Which Tournaments Award Competitive Wild Cards?

For the last two days, we’ve looked at tour-level wild cards from various angles.  Many top players never received any; others have gotten plenty but never taken much advantage.  Still others have managed to prop up their rankings with occasional wild cards despite not having the game to take themselves to the next level.

Wild cards are perhaps most interesting from a structural perspective.  Every tournament gets to give away between three and eight free spots in the main draw, and what they do with them is fascinating.  Events must pick from among several priorities: Bring in the best possible players to build a competitive field? Award places to big names, even if they are unlikely to win more than a single match?  Support national objectives (and perhaps invest in future fan interest) by handing the places to the best rising stars the home country has to offer?

Obviously, these priorities conflict.  The Canada Masters events give out most of their wild cards to Canadians–56 of the last 59.  But those local favorites have failed to win even one quarter of their matches, the second worst record for home-country wild cards among the current Masters events.  Wimbledon is the least home-friendly of the Grand Slams, but perhaps it is still too friendly, as British wild cards have won barely one in five matches over the last 15 years.  Lately, it has been even worse.

The dilemma is most pronounced for tournaments in countries without a strong tennis presence.  These events generally hand out most of their wild cards to non-locals, saving a few for the best the homeland has to offer.  Dubai, for instance, has only awarded 10 of its last 42 wild cards to Emiratis.  Unfortunately, those guys have gone 0-10.  The story is similar in Doha and Kuala Lumpur.

A different approach is evident in Tokyo, the only remaining tournament in Japan.  These days, the 32-player draw only gives the event three wild cards to work with.  The tournament isn’t wasting spots on outsiders: Every wild card since 1992 has gone to a Japanese player.  The local wild cards have done better than we might guess, winning almost 30% of their matches, good for 45th among the 65 tournaments I looked at.

In fact, there is not a strong correlation between home-country favoritism and poor wild-card performance.  Of long-running tournaments, Newport has seen their wild cards have the most success, winning more than half their matches.  Next on the list is Halle, also a bit better than half.  But the two tournaments take drastically different approaches to local players.  Newport only awards 63% of its WCs to Americans–second-lowest among tourneys in the USA.  Halle, on the other hand, gives nearly all of its free spots to Germans.

When discussing the structural biases of the wild card system, it’s easy to pick on the USA.  America hosts far more tournaments than any other country, and thus US events have the most wild cards at their discretion.  Many of those decisions are made by a single organization, the USTA.  But US tournaments are far from consistent in their approach.

The US Open is by far the most nationalistic of the Grand Slams, having awarded about 85% of its WCs in the last 15 years to US players.  The French comes next at 78%, then the Australian at 69%, followed by Wimbledon at 67%.  But even that understates the case.  Take out the French reciprocal wild cards since 2008 and the Australian reciprocals since 2005, and 100 of the last 105 wild cards in Flushing have represented the home nation.

Yet as we’ve seen, Newport shows less home-country favoritism than almost any other ATP event, and the Miami Masters is even more extreme, living up to its billing as the “South American Slam” by giving barely half of its wild cards to US players.  Even the most biased US tournament (aside from the Open) is the clay court event in Houston, which isn’t even in the top third of all events, handing out “only” 86% of wild cards to Americans.

The problem isn’t the behavior of US tournament officials–if anything, they are more international in their thinking than their colleagues in other countries.  Instead, their priorities–put home-country players on the court; amass a competitive field–combined with the sheer number of US events, result in one wild card after another for a small group of Americans and no equivalent advantages for players from countries that do not host tour-level events.

After the jump, find a table with many of the numbers I’ve referred to throughout this post.  All tour-level events that took place in 2011 or 2012 are included, and data goes back to 1998. homeWC% is percentage of WCs that went to home- country players, WCW% is the winning percentage of all wild cards, and hWCW% is win% of all wild cards from the home country.  I’ve excluded wild cards who were seeded, since those are usually just late entries, and don’t reflect tournament priorities in the same way that other WCs do.  For a sortable table with even more data, click here.

