Wild Cards–Coveted and Appealing, but are they Beneficial?

Wild Cards. Those exciting, compelling tournament entries that everybody who hasn’t gotten direct acceptance wants. But as we look deeper into wild cards, you begin to notice very obvious trends on who receives them and how those players fare. We all want our favorite players to get wild cards, because that gives them an opportunity to play in upper level tournaments where they can play the best players and improve their ranking rapidly. However, research proves that often times accepting too many wild cards hurt a players development. Let’s take a look into who get’s wildcards, why they get them, and how they play in those matches. We will focus on a few players throughout.

Who Get’s ‘Em?

There are 61 ATP World Tour stand alone tournaments, 4 Grand Slams and in 2013 there were 149 Challenger tour events. At every level wild cards are given out. Slams give out 8 WC’s, Masters 1000’s 4 0r 5, and 500+250 events award 3. A number of things is taken into consideration when a tournament decides who to give a WC to, but predominately they are awarded to players from that tournaments country. Along with that, tournaments like to give WC’s to young players who have shown promise, players who can draw in fans, or older players who have a strong reputation but couldn’t get direct acceptance.

The real problem: not every country is equal, and this equates to a very uneven distribution of wild cards. For all the problems and discussion about the state of American tennis, guess who receives the most WC’s? Yepp, Americans, and it’s not even close. The USA is the only country to have  more than one Masters 1000, we have *three*(Indian Wells, Miami, and Cincinnati). We also have a Grand Slam(US Open), one 500, and 6 250’s. That is BY FAR the most tournaments for any country. And, not so coincidentally, our players receive the largest chunk of WC’s. Research by Jeff Sackmann in 2012 stated that the top 200 players of that time had received 748 WC’s before the age of 25. 139 of those, or 18.6%, went to just 7 American players–Mardy Fish, Donald Young, Ryan Harrison, Jesse Levine, John Isner, Sam Querrey and James Blake.

Now, you would think that said WC’s would help those players. But in most cases it does not. Let’s go case by case on three players: Donald Young, Jack Sock, and Ryan Harrison.

Donald Young

DY is the most infamous WC failure case of all time, and it wasn’t really his fault. Young reached the number 1 ranking in Juniors as a 15 year old, something unheard of at the time. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon Junior championships, garnering major attention from the USTA and tennis fans everywhere. With that hype came a lot of opportunities. Young has received 27(!!) main draw wildcards in his career, as well as 7 other tour level qualifying WC’s. His record in those tournaments is abysmal. He’s 14-34 overall, and he lost in the first round an astounding 25 times. And the real problem was that, as a 15 year old, he was getting main draw WC’s into Masters 1000 events, where he just was not physically or mentally mature enough to compete at that level. Through his first 10 WC’s, Young never reached the age of  18. He went 2-10, and lost in the first round 9 times.

Jack Sock

This is the guy that really sparked me to write this blog. I’ve followed him pretty closely over the last 3-4 years, and he seems to get more WC’s than anybody on tour. And it’s somewhat understandable. Sock was dominant as a US Junior. He won the USTA Junior National’s in Kalamazoo two years in a row, and wan’t even challenged too much in those tournaments. He was a man among boys. Jack’s serve and forehand are no doubt top 30 strokes. Combine all of that and what do you get? Wild cards, lots and lots of wild cards. Not counting this week’s tournament in Delray Beach, where Sock has a WC, he’s received 18 tour level wild cards. His record is 12-18, with 9 first round losses.

Something I came across that was fascinating to me, was an article from The Changeover, comparing Jack Sock and Denis Kudla. Sock beat Kudla in the 2010 US Open Juniors final, and both have been touted as American hopefuls. From May 2012 to May of 2013, their tennis lives were completely different. Sock received 9 WC’s, Kudla 1. Jack Sock’s wild cards guaranteed him over three times as much money as the lone wild card Denis Kudla received. The exact figure for the difference in guaranteed money was $48,610. That money can be crucial for youngsters trying to make it on tour. But the most fascinating thing is this: at the end of those 12 months, Kudla was the higher ranked player, at #115, while Sock was at #118. Denis qualified into a few tour events, and kept his head down and worked hard at the challenger level.

