Are Wildcards Wildly Unfair?
July 9th 2001 – Goren Ivanišević defeats Pat Rafter in the Mens Wimbledon Singles Final. On his road to the title he had to defeat Grand Slam winner and former world number 1 Carlos Moya, soon to be Grand slam winner and world number 1 Andy Roddick, former British number 1 Greg Rusedski, multiple Grand Slam winner and former world number number 1 Marat Safin, British world number 1 Tim Henman, and then Pat Rafter, a former world number 1 and 2 time Grand Slam champion. It was by no means an easy run for the 6 foot 4 Croatian, especially considering at the time he was ranked 125th in the world. So how did he even manage to get into a tournament of the top 104 ranked players in the world plus 16 qualifiers? Simple, he was a Wildcard, and it was the first time ever a wildcard won a Singles Grand Slam.
This was obviously an amazing achievement, but it wasn’t as if Ivanišević had never tasted success before. He had been Runner Up at Wimbledon 3 times before, had reached number 2 in the world 7 years prior, and had 21 ATP titles to his name. After struggling with shoulder injuries between 1999 and 2001, it meant Ivaniševićs ranking dropped massively. By Wimbledon 2001, he was fit and healthy to play, but his ranking was not good enough to automatically get into the main draw, ergo, the wildcard.
This year, at Wimbledon again, 15 year old American Coco Gauff got a wildcard into qualifying, and then advanced through to the 4th round. Instances like that make you think wow, aren’t wildcards fantastic. And they are. However there is unfortunately a flaw, and it won’t ever get fixed.
Wildcards are allocated by the discretion of the tournament organisers, or by winning a particular event. For example at Wimbledon this year, there were 6 mens wildcards. 3 of these were British players, and then there was Marco Baghdatis, a legend of the game and former Wimbledon semi finalist who retired after the championships, another legend and Queens Club championship winner Feliciano Lopez, and finally Dominik Koepfer, who won the Ilkley Trophy and subsequently gained a wildcard entry. So out of the 6 wildcards given in the Mens singles main draw, 3 were British. In the remaining 33 wildcards given out in main draw events, 29 were British. Now that is great for British support and British Tennis, but here is the problem, is it unfair? If we look at the other majors, it is the same story. At the Australian Open, 46 of the 60 wildcards were Australian. At Roland Garros, 49 out of 54 wildcards were French. At the US Open, 55 out of the 60 wildcards were American.
Obviously in the Grand Slams, organisers want to put in home players, showcase and get the support of the local crowd. This is not just in majors, but Masters do this as well. The problem however, arises for players such as Elias Ymer. Elias is from Sweden, 23 years old, currently ranked 113 in the world, and has a career high of 105. Now obviously, there are no Majors, or Masters in Sweden. The highest tier tournament that takes place in Sweden are 250s. Elias has therefore never received a wildcard entry into a Major or Masters, but he has still managed to play 7 matches in the main draw of majors, all of which he achieved by passing through qualifying.
The 3 British wildcard entries in Wimbledon this year, all had higher rankings than Ymer, with Clarke at 169, Ward at 195, and Jubb at 431. In terms of points, losing in the 3rd round of Qualifying will give you more ranking points than losing in the 1st round of the main draw. At the end of the day though, 6 ranking points aren’t going to change your career. What could change your career however, is money. If you get knocked out in the 1st Round of Wimbledon, Wildcard or not, you will receive £45,000. If you lose in the 3rd Round of Qualifying, even after winning 2 matches, you will only receive £22,500. That is a big difference in money, especially with players ranked between 120 and 200 in the world, who are earning around £100,000 a year on average. That is a quarter of their yearly prize money. With travelling costs, taxes, coaching fees, etc, players are losing at least over half of that money on expenses, so an extra £22,500 would certainly come in handy.
The wildcard stories of Coco Gauff and Goren Ivanišević are great, but that rarely happens. In the last 6 years of Wimbledon, there have been 42 British Men and Women who have been given a wildcard into the singles main draw. Of those 42, 33 have subsequently been knocked out in the 1st Round, which means that in 6 years, the All England Club has paid out £1.1M to unsuccessful British hopefuls.
This is not an attack on Wimbledon or British players, as the case is almost identical at the other Grand Slams. The issue comes back to the fact that a player such as Elias Ymer, who has no control over his nationality, has very little chance of ever getting a wildcard into a Major or even a Masters, and when it is so close in the rankings over 100, point wise and money wise, a little helping hand could really make the difference.