As the Australian Open nears, there are few discussion points as intriguing as our potential wildcard recipients. (Save for the “vaccination status” for a few superstars). There are options aplenty and only a few wildcards to hand out.
Wildcards themselves are an interesting discussion point.
A wild card is essentially a spot in a tournament draw that can be given to any player – of any ranking – who otherwise would not be playing; and the decision is at the absolute discretion of tournament organisers. They’re a free pass and every tournament has them.
As a rule, I like to think that the wildcard recipient will tell you everything you need to know about the decision maker.
If the wildcard is awarded to an up and coming junior talent, you know the decision maker is passionate about the future of the sport. Or at least the future of that particular individual.
If it’s awarded to a superstar, you know they’re commercially minded.
And if the wildcard is awarded to the sibling of a superstar, you know the decision maker is a wheeler-dealer.
For this year’s Australian Open, wildcard recipients might be Thanasi Kokkinakis, Daria Saville, Andy Murray, Venus Williams or, to a lesser extent, Kim Clijsters.
However, some wildcard recipients are less obvious.
For instance, as reported earlier this year by Tumaini Carayol, the younger brother of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Petros Tsitsipas, 20, who owns a meagre 33.8% career winning percentage at the lowest level of men’s tennis – the ITF World Tennis Tour – found himself in the first round of the ATP 250 event in Marseille, France earlier this year. Tournament organisers later proudly declared that the wildcard was given out of thanks to Stefanos for taking a cheaper appearance fee than he ordinarily might have.
Naomi Osaka’s sister was equally fortunate in the 2019 Miami Open.
Similarly, in her playing days, Jaslyn Hewitt (sister of Lleyton) repeatedly profited off her last name to gain 12 tour-level wildcards despite only ever reaching a career-high ranking of 304.
Moreover, American Ryan Harrison – once touted as the next big thing in American men’s tennis – has received over 70 wildcards in his career to date; clearly benefiting from the vast number of tournaments on American soil throughout the tour year.
These examples, in and of themselves, may seem trivial or insignificant.
However, for players on tour, these wildcards can make or break their entire year. For example, a wildcard into the Australian Open is, at a minimum worth the value of the first-round loser's fee. That being (based on last year’s prize money) approximately $100,000.
For players outside the top 100 – it is an enormous gift.
Equally, most players will never receive a wildcard in their professional playing lives. Or, at least not one of such value as a wildcard into the Australian Open.
After all, there are only four grand slams per year.
And that is why these wildcards are so interesting. They’re worth their weight in gold; at a minimum.
So how does it work?
Each year, Tennis Australia has eight wildcards to gift for each singles draw in the Australian Open (as well as spots in the doubles and mixed events).
This year, as is ordinarily the case, one wildcard (for both the men’s and women’s draws) is gifted to both the French Tennis Federation and the USTA under separate reciprocal arrangements.
Another wildcard is gifted to the winner of an ‘Asia Pacific playoff’ tournament which helps Tennis Australia embrace the slogan ‘Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific’.
In normal times, another wildcard is gifted to the winner of a wildcard playoff, held at Melbourne Park in the month of December, where Australia’s top ranked players outside the top 100 do battle in a knock-out tournament. The wildcard playoff will not be held this year due to Covid-19. Therefore, the other five wildcards are purely down to the discretion of Tennis Australia.
Usually, these are handed to Australian players.
However, this year, there are more viable candidates than you might expect.
We take a look at the contenders, starting on the men's side:
Sir Andy Murray:
Three-time major champion and former world no. 1, Andy Murray finished the season at 134 in the ATP rankings, and will therefore require a wildcard if he is to compete in the Australian Open main draw without having to go through qualifying. The Brit has received a plethora of wildcards in 2021 and feels he is entitled to these entries after his illustrious career to date.
“I think, after what I’ve gone through the last three or four years and what I’d achieved in the game beforehand, I don’t feel like I need to justify the reasons for why I should get wildcards,” Murray told reporters in October, after receiving a wildcard into the BNP Paribas Open main draw.
Tellingly, Murray was initially given a wildcard into the 2021 Australian Open but withdrew before the tournament commenced.
There’s no doubt the former world no. 1 is a major drawcard, and his results in 2021, which included wins over top 10 opponents Jannik Sinner and Hubert Hurkacz, have confirmed he’s still capable of competing against the world’s best.
2021 was a rollercoaster, but arguably a career best season for 28-year-old Alex Bolt.
The South Australian, who plays his best tennis (by a mile) at Melbourne Park, kicked off his 2021 season with an impressive run to the third round of the Murray River Open, which included a tight battle with Stan Wawrinka, which ended in a deciding tiebreaker. Bolt then reached the second round of the Australian Open for the third year in a row, losing to Grigor Dimitrov.
The South Australian then spent a month at home before hitting the tour, where he lost his first eight matches on the road (six of which to lower-ranked opponents). Despite being horribly out of form, Bolt qualified for the main draw of the Nottingham Challenger, before going on to claim the title. As is custom for the Nottingham Challenger, his success earned him a wildcard into the Wimbledon main draw, where he picked up his first major main draw win outside of Australia.
After which Bolt made the quarterfinals in Los Cabos, but was unable to compete in US Open qualifying after testing positive for COVID-19.
Bolt was a late call-up to the Australian Davis Cup team, and picked up a career-high six tour-level wins in 2021, finishing the season at 136 in the ATP Rankings; just 11 spots shy of his career-high 125 set in 2019.
