Wimbledon Seeds - Just How Unprecedented Are All These Early Exits?

Record numbers of seeds are falling in the early rounds at Wimbledon. We look at exactly how unprecedented these results are, whether this is part of a larger trend, and which first-round shock was the most unexpected.

Authored by Graeme Spence

In both the men’s and women’s draws, seeds have been dropping like flies at Wimbledon this year (or perhaps that should be flying ants…). Records have been set for both the most seeds losing in the men’s and women’s first rounds combined and the most women’s top 8 seeds to exit before the 3rd round.

In fact, these are records for both Wimbledon and for all four Grand Slams since the expansion to 32 seeds in each draw in mid-2001. I’ve taken a closer look at the records to gain insight into the nature of these landmarks, and also examined the pre-match probabilities for the first-round upsets.

First round seeded losers

A total of 21 seeds lost in the men’s and women’s first rounds at Wimbledon. This beats the previous Grand Slam record of 20 from both Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 2004 by the smallest margin. So while a record, it is not clear if this represents a significant shift in the sport.

We can examine this further by separating the number of first-round seeded exits for the men’s and women’s draws at Wimbledon. The plot below shows that 3 men’s championships have had 11 men’s seeds fall at the first hurdle: 2001, 2003 and this year. And in fact, 2004 had more women’s first-round seed exits than this year, with 11 in 2004 compared with 10 in 2018. So it appears that high — but not unprecedented — levels of upsets have occurred in both the men’s and women’s first rounds, with the overall record a result of these levels happening in the same year.

Women’s top seeds

Of the 8 women slated to make the quarterfinals at the All England Club this year, only 2 remain at the end of the first two rounds — an all-Slam record for the current seeding system for both men’s or women’s 1 The below plot shows the trend in the number of top 8 women seeds losing in the first two rounds at Wimbledon since 2001, highlighting how this year represents a record high.

As well as some year-by-year variation, there does seem to be a general increase in the incidence of top seeds losing early in the women’s draw. To see if this trend exists more widely, I looked at the yearly average of top 8 seeds losing before the 3rd round across all of the Slams since mid-2001. For the women (top bar chart in the plot below), there appears to be a clear increase from an average of around one top 8 seed between 2001 and 2010 to almost three top 8 seeds since 2015. This supports the current feeling of all-time high levels of unpredictability at the top of the women’s game.

In contrast, the number of top eight men’s seeds losing early doesn’t show the same trend.2 If anything, fewer top men’s seeds have been exiting before the 3rd round on average.

From 2001-2009, 7 out of 9 years had an average top 8 early losing rate of greater than 1 (including a high of 3.75 in 2002), compared with 4 out of 9 from 2010-2018 (a high of 1.67 for 2018 so far).

Perhaps this is a consequence of the relative consistency at the top of the men’s game, both from the ‘Big Four’ and the other top seeds.

Most unexpected first-round upset

We can use the first-round win probabilities derived from our grass-adjusted Elo ratings — which we use for the Game Insight Group’s title predictions — to judge which seeds' exits were the most surprising. The five upsets with the lowest probabilities are shown below for both the men and the women.

On the women’s side, our model assigned Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina and Maria Sharapova all less than a 20% chance each of losing in the first round. So Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Tatjana Maria and Vitalia Diatchenko pulled off big upsets on the grass.

Unseeded winner Seeded loser Chance of upset
Aliaksandra Sasnovich Petra Kvitova 16
Tatjana Maria Elina Svitolina 17
Vitalia Diatchenko Maria Sharapova 19
Katerina Siniakova Coco Vandeweghe 22
Belinda Bencic Caroline Garcia 27

Of the men’s seeded losers, Dominic Thiem and David Goffin were the most unexpected with each having less than a 25% chance of losing, with credit going to their victors — veteran Marcos Baghdatis and Australian Matthew Ebden.

Unseeded winner Seeded loser Chance of upset
Marcos Baghdatis Dominic Thiem 22
Matthew Ebden David Goffin 23
Alex De Minaur Marco Cecchinato 30
Daniil Medvedev Borna Coric 30
Matteo Berrettini Jack Sock 31

As well as dramatically opening up the draws, the number of upsets in the first two rounds of this year’s Wimbledon Championships has certainly made an impact on the Grand Slam record books. While the number of seeds exiting the tournament early is not completely unprecedented, the number of top 8 seeds losing in the women’s draw is part of a clear trend of increasing unpredictability. We can only watch to see if we’re in for more upsets — and records — as Wimbledon progresses!

  1. If Alexander Zverev doesn’t overturn his overnight deficit of two sets to one, that would leave four top 8 men’s seeds in the third round. This is still more than the three top 8 seeds that were left at the same stage of the 2002 and 2008 Wimbledon men’s championships. ↩︎

  2. This plot assumes that Zverev does survive his interrupted second round tie (which if true itself might add further evidence to this effect). ↩︎