The second in a series of articles which will statistically analyse women's tennis at Grand Slams.

In the final years of school, a friend and I increasingly began to mix our passion for sports with an excited assessment of girls. Our interest in tennis came in handy. Soon enough, we found ourselves arguing whether a certain girl merited the status of a “top-seed.” Invariably, our discussions would shift from Roger Federer’s domination to the all-conquering appeal of our tall classmate. The Swiss legend’s brilliance and the girl’s beauty intimidated us in similar ways. Both could make our jaw drop.

Years later, as women’s tennis is seemingly undergoing a lean patch due to the retirement of several stars, the importance of seedings has once again roused my curiosity. Now, since I have focused my scrutiny on the semi-finals for reasons explained before, I aim to measure the performance of top four seeds in Grand Slams over the past decade.

For most fans, it is a dream to see the established players battle each other in the semis. Nothing raises anticipation like the last four stage. Such spectacles are frequent in men’s tennis, exemplified by Federer (23) and Novak Djokovic’s (14) consecutive semifinal appearances in a Grand Slam.

In women’s tennis, though, the probability of the top four seeds claiming all the semifinal slots is too low. In fact, it has happened only twice in the past decade—2006 and 2009 Wimbledon.

The following table shows the number of semifinalists from the top four seeds in the last five years.

Tournament 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Australian Open 3 1 3 3 2
French Open 1 1 0 2 3
Wimbledon 4 1 1 2 1
US Open 1 3 1 3 2

In this period, the French Open was the toughest assignment for the first four seeds as only seven out of a possible 20 entered the semi-finals. In fact, Dinara Safina (2009) and Serena Williams (2013) were the only top seeds to feature in the last four at Roland Garros. Hence, there’s a greater likelihood of high-profile upsets in the second Slam of the year.

Contrastingly, the top four seeds have usually justified their billing at the Australian Open. From 2009-13, three players from the quartet reached the semis thrice.

2011 was the worst year for the top four as only five of the 16 slots were filled by them. 2010 was not great either, coming a close second with six semifinalists from the group.

However, 2012 bucked the trend as 10 top four players made the semis. The reason behind this shift can be found in the following table which displays the number of different players who played a semi-final between 2009 and 2013.

Year Number of different semifinalists
2009 11
2010 14
2011 13
2012 9
2013 11

2012 saw a remarkably low number of players making the semi-finals. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova had an impressive season as they reached the last four at three Slams. Moreover, Serena missed the Australian and French Open due to injury but stormed back to win the next two tournaments.

Now, let’s assess the top four seeds’ displays between 2004 and 2008.

Tournament 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Australian Open 2 2 3 2 2
French Open 0 0 1 3 3
Wimbledon 2 3 4 1 0
US Open 0 2 3 2 2

Remarkably, the challenges posed by the French and Australian Open to the top four were quite the same in the first period. Roland Garros saw an identical number of semifinalists from the quartet— seven. In fact, in the first three years, just one top four player made the semis. Justine Henin (2007) was the only top seed to reach the last four.

On the other hand, the established players, like 2009-13, enjoyed playing the most in Melbourne as 11 slots out of 20 were occupied by them. At least two of the top four seeds made the semifinals each year at the Australian Open.

Interestingly, four tournaments in this period did not feature a single member from the premier quartet. Contrast this with 2009-13, when such a surprise took place only at the 2011 French Open.

In 2004-08, two representatives from the top four featured in eight semis—the most popular outcome. In the latter period, the group had a single member in the penultimate round, again, eight times.

However, 2004 was by far the worst year for the top four, as only four places out of 16 were booked by the group. 2006, though, saw a decade-high 11 semifinalists from the top four. The stat looks even more impressive when we number the different players in the semis, on a yearly basis.

Year Number of different semifinalists
2004 13
2005 12
2006 7
2007 11
2008 10

2006 betters the 2012 record as only seven players featured in Grand Slam semis that year. Henin was at the peak of her career then, reaching all four finals. However, the Belgian won only one of them as she fought some intense battles with Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters and Sharapova. The trio reached three semifinals each with Mauresmo winning two Slams while Sharapova took the other.

Perhaps, when tennis fans reminisce about the golden age of Henin and Clijsters, they essentially want to return to 2006. But why couldn’t such consistency be replicated afterwards? I’ll aim to answer this question in part three.