Ryan Harrison

As I researched Ryan I thought that he would have received less than the previous two, but he’s right there in between Sock and Young. Harrison also garnered a lot of attention(noticing a trend?) when he qualified and won a main draw match in Houston as a 15 year, the second younger player in the history of the ATP to do so. So Harrison started getting chances to play in big events at a very young age. He’s received 24 main draw wild cards, and although his record is a little better than the other two(18-24), he lost in the first round 12 times.

The Problem For All Three

Young, Sock, and Harrison all have different stories, but they share the same problem. Young was gifted everything as he transitioned from the Juniors to the Pro circuit. He had a couple nice results, but loss after loss in the first round does terrible things to a player. Eventually, in 2010-2011, Donald stopped getting WC’s, and dropped down to the challenger circuit. He started playing more matches, winning more matches, and that gave him confidence, after reaching the round of 16 at the 2011 US Open, Young got his ranking all the way up to 39, doing it the “hard” way. Of course he has since fallen off the grid, losing something like 17 straight first round matches, but has once again worked hard in the minors to inch his way back into the top 100, even playing in Davis Cup a couple weeks ago. However, those WC’s did terrible things to DY. His attitude is not good, and that is probably because of a multitude of things, but being handed everything certainly contributed to that attitude and persona.

For Sock, the problem is similar, but slightly different. Because he’s getting around 8 WC’s a year, he can play a lot of tour events. But one of Jack’s biggest issues has been his fitness, and when you’re losing first round every other week, that really hurts. His motivation to improve is just not good enough. His talent is off the charts, but he’s unwilling to sure up his backhand, and work hard to get on the same playing field physically as his peers.

Harrison had some nice results and cracked the top 50, and for about 8-9 months was playing exclusive at the tour level. But now that he’s dropped back down in the rankings, he is struggling to get back to where he was. There is no doubt in my mind that Ryan wants to be great, you can see it in his eyes every time he plays–except when he’s playing a challenger. When he’s playing at the lower level it appears he thinks he’s above his opposition. Last year, he had just come off a good result in Atlanta, making the Semis. He then travelled to Aptos to play a challenger. He played James Mcgee in the first round, and you could tell by his attitude and remarks that he thought he was 5 levels above James. Mcgee won the match because of it. Harrison has it engrained in his mind that he should be playing at the tour level, when really he needs to earn it, and prove he belongs there.

All three of these guys should take a page out of the next few players books.

Dominic Thiem

Thiem just had a great week in Rotterdam, taking Andy Murray to three sets. Similar to the three above players, Thiem was a highly touted junior. He reached the French Open final and won the Orange Bowl. However, he’s only received 7 main draw wildcards, and he’s 6-7 in those tournaments. Other than that, Thiem has done it the hard way, playing challengers and qualifying into tour events. In 2014, he’s qualified into Doha, Melbourne, and Rotterdam. This gives him match experience and toughness. (Speaking of toughness, have you read this article on Thiem fitness coach?) He’s gotten his ranking up inside the top 100 because of it.

Jiri Vesely

This one is even more extreme. Vesely has only been awarded *ONE* main draw wild card into tour events, and only 7 into challenger events(imagine if I counted American challenger WC’s?). He played 2013 almost exclusive at the challenger level, amassing a lot of points by going deep into almost every tournament he played. He’s now up to #81 in the world and has the chance to prove himself on the main tour.

Bradley Klahn

Now an American comparison. BK went a different route than Young, Sock, and Harrison, and decided to play college tennis before turning professional. He’s received a grand total of *THREE* wildcards, two of those to San Jose when he was playing across the bay at Stanford. Klahn has not been handed anything since graduating college, except for a WC into last years US Open. Instead he’s been grinding, working, and doing everything he can to improve. He’s now up to #67 in the world, and in great position to break the top 50. Think BK has a problem playing challengers? Does he feel entitled? Nope.

Conclusion and Solution

What I’m trying to say is that Young, Sock, Harrison, and all other American players who get numerous WC’s, are being halted in their progression. International players, who don’t have the same opportunities, are doing things the old fashioned way, and earning their place in tournaments. Obviously the blame can’t be put solely on the shoulder of young American players, because who wouldn’t take a WC into a tour event? But something has to change.

I think there needs to be a more merit-based system for awarding WC’s. There’s some of that now, such as the Australian Open Wildcard playoff, which forces players to win 3 matches to get a wildcard into the Aussie. Wimbledon has a great system. The winner of the Nottingham challenger(a grass court challenger a couple weeks before London) gets a WC into the main draw of Wimby. We need more WC’s to be given out like this.

