Wild Cards, Withdrawals and Lucky Losers

Skype: @TennisRatings

20th June, 2017.

'You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours'.

It's a common phrase in the English language, and to those who aren't native English speakers it basically means, 'if you do me a favour, I'll do you a favour'.   Life is often a question of 'it's not what you know, it's who you know', and while I'd much prefer every situation to be treated fairly on merit, it's clearly a very idealistic point of view.  

The Tennis world is full of these type of situations.  

For example, how else do most ex-players - whose knowledge of any player outside the top 20 you could write on the back of a postage stamp - get commentary jobs? This phenomenon also manifests itself towards current players, with no better example than the Wild Card system.

To summarise, each tournament has a number of wild card slots that are assigned to players who don't qualify for direct entry.  Typically, many of these players given wild cards are nationals of the country where the tournament is being held, with the tournament director being minded to give home players wild cards.  

This situation obviously benefits players who are from countries who hold many tournaments, or have Grand Slam events, and this is to the obvious detriment of players without those advantages.  American players have a particular advantage here, with a Grand Slam, several Masters 1000/Premier Mandatory events and numerous smaller events, and there have been some American players with huge numbers of wild cards awarded to them before their rank was high enough to quality directly - Jack Sock in the early stages of his career is a notable example.

American Jack Sock received plenty of wild cards earlier in his career...

In addition to this, we have the huge issue of reciprocal wild cards - a situation whereby a tournament, usually a Grand Slam, gives a wild card to a player of a certain nationality, in exchange for one of their home players getting a wild card into the reciprocal countries Slam event.  Again, it doesn't take a genius to work out the huge bias towards players of certain nationalities.

Is all this fair?  I'd certainly argue that it isn't.  When you factor in that player agencies also have 'influence' in these matters, it clearly becomes a matter of who you are and who you know, not necessarily how good you are.

However, for events in some countries, it doesn't matter how good you are either - certainly in the likes of Mexico and Qatar, the home players awarded wild cards for main tour events aren't even Challenger Tour level, and frequently they are schooled even by mediocre opponents in what is effectively an embarrassing defeat and a waste of time.

There is also another genre of players who frequently obtain wild cards - the declining veteran.  I don't have any issue with players who are returning from injuries or other lay-offs getting wild cards (Juan Martin Del Potro or Victoria Azarenka, for example), but I do take issue with the likes of 30-somethings Francesca Schiavone or Paul-Henri Mathieu complaining when they don't get wild cards for a final hurrah.

Victoria Azarenka has missed many months of action with injury and pregnancy...

With both of these players, just several more wins previously in the year would have ensured their direct entry into the event they requested wild cards for, and both had a number of matches where they had a high expectation to win, but failed to do so.   I actually think it's incredibly selfish of older players to take wild cards at the expense of younger players who need both experience and, as I'll discuss in the next paragraph, money.

There is no doubt that money is a major consideration.  First round prize money that players receive by way of getting a wild card can be huge.   At the French Open, for example, it is the small matter of €35,000, a figure which is higher than the average yearly salary of most countries, just for turning up or being friends with the tournament director.  I'd certainly have much less of a problem with declining veterans getting wild cards if they made a gesture to waive their first round prize money or shared it between younger players.

This sort of money would transform a young player's career.  €35,000 would enable the player to travel further for more lucrative or higher expectation tournaments, hire more support staff, perhaps not having to sofa-surf, not to mention avoiding having financial pressure hanging over them coming into matches.  The financial pressures on young players is well documented, so it would make sense for young players to receive the vast majority of wild cards.

In my opinion, the fairest solution regarding wild cards would be to focus on giving wild cards to young players, and in my ideal world on the main tour I'd use the following criteria:-

Players aged 22 or below - Rank must be from 1-250.  

This would ensure that young players with a realistic chance of success in the event would be considered.  Giving wild cards to players who don't even get direct entry to most Challenger events, and by definition are likely to be outclassed, should be avoided.

Players aged 23-25 - Rank must be from 1-150.

The age/improvement curve slows down around these ages, so it makes sense to think that many of the players in this age bracket will be close to plateauing, thereby giving less value to offering lower ranked players a wild card.

Players aged 25+ - No wild cards awarded unless injured for a period of over six months.  

It's simply unnecessary to award wild cards to players over the age of 25 unless they are working their way back from a long-term injury.  If this denies a declining veteran a last hurrah, then they simply need to ensure they give maximum effort to maintain their ranking at a level where direct entry is possible.  If they are still good enough to compete at that level, it's in their hands.  If they aren't good enough to compete any more, it's even more selfish to deprive another player of the opportunity.

With that out of the way, I want to return to the subject of first round prize money.  

Players turning up at Slams when injured, to take first round prize money, is nothing new, and until today, I didn't realise that there is a new rule this season whereby players withdrawing from the first round of main tour events still get first round prize money unless the lucky loser who takes their place wins their match.  It makes me wonder whether this is the reason behind several recent late withdrawals from Yen-Hsun Lu on the day of his first round match.  

I find it extremely difficult to comprehend a rational reason as to why a player who doesn't even pick up their racquet in competitive action should get prize money, but it appears that this is the case.  

Not only this, but it also seems fair to suggest that high prize money for losing in the first round is not enough of an incentive to win.  There was a bit of a debate about this on Twitter earlier today, and I'm very much of the opinion that a player who loses in the first round should not be able to be in profit for the week, unless they have won several matches to qualify for the event.  The obvious answer would be to significantly reduce prize money for first round losers and redistribute this to first round winners - a solution which would disincentivise turning up to claim first round prize money and actually reward player success and not rewarding player failure.

I'd also consider reducing prize money for players who retire - I'd need to get firm numbers but I'd be amazed if the number of retirements isn't rising, particularly at the Challenger level - and I'd also bring in a rule whereby any player who retires is automatically 'banned' for the remainder of the current tournament, and the one the next week.

If a player is genuinely injured, then being unable to compete in the immediate future isn't going to be any issue whatsoever, while this would also eradicate the ridiculous situation where players retire in singles and then a few hours later/the next day play doubles.  

Thoughts, via Twitter or email (links above), are certainly welcomed.