On Friday, wild card Bethanie Mattek-Sands will face Serena Williams. Can the 101st-ranked player in the world upend the tournament? It would make for a great story. But does the wild-card system work fairly for all players? I discuss the subject with U.K. freelance writer Leigh Walsh, who offers a possible alternative.
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The Rally: A Wild Idea
Is there a fairer system for handing out wild cards at Slams?
Published Sep 03, 2015
I wanted to have this chat because it seemed as if you were reading my mind on Twitter the other day. When the U.S. Open wild cards were announced, and they included the expected preponderance of American players—13 of the 16 in the main draw were from the States—I thought, not for the first time, that maybe someone could come up with a fairer system for doling these out at the Grand Slams.
The way it's done now, each major gives most of its wild cards to its home players. The few that don't go to the other Slam countries, in a reciprocal arrangement. For example, six of this year’s men’s main-draw wild cards went to Americans, one went to Pierre-Hughes Herbert of France, and another to Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. It’s understandable, on one level: The national federations run these tournaments, and their first mission is to promote tennis in their home countries. But there are only four countries that host Grand Slams: Australia, France, Great Britain, and the United States.
Should players from these countries have a leg up forever? What about all of the worthy—and often worthier—hopefuls from other nations? The umbrella organization for the federations, the ITF, is in the business of promoting the game not just in four places, but around the world. And with the recent prize-money increases at the majors, a free ride into the first round is more valuable to a young or struggling player than ever. It can also be valuable, as Hewitt’s long, multi-year good-bye has shown, to an aging legend, too.
In your tweet, Leigh, you mentioned the same thing, but you seemed to have an idea, based around the Olympic tennis event, of how the system could be made fairer. Can you explain it to me?
Judging by some of the tweets coming through my feed, I don’t think we were the only two pondering the fairness of wild cards when the U.S. Open dished out their latest golden tickets.
I did a little digging, and since the 1995 Australian Open, nearly 88 percent of wild cards at the majors have been awarded to players from Grand Slam nations; players who—for the most part—are already at a massive advantage in terms of funding, sponsorship, and training. At this year’s U.S. Open, that figure is 100 percent.
For me, that’s a missed opportunity to grow the sport. Would it make that much of a difference if a couple of spots were held back for players from underrepresented nations? Tennis is one of the few truly global sports. Why not embrace that?
The Olympics tennis model, which aims to strengthen the principle of universal representation, appeals to me more. In each draw, eight spots are kept free: six for “ITF Places” and two for “Tripartite Commission Invitation Places.” The ITF Places ensure that a player from the host country and all six regional associations are included, as well as former champions. The latter considers players from nations who are underrepresented across the entire Games. (You can read a fuller explanation here.)
With that in mind, perhaps the majors could keep aside two wild cards for players just outside the cut-off whose nations don’t already feature in the main draw. After all, the best way to promote the sport in non-traditional countries is to give people someone to cheer for.
Is the reciprocal agreement between the Slams really necessary? As you know, I’m from Ireland so I tend to bat for the underdog. But I just feel the current system rewards those who have already started with a springboard.
I like the Olympic model you mention, and it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for the majors to offer two of their slots to an intriguing player from a non-Slam nation; or, as you say, a country with little representation at all. You only have to look at the current rankings to see how far the game has spread—right now there are just two players, Serena Williams and Andy Murray, from the four Grand Slam nations in the ATP's and WTA's Top 10s. In that sense, the Slams’ reciprocal wild-card policy feels like a rearguard action in a sport that long ago embraced meritocracy and the marketplace.
Yet as you say, Slam nations maintain an edge in training and funding, and you only have to look at the migration patterns of the players to see the advantages they have. Novak Djokovic's family briefly entertained the idea of moving to Great Britain. Aljaz Bedene did make the move from Slovenia to the United Kingdom. Ajla Tomljanovic was born in Zagreb but now lives in Brisbane, and Daria Gavrilova has transplanted herself from Moscow to Melbourne.
