb we talked about turned into a rocket ride. But ask anyone, including Venus herself: The getting there is usually nothing compared with what it takes to stay there.

    Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com