Category Archives: Wild cards

Dodig’s Consistency, IBM’s Offensive, and Hopeless Wild Cards

Ivan Dodig just missed out on a seeding at this year’s US Open.  Ranked 37th when seeds were assigned, he had ascended as high as #35, largely on the strength of his fourth-round showing at Wimbledon.

While the Croatian could have drawn any seed as early as the first round, he got lucky, pulling 27th-seeded Fernando Verdasco.  My forecast underlines his fortune, giving him a 51% chance to advance to the round of 64, then roughly even odds again to make the round of 32 against (probably) Nikolay Davydenko–another player who fell just outside the seed cut.

Making the Dodig-Verdasco comparison more interesting is that in the last 52 weeks, the unseeded player has won more matches (38 to 29) with a higher winning percentage (58% to 56%).  What the Spaniard has done, however, is bunch his wins much more effectively than his first round opponent.  While Dodig achieved a career highlight with his R16 showing in London, Verdasco made the quarters.  Fernando reached the final in Bastad, and earlier in the year, won two matches at the Madrid Masters.

A telling comparison is that while Dodig has lost five opening-round matches in the last year, Verdasco has lost nine.  As Carl Bialik explained two years ago, consistency isn’t such a great thing in tennis.  Certainly, the ATP rankings–and the seedings that utilize them–prefer inconsistency.

You know there’s a Grand Slam in the offing when the PR pieces from IBM start to appear.  Last week, a particularly bald-faced plant showed up in the New York Times, a publication that–one fervently hopes–should know better.

This particular piece includes such hard-hitting journalism as, “The keys are updated during matches to track any shift in momentum, and they correlate well with the final outcome,” and “These extra features are likely to drive traffic to the event’s Web site, USOpen.org, and its various mobile versions. “

The Times should be embarrassed.  What makes this particularly frustrating to the statistically-oriented fan is that while IBM speaks the right language, the results of this effort to “fulfill fans’ desire for deeper knowledge” are so disappointing.

The much-vaunted Keys to the Match are frequently arbitrary, often bizarre.  In Kei Nishikori‘s second-round match at Wimbledon, one of his “Keys” was to “Win between 71 and 89 of winners on the forehand side.”  He didn’t do that–whatever it means, exactly. He didn’t meet the goals set by his two other Keys, either, yet he won the match in straight sets.

Most frustrating to those of us who want actual analysis, the underlying data–to the extent it is available at all–is buried almost beyond the possibility of a fan’s use.  IBM–like Hawkeye–is collecting so much data, yet doing so little with it.

Lots of fans do desire more statistical insight. Much more. The raw material is increasingly collected, yet the deeper knowledge remains elusive.

Stay with me as I leap from one hobby-horse to another.

Wild cards cropped up as a topic of conversation last weekend, largely thanks to Lindsay Gibbs’s piece for Sports on Earth, in which Jose Higueras said, “If it was up to me, there would be no wild cards. Wild cards create entitlement for the kids. I think you should be in the draw if you actually are good enough to get in the draw.”

I don’t object to wild cards used as rewards, like the one that goes to the USTA Boys’ 18s champion, or the ones that the USTA awards based on Challenger performance in a set series of events.  There’s even a place for WCs as a way to get former greats into the draw. James Blake shouldn’t have gotten the deluge of free passes that he has received in the last few years, but it’s probably good for the sport to have him in more top-level events than he strictly deserves.

The problem stems from all the other wild cards, and not just from a player development perspective.  Are fans going to get that much enjoyment out of one or two matches from the likes of Rhyne Williams and Ryan Harrison, Americans who didn’t have a high enough ranking to make the cut?  Of the fourteen Americans in the men’s main draw, six were wild cards, and it would shock no one if those six guys failed to win a single match.

There are further effects, as well.  By exempting Williams, Harrison, Tim Smyczek, and Brian Baker from the qualifying tournament, fans seeking quality American tennis last week barely got to see any.  Donald Young–who has received far too many wild cards himself–was the only American to qualify, largely because the US players at the same level as the other would-be qualifiers didn’t have to compete.  The remaining Americans were in over their heads.

This leads me to a great alternative suggested by Juan José Vallejo on Twitter: Be liberal with free passes in qualifying, and take the opportunity to promote those early rounds much more.  At the Citi Open a few weeks ago, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday for qualifying were comparable to those Monday and Tuesday.  Because qualifying often falls on the weekend, the crowds are there.  But if they want to see Jack Sock play, they’ve got to come back Tuesday night (and spend a lot more money), and they’re much more likely to see him overmatched by a better, more experienced player.

Cut the entitlement, improve the quality of main draw play, and give the fans more chances to watch up-and-coming stars.  I wish there was a chance this would happen.

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How Much Do Wild Cards Matter?

