There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but tennis has something close to it: wild cards.
A wild card grants entry into a tournament’s main draw or qualifying rounds for a pro who doesn’t make the ranking cutoff for a tournament. Tournament directors disburse them to reward up and comers, give a hand to players on the comeback trail and put butts in stadium seats.
Giving out wild cards, “really isn’t a hard process,” said Delray Beach’s tournament director, Mark Baron. “Hold it to the last minute for a marquee player. Then give it to an American. Then look for promising international players. Then after that maybe give it to the last guy who didn’t make the draw.”
Baron prioritizes wild cards for top stars because one year “we gave [all our wild cards] out and Andy Roddick wanted one a week before. We didn’t have any.” Losing Roddick because of tournament logistics was a huge blow; the tournament has only hosted three top 10 players since 2000.
Baron directs one of America’s longest-running tournaments when stateside tilts like Memphis are shuttering as the sport chases growth markets in South America and Asia, and America struggles to produce the next Pete Sampras and Serena Williams. Delray Beach doesn’t have the war chest that Larry Ellison’s Indian Wells has, nor does it attract the same attention and foot traffic. Wild cards could provide another way for a small tournament to gain more traction with fans and the marketplace, if a tournament were willing to experiment with them.
Generally, tournament directors approach wild cards the same way Baron does, doling out cards to home-grown talent if no big names suddenly want in after the entry deadline. Challenger and juniors tennis bettor Sportdw published a report a couple weeks ago that showed the top beneficiaries of wild cards hail from countries that host the most ATP tournaments.
On the surface, awarding wild cards to precocious compatriots makes a lot of sense. Fans root for another hometown player, the patriotic angle may lure more people and the crowd loves an underdog (unless your favorite is losing to one).
But people don’t cheer for chalk, because that’s what sport and life usually give us. And chalk means the young or low-ranked wild card loses the majority of the time, which could hurt the young guns’ development and ultimately the tournaments over the long run. The players are the draw after all.
Famed tennis coach Robert Lansdorp sees another danger. “null You can give a person a wild card and give them a chance in a tournament, and they suck up a storm! They do terrible. If they do lose, then make them play qualies in the next tournament.”
Lansdorp knows a thing or two about grooming young players to break through on the big stage. He honed Maria Sharapova’s world-class groundstrokes when she was 11 and shaped the games that made Sampras and Davenport Slam champions multiple times over. No woman since Sharapova has won a Slam in her teens. Improved athleticism, racquet tech and slowed court speeds have aged both tours considerably. It’s odd that this graying hasn’t greatly impacted the decision-making taking place inside the sport, including how most people think about wild cards.
Jose Higueras, the USTA’s Director of Coaching, isn’t most people. In July, he told Sports on Earth that “if it was up to me, there would be no wild cards.” That’s pretty surprising coming from an employee at an organization that gives out 16 wild cards to men and women every US Open, and that’s just for men’s and women’s singles. All 16 main draw wild cards have gone to players from Slam-hosting nations each of the last four years. (The Slam nations have agreements in place where they swap wild cards, so a Frenchwoman can play Wimbledon, for example. It’s good to be the four kings.)
Higueras doesn’t pick the wild cards himself. David Brewer, the US Open tournament director, works with a team of USTA officials to accomplish that. “I know that Patrick McEnroe and Jose Higueras have really moved to the idea that players have to earn their wild cards. They’ve instituted a race for a [US Open] wild card,” Brewer says. This race, along with the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge (HTUSTAPCWCC for not-so-short) that awards the winner a spot at the French, is proof positive that wild cards can reward performance and not popularity and patronage.
These playoffs are not as well-known as the weekly tournaments that comprise both tours’ schedules, which is a shame because they are a great showcase for hungry upstarts and veteran journeymen vying for a shot at the Slams, to say nothing of the potential prize money at stake. Winning a match at this year’s Australian Open netted players $43,389. $26,033 awaited the first-round losers.
Lansdorp also thinks tennis insiders have too much sway when it comes to the wild card process. “Agents say you sign with me and you get a wild card. People are dumb enough to think, my kid gets a wild card, he’s going to make it. It’s not going to create a champion. Look what [Ryan] Harrison is doing. He’s not doing anything. [Jack] Sock looks like a good player but wild cards are not going to help him.” Sam Duvall, a Lagardere tennis agent who reps Eugienie Bouchard and John Isner, said, “null They can be a great opportunity for players who have earned them. They can be used as a crutch for some.”