Tourney               Cty  WCs  hWCs  homeWC%   WCW%  hWCW%  
Johannesburg          RSA    9     9   100.0%  55.0%  55.0%  
Bucharest             ROU   39    39   100.0%  36.1%  36.1%  
Hamburg               GER   57    57   100.0%  36.0%  36.0%  
Tokyo                 JPN   60    60   100.0%  29.4%  29.4%  
Eastbourne            GBR   36    35    97.2%  44.4%  39.7%  
Rome Masters          ITA   62    60    96.8%  36.7%  36.8%  
Paris Masters         FRA   43    41    95.3%  33.8%  33.9%  
Sydney                AUS   40    38    95.0%  40.3%  40.6%  
Canada Masters        CAN   59    56    94.9%  27.2%  24.3%  
Zagreb                CRO   19    18    94.7%  26.9%  28.0%  
Stuttgart             GER   50    47    94.0%  35.9%  34.7%  
Buenos Aires          ARG   29    27    93.1%  38.3%  35.7%  
Halle                 GER   42    39    92.9%  51.9%  53.8%  
Metz                  FRA   25    23    92.0%  40.5%  39.5%  
Montpellier           FRA   36    33    91.7%  37.9%  38.9%  
Rotterdam             NED   42    38    90.5%  28.8%  29.6%  
Moscow                RUS   40    36    90.0%  28.6%  29.4%  
Brisbane              AUS   39    35    89.7%  45.7%  44.3%  
Bastad                SWE   44    39    88.6%  38.0%  36.1%  
Costa Do Sauipe       BRA   35    31    88.6%  33.3%  24.4%  
Gstaad                SUI   41    36    87.8%  21.2%  16.3%  
Houston               USA   36    31    86.1%  44.1%  49.1%  
Vienna                AUT   36    31    86.1%  36.8%  29.5%  
Munich                GER   40    34    85.0%  37.5%  37.0%  
US Open               USA  118   100    84.7%  29.8%  30.1%  
Casablanca            MAR   39    33    84.6%  22.4%  17.9%  
Stockholm             SWE   38    32    84.2%  49.3%  48.3%  
Estoril               POR   35    29    82.9%  37.0%  34.1%  
Memphis               USA   44    36    81.8%  44.3%  40.0%  
Los Angeles           USA   37    30    81.1%  41.0%  40.0%  
Santiago              CHI   36    29    80.6%  32.7%  33.3%  
Kitzbuhel             AUT   46    37    80.4%  34.3%  31.5%  
Winston-Salem         USA    5     4    80.0%  44.4%  50.0%  
Valencia              ESP   35    28    80.0%  34.0%  24.3%  
Marseille             FRA   34    27    79.4%  50.0%  45.8%  
Barcelona             ESP   62    49    79.0%  38.6%  38.0%  
Roland Garros         FRA  119    93    78.2%  29.2%  32.1%  
Basel                 SUI   36    28    77.8%  40.0%  33.3%  
Delray Beach          USA   36    28    77.8%  28.0%  22.2%  
Cincinnati Masters    USA   57    44    77.2%  45.2%  42.9%  
St. Petersburg        RUS   42    32    76.2%  38.2%  30.4%  
Atlanta               USA    8     6    75.0%  38.5%  45.5%  
Madrid Masters        ESP   35    26    74.3%  38.6%  31.6%  
San Jose              USA   42    31    73.8%  41.4%  46.4%  
Chennai               IND   42    31    73.8%  26.3%  22.5%  
Belgrade              SRB   11     8    72.7%  31.3%  33.3%  
Washington            USA   54    39    72.2%  36.1%  32.8%  
Nice                  FRA    7     5    71.4%  36.4%  16.7%  
Beijing               CHN   24    17    70.8%  36.8%  22.7%  
Australian Open       AUS  119    82    68.9%  28.3%  28.7%  
Shanghai Masters      CHN   16    11    68.8%  20.0%  15.4%  
s-Hertogenbosch       NED   34    23    67.6%  45.8%  37.8%  
Wimbledon             GBR  110    74    67.3%  31.9%  20.4%  
Indian Wells Masters  USA   70    47    67.1%  48.1%  47.8%  
Acapulco              MEX   39    26    66.7%  36.1%  16.1%  
Umag                  CRO   43    28    65.1%  34.8%  33.3%  
Newport               USA   38    24    63.2%  53.2%  46.7%  
Auckland              NZL   42    26    61.9%  23.6%  21.2%  
Queen's Club          GBR   64    39    60.9%  37.9%  31.6%  
Miami Masters         USA   76    42    55.3%  38.0%  34.4%  
Bangkok               THA   28    12    42.9%  24.3%  14.3%  
Doha                  QAT   43    13    30.2%  32.3%   0.0%  
Dubai                 UAE   42    10    23.8%  24.1%   0.0%  
Kuala Lumpur          MAS   12     2    16.7%  45.5%   0.0%  
Monte Carlo Masters   MON   57     8    14.0%  42.3%  27.3%
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3 Comments

Filed under U.S. Open, Wild cards

3 responses to “Which Tournaments Award Competitive Wild Cards?

  1. It’s really odd to me that the US Open is so nationalistic. It seems reasonable to have more local players at smaller events (to make the crowd happy), but philosophically speaking it seems like majors should have a more international flavor. I suppose the USTA likes to hedge its bets by awarding more US wild cards at the event with the most ranking points, though…

    • Remember, as well, that the USTA isn’t just a body that runs tournaments — it is an organization trying to develop young American stars. If I had guys I thought were the next big things and could put them directly in a grand slam main draw, I’d be awfully tempted!

    • Michael K.

      Keep in mind America has a population of over 300M but the USO has the same # of wildcards as much smaller slam countries Australia, France, and UK.

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