Last week, I presented a lot of data that demonstrated how American (and to a lesser extent, French, Australian, and British) players receive the bulk of ATP wild cards, mostly because there are so many tournaments in these countries.  That leaves nationals of other countries to fight their way up through the rankings more slowly, earning less money and facing tougher odds.

How bad is it?  Does it really help to get a handful of free entries, especially if most wild cards are doomed to lose in the first round or two?

To get a sense of the effect, let’s take a look at Jack Sock, the most gifted recipient of wild cards in 2012.  He entered seven tour-level events this year, all on free passes.  (He was also wildcarded into another three challengers and the Cincinnati Masters qualifying draw.)  If you take away the wild cards, he would’ve played a couple of challengers, some qualifying draws for US 250s, leaving him to fill most of his calendar with futures.

As it is, Sock has boosted his ranking from 381 to 164 in a single year, earning $137,000 along the way.  About half of that comes from his third-round showing at the US Open, which required him to beat Florian Mayer (who retired) and Flavio Cipolla, not a particularly tall order (as it were).  Another $27,000 came entirely from first-round losses–tournaments that he didn’t earn his way into, and where he failed to win a match.

I don’t mean to pick on Sock.  Kudos to him for winning as many matches as he has this year and establishing himself as one of the better prospects in the game.  But if he weren’t from a Grand Slam-hosting country, he would have been lucky to get a single wild card, perhaps benefiting from two or three freebies at the challenger level.  He would have spent most of 2012 on the futures circuit, hoping to pick up the occasional $1,300 winner’s check.

What would have happened then?  A handy test case is Diego Sebastian Schwartzman, a young Argentine about one month older than Sock.  At the end of last year, Schwartzman was ranked 371 to Sock’s 381.  Schwartzman doesn’t exactly constitute a scientific control group, but as a point of reference, we couldn’t ask for much more.

In terms of on-court performance, Schwartzman may well have had a better 2012 than Sock did.  The Argentine won six Futures events on the South American clay, and he added another four doubles titles at that level.  He wasn’t nearly as successful at the next level, going 5-10 in Challenger and ATP qualifiying matches.  Perhaps he was a bit worn down from his 49 Futures singles matches this year.

It’s an open question whether Sock or Schwartzman had the more impressive year.  Some might prefer the American’s challenger title and handful of top-100 scalps; others would prefer Schwartzman’s 30-match winning streak at the Futures level.

But here’s the kicker: While Sock made $137,000 and raised his ranking to #164, Schwartzman made $17,000 and is currently ranked #245.  By showing up at the Indian Wells Masters and losing in the first round, Sock made about as much money as Schwartzman did by winning six tournaments.

The rankings differential isn’t as striking, but it is just as important for both players in the near future.  Sock was able to earn direct entry in the Tiburon Challenger earlier this month.  A ranking inside the top 200 is good enough to get into almost all Challengers and a substantial number of ATP qualifiers.  245 will get you into many of the Challenger events with lower stakes (read: less money, fewer points on offer) and a much smaller number of ATP qualifiers.

Thus, the favors handed to the American–and never considered for the Argentine–will effect the trajectory of both players’ careers for some time to come.

Andrea Collarini, perhaps you’d like to reconsider?

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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.

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Who Takes Advantage of Wild Cards?

Yesterday, we saw that ATP tour-level wild cards are the privilege of just a small subset of top pros.  If you play for a Grand Slam-hosting country, or you are a major junior prospect, you’ll get plenty.  If you fit neither of those categories, you’re on your own.  Donald Young gets 27 wild cards while better players work for years to earn their way into as many as 27 ATP main draws.

This discrepancy raises plenty of questions, not least the issue of whether the wild card status quo is good for tennis.

The title of this post raises another: Who used those wild cards to rocket to the top?  Andy Roddick is one, having amassed a 20-9 record, including two titles and one Masters-level quarterfinal, from 11 wild cards spots in 2000 and 2001.  On the flip side is Nicolas Mahut, who received 9 tour-level wild cards before his 25th birthday, winning only one match–and that one by retirement.

When players do take advantage of their wild cards and string a few wins together, what are we to make of them?  Roddick was clearly on his way to the top.  After winning Atlanta and Houston in back-to-back weeks in 2001, he never needed a wild card again.  But other highly-touted Americans, such as Jesse Levine and Ryan Sweeting, never manage to get their ranking fully out of wild card territory.  They’ll both probably receive more, taking opportunities to win a tour-level match or two that gives their rankings a boost.

The ranking effect of a tour-level win or two compounds the effects that keep down players like Grega Zemlja.  First, someone like Levine or Frank Dancevic receives a substantial number of wild cards, consistent opportunities to play in a main draw that other, similarly-ranked players don’t get.  Then, unless they really aren’t that good, or they get a slew of unlucky draws, they win a match or two.  A mere appearance in a Grand Slam main draw is worth 10 ranking points; a single win gets you another 35.  In some challenger events, you need to reach the final to earn that many points.

