For some strange reason, I've always looked forward to the announcements of the wild cards before a Grand Slam event. The nominations are sometimes controversial, but almost always intriguing. The reciprocity agreements between the USTA and the French and Australian Federations have taken some of the subjectivity out of the process (it's comparable to getting a grant to study abroad, only it's usually for more like two weeks than two semesters), but it's also fun to see (or guess) how those friendly federations decide upon the single player who will benefit from the horse-trading session. So let's take a look at who got those men's wild cards this year. We'll look at the women later.
Lleyton Hewitt, ATP No. 134 — This game Australian is 31 years old and he's been struggling mightily but soldiering on. I'm sure that many of the parents and coaches of promising Aussie juniors are a little steamed that Tennis Australia's reciprocal wild card was awarded to a former world No. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champ, but think of it as something like the gold watch given to any good and reliable employee who's retiring after working at the same company for ages. I wonder, though, if the USTA wouldn't have given Hewitt a wild card anyway, given his status.
James Blake, No. 106 — This one was a no-brainer. At 32, Blake is still capable of going on a run, and what better place than the U.S. Open, where he's played well. Some of you will also smile upon recalling the history of Hewitt and Blake. At the 2001 U.S. Open, Blake gave Hewitt (then No. 4) a terrific scare in a match marred by a controversy over some allegedly racially-tinged remarks made by Hewitt. Blake and Hewitt clashed twice at Flushing Meadow; both matches were five set corkers won by Hewitt. Wouldn't it be funny if these two aging warriors ended up playing each other one last time in New York, as co-sentimental favorite wild cards?
Steve Johnson, No. 237 — This is one of those truly creative guys the game still can cough up, like a Fabrice Santoro, Bernard Tomic, Benoit Paire, or Miloslav Mecir. His game, and style, look absolutely ill-suited to the way the game is played today. But Johnson, now 22, is a great competitor as well as a unique stylist (he nearly upset Alex Bogomolov Jr. in the midst of Bogomolov's career year in the first round of the Open last year). Johnson earned his wild card based on his USTA Pro Circuit results this year (he earned the most ATP ranking points among the American men), and his ranking is already impressive given that he's fresh of USC, the college where he went undefeated this year and won the NCAA singles title for the second year in a row. We'll see if the Johnson can join John Isner as a successful ATP pro despite having remained in college for the full four years required to earn a degree.
Jack Sock, No. 252 - In 2010, Sock became the first American youth to win the U.S. Open boys' singles title since Andy Roddick in 2000. Sock has a Roddick-like, power-based game and is similarly built (Sock is a raw-boned 6-foot-1). In fact, Sock just can't seem to get out of the shadow of Roddick. The youngster may already be the second-best player ever spawned in Nebraska, behind . . . Roddick. Last year at the Open, Sock became the first reigning USTA boys' 18 champ (see below) to win a round at Flushing Meadow, but he was stopped in the second round by. . . yep, Roddick.
Denis Kudla, No. 163 - This is one of the "encouragement" wild cards given to developing players. In 2010, Kudla lost to Sock in the U.S. Open boys' final, and while there hasn't been as much buzz about him, he's ranked higher than Sock. In fact, he beat Sock in three tough sets when they played in San Jose, just a few weeks after Kudla qualified for the Australian Open (l. in round 1 to Tommy Haas). Kudla won the Lexington (Ky.) Challenger just a few weeks ago.
Dennis Novikov, No. 1099 — This 18-year-old unknown received his wild card for spelling his first name correctly in English, with two "n's" (I'm begging you not to write a haughty comment pointing out that Kudla was born in Ukraine, where the name is spelled with one "n." I am fully aware of how smart and worldly you are). Novikov is 18, and a native of Russia whose family immigrated to San Jose.
The thing I can't figure out is why he didn't get a wild card into the San Jose tournament, as both a promising junior and local talent. Instead he tried to qualify and lost to Kudla. Novikov is in the U.S. Open because he just won at boys 18s nationals at Kalamazoo (the winner of that event automatically gets a wild card into the Open). Novikov is an immigrant from Russia, and it's kind of nice to know that he plans to attend and play tennis for UCLA in the fall.
Rajeev Ram, No. 100 — Call it a "do the right thing" wild card. Ram must have narrowly missed the cutoff for direct entry into the Open (all things being equal, it's no. 104) based on his ranking at the time entries closed. He's ranked high enough now to have gotten straight in, and recently upset Brian Baker and Leonardo Mayer in Los Angeles en route to the semis. At 28, and 6-foot-4 with a great serve and big power game, this break could give the resident of Carmel, IN, just the nudge he needs to surpass his career best ranking of No. 78, which he hit about 9 months ago.
Guillaume Rufin, No. 127 — Should this native of Viriat, France, decided to drop tennis, he could always audition to become the member of a boy band. He's got the look down pat. For now, though, he's taking advantage of the French reciprocal wild card.
In his debut on the ATP Tour, Rufin shellacked Eduardo Schwank in the first round of the French Open, giving up just four games. Alas, that was in 2009, so it was not quite the start of something big. But Rufin has been making progress, and his current ranking is his best and he's still just 22. Rufin won three rounds of qualifying and beat Steve Darcis in the main draw at Wimbledon before he lost to Nicolas Almagro in four competitive sets. It's definitely time for him to make a run; could it happen at Rufin, given that he prefers hard courts to his native clay?
Still, I kind of wish the French had gone the Aussie route with their wild card. I'd love to see Yannick Noah bounding around a court again!