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.