Let’s blame Nick Kyrgios. He frequently throws himself under the media bus. He did the same on Sunday when he withdrew from his first-round match at Roland Garros against countryman and qualifier Bernard Tomic. Nick still had concerns about his injury-prone left elbow, choosing to rest and return down the road rather than risk more problems.
But with his late withdrawal, who would get Kyrgios’s main-draw berth? Enter the lucky losers, those players who didn’t make it through the qualification tournament but were next in line to enter the main draw if players such as Kyrgios withdrew before round one.
This year, there’s an added upside to the happy term: Now “lucky losers” will get half the earnings from a round-one berth, splitting it with the player who stepped aside. This payout wouldn’t have happened last year in Paris or at any major tournament — at least not until two critical first-round matches at Wimbledon last year, out of seven total, prodded the Grand Slam Board to get with the times.
Those two first-round matches featured none other than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. They were cut short when their opponents quit before the matches ended, citing injury. Imagine having purchased a ticket, having settled in your seat, having your dream fulfilled — watching Federer or Djokovic — and, boom, the match ends with a flop. Talk about unfulfilled expectations. Fans threw a fit, and rightly so.
The Association of Tennis Professionals had already recognized this entry point for tournaments as problematic: Who, even if injured, wanted to give up prize money, when he could retire after a few games and bank the paycheck? Yet, the ATP’s rule differs from the one developed by the Grand Slam Board. At an ATP-sanctioned match, the withdrawing player gets 100 percent of the first-round prize money. The Grand Slam Board, however, chose to share the money between the two players.
“‘The Grand Slam rule states that in order to get 50 percent of the prize money, a player must officially withdraw after noon on the Thursday before the tournament begins,’” The New York Times reported last November.
With a whopping 14.29 percent increase in payout for players in the first round of Roland Garros, it means lucky losers will be much happier. Kyrgios will be paid €20,000 and his replacement will earn the same.
The rule and prize money boost sounds tidy, yet they’ve gotten a workout on day one of the French Open: Eight main-draw players, which includes Kyrgios, have withdrawn.
Lucky Loser Mohamed Safwat of Egypt stepped on Court Phillippe Chatrier for the first time in his career on Sunday, after getting the notice one hour before the match that Victor Troicki had withdrawn against fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov. The 27-year-old Safwat said his chance was a “dream come true,” according to the BBC. He had never set foot on this hallowed court and became the first Egyptian man to play at a Grand Slam in 22 years.
“‘I had always seen it on television, but never managed to have that experience, so it was enjoyable,’” Safwat said, after losing to Dimtrov, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(1).
Safwat got his chance because he was mindful that although the cutoff day for withdrawing had passed, main draw players just might pull out at the last moment. Therefore, he signed in with the tournament as ready and able to play Sunday morning, an option that has long been part of tennis. He was the only one who did that as well, which leaves the question unanswered: Who will play Bernard Tomic first thing Monday morning?
As the drama of the situation stretched deep into the afternoon, news spread that Tomic’s probable opponent, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, had already zipped off to a Challenger tournament in Vicenza, Italy. As Ben Rothenberg wrote on Twitter, “This is an unlucky loser.”
Marco Trungelliti, however, hadn’t yet registered for another tournament. This gave him the ability (but also the pressure) to reverse engines, literally, and hurry back to Paris from Barcelona to play Tomic. From the pictures posted on Twitter, he, plus a carload of supporters, packed into a small car, court bags on laps but all smiles. Contrast that with the private jet services the likes of Federer use to hop from tournament to tournament.
The next challenge for the Grand Slam Board: paying room accommodation fees for those qualifiers who just may want to stick around a day or two, waiting from their big Lucky Loser opportunity.