My final idea might be an unpopular one. I think there should be a limit to the number of wild cards a player can receive per year. I think 4 is more than enough, but even that would force players to earn their way up the rankings. Either limit a players WC entries, or reduce the amount of WC’s each tournament gives out.

Keep in my mind that both Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic never received a main draw WC before they were 25. Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer were awarded a grand total of *2*.

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13 thoughts on “Wild Cards–Coveted and Appealing, but are they Beneficial?

  1. Interesting stuff. I haven’t considered it much, but it makes sense how wildcards can hurt a player’s development. I’m not sure if the same applies for wildcards into futures and challenger events. It’s really hard to get your career off the ground if you have to play qualies to get into the smallest tournaments. It would be interesting to see where Donald Young and Ryan Harrison would be at if they hadn’t received wildcards. Definitely interesting to think about how college fits into this. You got into that a little with Klahn. I expected it to be a very good thing for Stevie. When he was in college, it was like he didn’t know how to lose. I hoped that would carry over onto the tour, but it seems like the case is that he doesn’t know how to handle losing. He has still been fairly successful on tour. Excited to see how good Klahn, Johnson, and Williams can be.

    • Yes, WC’s into futures and wildcards are necessary. But same thing, there needs to be a limit. College allows players to mature. This teaches them that not everything in tennis is given to you, so I think there are distinct advantages to spending time as a member of a team.

  2. Well thought out and articulated. I always thought as well that wild cards were given out too often to the same players and they weren’t “earning” their way into the draws. I definitely sense an air of “entitlement” from those players mentioned. Very glad to see Klahn doing so well and by “earning” it the hard way. I like your idea to limit the number of wild cards given to each player. Great article.

  3. Good article. I have been following Klahn’s results this past year, and I hope he makes the transition to the ATP tour smoothly. Both Young and Harrison have benefited way too much from the hype generated by the American tennis press (see: Peter Bodo and Courtney Nguyen in particular), and from some “high profile” wins that were ultimately suspect (see: Young over Andy Murray at Indian Wells, and Harrison over an injured Isner at Atlanta). Both Young and Harrison are also “good on paper” for gaining American support, but are both so snarky on court that many fans seeing them play for the first time do not find them likable, and both come across as entitled jerks in the press. The best (worst?) example I saw of this was when Harrison played Milos Raonic at Indian Wells. The crowd started behind Harrison, but started pulling for Raonic (who may have been slightly injured) as the match went on. Harrison was a total jerk throughout, and I heard plenty of discussions on that subject in the stands. Sock is quite a bit more personable than the other two (from what I have seen), but definitely agree that he needs to get more match tough.

    • Thanks for the comment! I think Ryan cares so much that he comes off a lot more harsh than he actually is, but you’re right, he can be snarky. Sock might be more personable but I think that’s because he’s calm and doesn’t show much emotion.

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  6. Problem on the Klahn Wildcard – Klahn got the 2013 US Open wildcard BECAUSE HE WON THE USTA WILCARD CHALLENGE (see the process detailed in this article: http://www.usta.com/Pro-Tennis/Pro-Circuit/klahn_wins_first_challenger_in_aptos_claims_us_open_wild_card/ ) in the summer of 2013 – in other words he got the wildcard on merit. Steve Johnson got the same thing for the 2014 Australian Open ( http://www.usta.com/Pro-Tennis/johnson_vickery_win_australian_open_wild_card_playoffs/ ) when he beat Tennys Sandgren, Alex Kuznetsov ( http://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2013/05/kuznetsov-earns-usta-wild-card-french-open/47295/ ) the same when he won the wildcard for the 2013 French Open. This should put the results for Klahn more in context: he has no wildcards outside of San Jose. A wildcard on merit is not the same as the “gifts” Harrison received this year based on favoritism. Nothing against Harrison – best attitude in pro tennis. But his wilcards aren’t merit based – it’s more he’s a crowd favorite and the U.S. entries were “slim” on men’s side.

    My only reason for posting this is because it’s super important to make the distinctions regarding earning the wildcards. If you win one it’s not the same as being handed one – one suggests you earned it (you won a formal event to gain entry) and the other is based on something else (you convinced someone to give it and didn’t have to actually win a competition for it). Here’s another example: for Davis Cup selection basing a spot entirely on ranking vs. your fit with the current team – in one your points and playing get you in, in another it’s some other circumstances which aren’t based on merit.

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