More ranking points, of course, lead to a higher ranking.  A higher ranking leads to more direct entries into tournaments.  And then, somehow, you have Donald Young in the top 50.

Thus, “taking advantage” of wild cards has strong positive and negative connotations.  Guys like Roddick and Federer were ready to compete at the highest level before their rankings said they were, so they took advantage of their opportunities to the fullest.  But when a player gets 10 wild cards and wins four matches, he’s made the best of his situation in a manner that exploits the inequities of the ATP tour.

After the jump, find a table that shows everyone currently in the top 200 who received at least four tour-level wild cards before their 25th birthday.  (I’m using that age as a cutoff to avoid counting wild cards handed to players on the comeback trail or a retirement tour.)  It’s sorted by number of wild cards received pre-25.  For a sortable table, click here.

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What Grega Zemlja Can Tell Us About American Tennis

Last week, virtually unknown Slovenian qualifier Grega Zemlja reached the final in Vienna.  Like many players–Eastern Europeans in particular–in the back half of the top 100, he has finally established a toehold on tour after putting together a good sequence of challenger results.

The final run in Vienna–only his 16th tour-level event–will help keep him in the top 100 for most of the next year, earning him direct entries into all of the Grand Slams and many smaller ATP events.

Zemlja turned 26 one month ago, so he is hardly a “prospect.”  But I call your attention to him because he has achieved his new berth in the top 50 almost entirely by merit.  When the AELTC awarded him a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw this summer, it was the first tour-level wild card of his career.  In fact, he has only received a single wild card into a challenger main draw.

While the Slovenian has been a fixture in the top 200 since the end of 2008, he hasn’t gotten any favors.

The distribution of wild cards

As it turns out, he’s not alone.  21 players in the top 100 (including Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic) didn’t receive a single tour-level wild card before their 25th birthday.  Another 16 (Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer among them) got only one, and yet another 23 received only two.

When I started researching this post, I expected to find that Zemlja was uniquely disadvantaged.  But no: Wild cards are the privilege of players who happen to be born in the right places.  Free entries tend to go to home favorites, with a few more awarded to star youngsters like Grigor Dimitrov.

Thus, the geographical distribution of wild cards has everything to do with where tournaments are located.  And tournament locations have an awful lot to do with where the tennis world was centered 20, 50, or even 100 years ago.

The U.S. of Assistance

Much has been said of Donald Young‘s 27 tour-level wild cards.  (Some of it by Patrick McEnroe, recipient of 37.)  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Did you know that the seven active players who received the most wild cards before age 25 play for the USA?  Young is followed by Mardy Fish, Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey, Jesse Levine, John Isner, and James Blake.  (Blake has been handed by far the most career wild cards, but the majority have come in his more recent comeback attempts.)

The current top 200 players received 748 wild cards before the age of 25.  139, or 18.6% of those, have gone to these seven, or 3.5% of players.

Put simply, the distribution of tennis tournaments doesn’t match the distribution of tennis talent.  The US is the only country with more than one Masters 1000 event–it has three.  Plus a slam.  And two 500s.  And another seven 250s, at least in 2012.

All those tournaments have at least three wild cards to give out.  This year, seven of them handed main draw spots to Jack Sock, who at age 20 has already amassed 10 career tour-level wild cards, more WCs than 90% of the top 200 have received.

A structural problem

This is an easy subject to get worked up about, especially if you prefer to root for players like Zemlja.  Yet it’s difficult to blame anyone in particular.

Tournaments fiercely guard the few wild card spots they are given, so it would be difficult for the ATP to meddle.  The events want to attract fans, and an up-and-comer with an easy-to-pronounce name is a great way to sell tickets.  And you certainly can’t blame a player for accepting main draw berths.

Here’s a modest proposal: Convert a few more “wild card” spots to merit-based spots.  The USTA is doing more of this, setting up playoffs for reciprocal wild card placements at the Australian and French Opens, among other strategies.  But that doesn’t help with geographical distribution, since only Americans can compete!

Better yet is a version of how Zemlja got into Wimbledon.  He won the Nottingham challenger two weeks previous, and the AELTC wasn’t going to give away all the free spots to Brits.  The Slovenian was a deserving up-and-comer, even though he doesn’t play under the right flag.

Perhaps every Slam and Masters event should reserve a spot for the winner of a corresponding challenger.  Or every tournament with a 48-or-bigger draw should be required to hand at least one wild card to a non-national.

If a player is good enough, he’ll break in eventually.  But wouldn’t the sport be better off if some players didn’t have to wait longer than others, based simply on how many tournaments are played in the country they play for?

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