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Solving the Wildcard Issue in Tennis

The wildcard system in tennis is one that often causes much debate among both fans and pundits. Which players will receive wildcards to Grand Slam tournaments prompts discussion each time the tournaments roll around. However, I am going to look at whether the system is fair and what changes could be made to improve it.

Since the start of the 2012 season, there have been a total of 517 wildcards that have been handed out to players. In general, Grand Slam events will hand out eight wildcards, Masters 1000 events will hand out four or five, while ATP 500 and 250 events will award three. Sometimes tournaments might award more than this number, while very occasionally they might hand out fewer. The vast majority of wildcards are handed out by the tournament director. What we should look for in determining the provision of wildcards we shall revisit later.
Jack Sock and his fellow Americans are huge beneficiaries of wildcards

The first thing to look at is how tournaments tend to allocate their wildcards. Since the start of 2012, there are five tournaments that have given all their wildcards to players not from the country that the tournament is being held in. These tournaments are Houston (2012), Dubai (2013, 2014), Malaysia (2013) and Memphis (2014).

Dubai is to be expected with the lack of players from the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, there is not a single Emirati player in the ATP rankings. Malaysia is similar with their only ranked player being Mohd Assri Merzuki ranked at 1,396. So, excluding these, there are just two tournaments that have not awarded wildcards to domestic players when given the opportunity.

In contrast, there were 57 tournaments that awarded all their wildcards to domestic players. Excluding the Grand Slams, there were 139 tournaments during the period that we are looking at. Therefore, over 40% of all the tournaments awarded all of their wildcards to domestic players. Looking at the Grand Slams, if we exclude the reciprocal wildcards that we shall look at later, the last two US Open events have seen all twelve wildcards go to American and the last two French Open events have seen all twelve wildcards go to Frenchmen. Wimbledon has awarded just six of its thirteen wildcards in the last two years to British players.

With the strong bias toward domestic players, players from those countries that have more tournaments are likely to benefit disproportionally from wildcards. The USA is the country that possesses more ATP events than any other country. In the 148 tournaments that fall in our sample, 29 of these have taken place in the USA. In other words, almost 20% of all tournaments have been in the United States since the start of 2012. In comparison, the closest countries behind them are France with 14, followed by Australia and Germany on nine.

Based on this, we might expect to see American players dominating the wildcard provisions over the period, followed by Frenchmen, Australians and Germans. This assumption would be correct. There is only one player in the top 10 wildcard beneficiaries that is not from one of these four countries – James Ward. Amazingly, Jack Sock has been given no fewer than 17 wildcards in this period, followed by Lleyton Hewitt on 16. Indeed, in 2011, every tournament that Lleyton Hewitt played in was as a result of a wildcard.

Other players that have enjoyed a plenitude of wildcards include former top college player, Steve Johnson (13), the favourite of the American media, Ryan Harrison (12), French pair of Gael Monfils and Paul-Henri Mathieu (9), Australia’s James Duckworth (9) and veteran American James Blake (8).
In 2011, Lleyton Hewitt was awarded a wildcard into every event he played that year

It works out that 18.5% of all wildcards have gone to American players for no other reason than the USA happens to host more tournaments. Indeed, 43.7% of all wildcards handed out during this period went to players from the four Grand Slam nations. If you happen to be from a country without a Grand Slam or many ATP tournaments, you are unlikely to get many opportunities.

While one can see why tournament directors want domestic players in their main draws, there is an argument that they are actually having the opposite effect. The majority of wildcards do not progress particularly deep into a tournament, meaning that they often lose between Monday and Wednesday. Is there not an argument that by making them play in qualifying on the previous Saturday and Sunday, it means that there is more interest for the larger crowds that can turn up at weekends than during the week?

So, how can the wildcard system be made fairer? The first option is simply to scrap the wildcard system altogether. If your ranking is good enough to qualify for a tournament, then you qualify for the tournament. If it is not good enough, then you do not qualify. There is certainly an argument to adopt this, but there are certainly aspects of the wildcard system that are beneficial.

One simple rule to start might be to limit the number of wildcards that any one player can accept in a season. This might mean that wildcards are spread around the players slightly more than they are now. Instead of Jack Sock taking seven wildcards per year at the expense of other players, if he were restricted to three, then he would have to think about which tournaments to prioritise. If he decided not to use one of his three allocated spots, then other players would get the opportunity to impress.