It's a virtuous cycle for the big countries: The money that each Slam makes goes back into player development in that nation. Influential talent agencies are also more likely to sign, say, a young American than a young Belarussian, and will lobby for wild cards for that player.
Sometimes I've wondered, though, whether these coveted golden tickets can do as much harm as they do good. There was a sense early in Donald Young's career that he was given too many of them. The money was great, obviously, but in his 20s, he's spent much of his time having to go back and earn his way through qualifying. Would he have been better off starting out that way? Jack Sock, a new client of IMG, has benefitted from wild cards at the many events, other than the U.S. Open, that are held in the States. We'll see if that launches him onto bigger things, or makes life a little too comfortable.
I was surprised this year that 16-year-old CiCi Bellis wasn't given a free pass into the Open main draw after she became a two-day media sensation here last year. This time, Bellis lost in qualifying, and afterward I saw a retweet of hers that expressed her disappointment at not getting the golden ticket. Should she be disappointed? Or should she be grateful? Hopefully Bellis’ defeat in qualies will give her a truer idea of what she has to do to have a good pro career.
How have wild cards worked in the U.K.? Have there been any players who have definitely benefited from them over the long term?
It’s interesting you should ask about the wild cards in the U.K., because under the LTA’s new tough-love policy the system was recently altered. In the past if you were British and ranked in the Top 250, a wild card into Wimbledon was all but guaranteed. However, LTA chief executive Michael Downey, who arrived from Tennis Canada two years ago, was reportedly unhappy with that format. The case often cited in these parts is that of Alex Bogdanovic, who never cracked the Top 100 but who received eight wild cards into Wimbledon. Needless to say he lost in the first round each time.
The LTA, under new management, wanted to look beyond the rankings and take other factors into consideration, like attitude, professionalism, and recent form. So they announced earlier this year that a Top 250 ranking was no longer the benchmark. The result: Only 10 of the 16 wild cards at this year’s Championships were handed out, with just five given to Brits.
There are numerous players in the U.K. who have directly benefited from wild cards down the years. Would Murray have made it if he didn’t have a few wild cards thrown his way? Of course. But other players have benefitted financially from main-draw invitations, which have distorted career earnings and, to a lesser extent, the rankings. I’ll use an example—world No. 134 James Ward was born in February 1987 in London; world No. 166 James McGee was born four months later in Dublin. Ward has been given more than 20 wild cards during his career; McGee has received one. Ward has career earnings of $990,530; McGee $237,222.
It begs the question, if McGee was born 50 miles east in the U.K., how would those figures look? This isn’t to take away from Ward’s achievements, he is both gifted and hard working. It is simply to highlight the disparity in earning potential between two similarly talented players from different countries.
As you mentioned in your opening message, a free pass to the first round is as valuable as ever. Do tournaments need to start handling their wild cards with better care?
As we’ve been writing back and forth, the wild cards at this year’s Open have been, predictably, making their exits. On the men’s side, six of the eight lost in the first round; as of Thursday, only Hewitt and Austin Krajicek remained. On the women’s side, three wild cards, Mattek-Sands, Nicole Gibbs, and Oceane Dodin, won their first-rounders. More surprising is that U.S. player Jessica Pegula, who received a wild card into the qualifying draw, won four straight matches to reach the second round, where she took a set from Dominika Cibulkova.
It’s great to see Mattek-Sands, Gibbs, and Pegula make the most of their chances, and they make for great first-week U.S. Open stories. The 18-year-old Dodin is an example of a young talent getting to show what she can do on a big stage. And who knows, Mattek-Sands, who plays Serena next, could end up turning the whole tournament on its head.
During their third-round match, we’ll probably hear that Mattek-Sands is a wild card more than a few times. The word itself turns it into a Cinderella story. And Mattek-Sands' two wins here, as well as Pegula’s run through the qualifying, show that wild cards really are golden tickets, and that it matters who gets them.
All the more reason, I would say, to make sure they’re used with an eye toward growing the game.