That’s the common criticism leveled at Jack Sock. But before you judge him, put yourself in Sock’s shoes for a minute. You’re the 88th best tennis player in the world. Only 87 people are better at what you do, out of 7.16 billion people. You’re improving, and you’re just 21. But so many people have already written you off, have sized up your game, your gait, your weight, everything about you, particularly your flaws, and have concluded that the sport has already passed you by.
Sock could be a great player. He could fizzle. There’s so much time for Sock. There’s enough time for him to play 50 more Slams. But people are paying more attention to the 19 wild cards he’s received over his career. He’s gone 13-19 in those tournaments.
Sock is just the recipient here, and it’s probably impossible to quantify how many wild cards are too many. The opportunity to play top competition and make a good chunk of change in a pricey sport is too good for him to pass up. “It’s not a knock on Jack,” Sam Duvall said. “He’s super talented. But this [wild card disparity] is a challenge that I have. Partly because I represent [Denis] Kudla.”
Kudla and Sock are both 21 and Kudla trails Sock just 20 places in the rankings, but Sock has received twice as many wild cards over their short careers. Another young American, Tennys Sandgren, has never received a main draw wild card in his career.
The deck is likewise stacked against players from less moneyed countries, particularly nations that don’t host the four Slams. Peanuts to the kid without a star agent or outsized talent who hails from a country with no tour-level tournaments at all. Czech lefty Jiri Vesely, who took Andy Murray to three sets a month ago, falls in this category. His strokes and serve are good but not great, and that may be the problem for him as far as attention goes. Without Milos Raonic’s serve, Grigor Dimitrov’s shotmaking and Kei Nishikori’s marketing potential, Vesely fails to turn sponsors’, agents’ and tournament directors’ heads.
I asked David Brewer if the wild card selection process hurts players from smaller markets like the Czech Republic. “It doesn’t seem to have hurt them too much.” That may be true for Jiri Vesely, who’s now ranked comfortably in the top 100, but for every success story there are scores of untold, failed attempts to make it on tour. Nearly a third of Sock’s career earnings have come from tournaments he received wild cards for. That goes a long way to covering the astronomical costs of playing tennis.
For promising interntional pros, for any player really, it helps to have the world’s biggest agencies in their corner. IMG Managing Director of Tennis Fernando Soler told FORBES, “We manage [British 19-year-old] Kyle Edmund. We thought he was ready to take a wild card into Chennai. Lost first round to Vasek Pospisil. We got him another one in Miami. The kid almost beats [Julien] Benneteau. In three months the kind of experience this kid has is unbelievable. Without wild cards, it could take him 18 months. Even though he lost, which isn’t the important thing, he feels he can play with these guys.”
Miami is one of the biggest non-Slam tournaments of the year. By virtue of his first-round loss, Edmund pocketed $9,165, more than four times the amount he took home from winning a Futures tournament a month earlier.
Miami is also owned by IMG. I asked Soler if he perceived a conflict of interest with IMG agents and IMG-repped players asking for wild cards from IMG-owned tournaments. “I think we have proven that we can deal with ourselves very nicely. We always have agents pushing for wild cards in our events. And we have tournament managers who want the best players for their tournaments. We’ve been doing it nicely for more than 50 years and so far no one has accused us of not doing the best for everybody.”
Duvall believes not being from IMG hurts his players’ chances of getting a wild card from tournaments the agency owns. “The party line is that they’re going to give it to their clients, and if they’re not, it’s going to someone who will be a really good story.” None of this is out of bounds, of course, and for Duvall, how IMG does business “makes total sense.”
IMG would be crazy not to leverage the assets and connections it’s accumulated. That’s why players continue to sign with the agency in droves. And many tennis insiders who spoke to FORBES about wild cards stressed that a player’s success on tour ultimately boils down to his or her skill and drive. If that’s the case then, tournaments should be more willing to take chances with how they use wild cards. Disburse wild cards for the qualifying rounds alone, making that lesser-known prelude to the tournament a better lead for the main course, and another way to publicize the tournament. If that’s too outré, make players earn wild cards through playoffs or give them to players on a recent tear, or players who have been out with some kind of tear, strain or illness. Expand the races for wild cards the Slams offer by giving cards to the top two or three performers in the series. Open up the wild card playoffs the Slams offer by having regional tourneys, where players from South America or Asia have a chance to get that Grand Slam cash. You could even reward lower-rung ITF event winners with a tour-level wild card, which would make up for the shoddy paycheck they’re sure to receive for winning at that level.
The home-grown wild card is the safe play, and wild cards are supposed to be anything but that. (Wild is in the name.) But to all the established interests in tennis, convincing them that alternatives even exist is a tough ask. “I’m sure if someone had a better way to give wild cards a lot of tournament directors would listen,” said Brewer.