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The surprisingly simple truth about wild cards

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Wimbledon announced its wild cards on Wednesday. Erik Jonsson of Tennisportalen in Sweden found the “guidelines” for the use of wild cards. You should click on this hyperlink here and read the guidelines.

The bottom line about wild cards — which fit into a larger discussion about the tensions between change and consistency in tennis — is simpler than you might think.

I could launch into a complicated sermon about the need to change the way in which wild cards are handed out. I could argue for merit-based wild cards as opposed to discretionary wild cards. I could lay out a five-point plan. I could go about this issue in many ways from many angles…

… but I will keep things short and simple.

If a major tournament — whose first-round losers pocket nearly $50,000 and get a paycheck which goes a long way toward at least breaking even financially for the year — is essentially deciding who gets to either play in the first round of the main draw, or who gets to participate in quallies at the expense of others, that represents an enormous conflict of interest in a sport where earnings come from results, not from salary.

A lot has been said in recent weeks — from Vasek Pospisil and Taylor Fritz, from Billie Jean King on a podcast, and elsewhere — about the amount of money a pro tennis player needs to make in a year to turn a profit (or merely survive and stay afloat). The large (appropriate large, I should clarify) first-round paychecks at majors, with their 128-player draws, the largest in tennis, represent the main gateway toward financial stability for the full tours.

The majors give the greatest number of players the best chance to fatten their wallets and earn an amount of money which can enable them to devote more resources to better coaching and sports medicine. This is generally known and understood throughout the industry. If you didn’t really grasp this before, no problem: Now you should.

So… very simply, with all this in mind:

Should the four major tournaments be able to declare, from their positions of immense influence, who gets into the main draw or quallies, given everything else we know about tennis governance, tennis administration, tennis scheduling, tennis leadership, and tennis economics?

I consider that a rhetorical question… but let me drive home the point with one equally simple follow-up.

You are familiar with my old enemy, split-session semifinals at tennis tournaments. At Roland Garros, we didn’t have “split-session” semifinals in the truest sense, but we did see — in a different context — how the flaws in a tennis schedule created an imbalance between the two finalists on the men’s side, Rafael Nadal (extra rested) and Dominic Thiem (extra tired).

Nadal (to reiterate what I wrote on the day of the Roland Garros final) was the better player. He deserved to win. Yet, the point about noting the imbalanced schedules was (and always is) that we were left to wonder if the outcome would have been different under adjusted circumstances.

That is the basic point about split-session semifinals. They don’t necessarily DETERMINE who wins and loses, but they ALMOST ALWAYS leave us wondering what would have happened if the roles had been reversed — if Player A had played second late at night, and Player B had played first, early in the afternoon?

The point in these discussions ISN’T that the scheduling decided the outcome; it’s that the scheduling placed a cloud of uncertainty over the outcome.

We shouldn’t have clouds of uncertainty in tennis (or any sport) if we can reasonably avoid creating them.

Wild cards, very plainly, create these same clouds of uncertainty for players trying to make a living.

This person here, by largely arbitrary standards, gets a first-round paycheck, while that person over there does not.

Don’t we already have a sport in which outside entities have far too much control over the players and their circumstances and working conditions?

We shouldn’t continue to have these clouds of uncertainty in which players such as Nicolas Mahut (pictured in the photo attached to this story) are denied main-draw wild cards (Mahut’s John Isner match at Wimbledon obviously didn’t give him enough leverage for that), while players who are objectively achieving less on the court are given these precious passes.

You know a sport possesses comparatively more integrity and fairness when people can’t legitimately question the motives or procedures involved in establishing eligibility for participation in that sport’s foremost competitions.

Tennis would possess comparatively more integrity and fairness if wild cards were abolished and rankings or matches were the sole determinants of who gets in and who doesn’t.

As things stand right now, though, people CAN legitimately question the motives of the sport and its four major tournaments.

This is why the wild card issue doesn’t need a five-point plan or a thick book of nuanced explanations.

The wild card issue needs a simple abolition of the policy… which would remove clouds of uncertainty from Wimbledon Village and the other three places where major-tournament tennis is played each year.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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