While tournament directors clearly like to see well-known names at their tournaments, it is difficult to really justify wildcards going to players in their thirties and on the decline. The likes of Paul-Henri Mathieu, James Blake, Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis have received 38 wildcards between them during this period. Rather, one cannot help but feel that these wildcards would be more suited to younger players. Maybe there should be a limit that only one wildcard may go to a player over a certain age?
Grega Zemlja earned a Wimbledon wildcard in 2012 by winning the Nottingham Challenger

In terms of promoting fairness and competition, one of the strongest suggestions that I have is that there is an increase in merit-based wildcards. There are two wildcard tournaments for the Australian Open – one for Asian players and one for American players. The winner of these wildcard tournaments is given a wildcard into the Australian Open. One of the Wimbledon wildcards in 2012 was awarded to Grega Zemlja as a result of his title at the Nottingham Challenger event two weeks earlier. One of the US Open wildcards is given to the American player that collects the most points in a series of Challenger events in the months before the tournament. Instead of being handed a wildcard, you are earning the wildcard.

There is a strong argument for increasing the number of these merit-based wildcards, not just for Grand Slam events. One option is that each Grand Slam could have an associated Challenger event, where the prize for the champion is a wildcard into that slam. Just as Wimbledon used Nottingham, the French Open could use the Bordeaux Challenger that takes place just two weeks before Roland Garros. The Australian Open could either encourage the West Lakes Challenger to move to before the slam or could strike a deal with the Noumea Challenger. The US Open could continue to use its current system of whichever player gains the most points in a series of American Challengers, but open that up to players of all nationalities, rather than limit it to just Americans.

An alternative might be to introduce a series of wildcard events similar to those for the Australian Open, but open to players of all nationalities. There are currently two of these events, but one is only open to Asian players and one is only open to American players. Instead of this, why not hold five wildcard events across five continents – North and South America, Asia, Australia and Europe. These tournaments would be open to any entrants in the same way that other tournaments are, but the prize being a wildcard into the next Grand Slam and each tournament would take place on the same surface that the associated Grand Slam takes place on. With a 32-player draw in each tournament, it would mean that 160 players would be playing for the five available wildcards.

Additionally, for Grand Slam events, I would like to see the previous year’s junior champion given a wildcard into the main draw as a further prize. The player has clearly demonstrated great talent and ability on the surface to win the junior edition, so I would feel that there is a strong argument for rewarding them with an opportunity in the main draw.

Combining these various measures for Grand Slams would mean that six of the eight main draw wildcards are awarding on a merit-based scale. You would have the five wildcard-tournament winners and the previous year’s junior champion. Two wildcards would still remain to be awarded at the discretion of the tournament director.

Given the prestige of the Grand Slam events, combined with the ranking points and prize money on offer, I believe that it is only fair that these events award their wildcards on merit. Otherwise, it does run the real risk of distorting the rankings for those players fortunate enough to be born in the right place at the right time, rather than those players that have earned their spot.

For regular ATP and WTA events, the issue is slightly less important. However, I would still like to see a change in the wildcard system. There could be similar links between certain ATP/WTA events and Challenger events, or possibly even high-level junior events, particularly the Grade A and Grade 1 events. This could even work in a tournament's favour by creating an attachment to that particular tournament among future up-and-coming stars, who may then return once they have made it big in the game.
By winning the Copa Barranquilla, maybe Olga Fridman should earn a wildcard
into the WTA event in Bogota?
To give a few examples, maybe the winner of the junior Grade 1 Copa Barranquilla, which takes place in Barranquilla in Colombia, could earn a wildcard into the WTA Bogota event. The winner of the junior Grade 1 Mediterranee Avenir event in Casablanca, Morocco, could earn a wildcard into the ATP Casablanca or the WTA Marrakech events. Maybe the winner of the indoor Texas Challenger event could earn a wildcard into the Memphis ATP event. The winner of the women’s $100k event in Cagnes-Sur-Mer could be rewarded with a wildcard into the WTA Strasbourg event. There are countless possible links that could be formed.

However, the main change that I would like to see here are fewer main draw wildcards, replaced by more wildcards into qualifying. It would give fans the chance to watch their local players in qualifying over the weekend, while players would have to earn their place in the main draw. You would no longer get the same players parachuted into the main draw. While they may get a spot in qualifying that belies their ranking, they would still have the opportunity to prove themselves.
There are obviously many ways that the wildcard system can be tweaked. I have mentioned a few, but they are by no means the only options. However, in conclusion, I would suggest an annual limit on individuals accepting wildcards, a transfer of wildcards from main draw to qualifying and a substantial increase in merit-based wildcards. Does that completely solve the wildcard issue? Of course not. However, it would help to spread wildcards across arguably more deserving players.


  1. I'm a year late but I just wanted to say this was an excellent article. Thanks for wiring it.

  2. Great. Thank you for such a good informative writing.

  3. Tennis player can get wildcard for main draw if it is within the average rating of players in qualification.

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  4. Excellent article and well argued. I'M a new fan to tennis and have already picked up the biases towards certain players.

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