Sydneysider Aleksandar Vukic enjoyed a strong finish to the season, rising to a career-high 156 in the ATP Rankings.
The 25-year-old kicked off his season by winning his maiden ATP Tour-level match at the Great Ocean Road Open. He received a wildcard into The Australian Open, and at one point looked well on his way to claiming a sensational upset win over Russian seed Karen Khachanov, but eventually went down in four tight sets.
After hitting the road, Vukic took a while to get going, winning just 4/12 main draw matches at Challenger level before the French Open, where he made the final round of qualifying.
Following the clay-court season, Vukic qualified for the main draw at Queens and narrowly fell to Canadian Denis Shapovalov. Unable to capitalize on his improved form, Vukic lost in the opening round of Wimbledon qualifying and won just 2/7 matches thereafter.
Unfortunately, Vukic, like Bolt, was unable to compete in US Open qualifying after testing positive for COVID-19, but the Aussie’s form since returning to the court has been the best we’ve seen from him this year.
He reached back-to-back semifinals on the Challenger Tour, before qualifying for his maiden ATP Masters 1000 main draw in Indian Wells. He then defeated Pablo Andujar before going down to Alex de Minaur in the second round.
Following Indian Wells, Vukic reached the final at both the Charlottesville and Champaign Challenger tournaments, losing to American wildcard recipient Stefan Kozlov in both finals in a much-improved end to his season.
For the first time since 2015, barring minor injuries, Thanasi Kokkinakis completed a full year on the tour. That, in itself, is a significant achievement for the 25-year-old, and the South Australian was rewarded with a nomination for the comeback player of the year on the ATP Tour.
Despite sitting at 172 in the ATP Rankings (behind both Bolt and Vukic) Kokkinakis actually earned more points than any other Australian outside the top 100, and would be the highest-ranked Australian outside the top 100, at 143, if it weren’t for the COVID-19 adjusted ranking system.
Impressively, Kokkinakis reached the second round of the Australian Open to kick off his season and took Stefanos Tsitsipas to five thrilling sets; reminding us all of his ability to compete with the world’s best.
Following the Australian summer, Kokkinakis was in hot form. He qualified for the main draw and reached the second round of the Miami Masters, followed by three quarterfinals on the Challenger Tour, before claiming his first title of the season in Italy.
Despite slowing down in the middle of the year, Kokkinakis managed to find his groove once again in the second half of the year, making back-to-back semifinals on the Challenger Tour and narrowly going down in the second round of US Open qualifying.
Not done there, Kokkinakis reached back-to-back quarterfinals on the Challenger Tour and made his second final of the season in Romania before returning home.
In an effort to transition to the premier tour in men’s tennis, 27-year-old Christopher O’Connell competed predominantly on the ATP Tour in 2021, rather than the lower-level Challenger Tour.
The Sydneysider, coached by former Australian world no. 39 Marinko Matosevic, enjoyed a handful of breakthroughs this season, but also suffered several tight defeats, which has ultimately led to him dropping to 175 in the ATP Rankings.
O’Connell kicked off his season in a strong form reaching the second round of the Great Ocean Road Open, enjoying his maiden main draw win at the Australian Open with a straight-sets demolition of German Jan-Lennard Struff.
After the Australian summer, O’Connell competed in four ATP Tour main draws, three of which he earned through successful qualifying campaigns. Consequently, he was rewarded with a reciprocal wildcard into the French Open main draw. However, the Aussie lost to American Tommy Paul in heartbreaking fashion going down 8-10 in the fifth.
Just a month later, he qualified for the main draw of Wimbledon for the first time, but once again suffered a heartbreaking defeat, going down to Frenchman Gael Monfils in five sets.
In the second half of the year, O’Connell reached his maiden ATP Tour quarterfinal in Atlanta, taking down rising Italian star Jannik Sinner in straight sets en route before falling to American John Isner.
In a change of tactics, O’Connell returned to the Challenger tour for the first time this season in St. Tropez, where he reached the final but was unfortunately forced to retire midway through with injury.
Unfortunately, the 27-year-old’s season didn’t end in the way he would’ve hoped, missing two months with injury and suffering a handful of losses to lower-ranked opponents in both US Open qualifying and on the Challenger Tour.
2021 saw 23-year-old Max Purcell establish himself as one of, if not, Australia’s most promising player outside the top 100.
To begin his season, the New South Welshman earned his maiden main draw win on the ATP Tour in the Great Ocean Road Open before losing to Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev in the second round of qualifying.
Subsequently, Purcell spent several months at home, training hard as he prepared to commence his travel for the year.
Being ranked inside the top 50 in the doubles rankings, Purcell played predominantly on the doubles court when he did arrive on tour, but strong singles performances slowly but surely changed his plans for the remainder of the season.
In his first major result, Purcell took down two-time major finalist Kevin Anderson in Eastbourne qualifying and progressed to the semifinals; his first ATP Tour level semifinal appearance.
In his next tournament, he won the Nur-Sultan Challenger and earned a call-up to the Australian Olympic Team. After a late withdrawal in the singles tournament, Purcell was granted an alternate entry and turned heads when he claimed a career-best win over rising Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.
His strong form saw him receive a wildcard into the US Open main draw, where he took a set off seed Jannik Sinner but was ultimately defeated. Following the US Open, Purcell made a quarterfinal and a final in his two Challenger tournaments, ending the season at 176 in the ATP Rankings.
Marc Polmans has been a regular Australian Open wildcard recipient in recent years, competing in the main draw in the last three years with wildcard entries.
This year, he might need to go through qualifying if he is to compete in a fourth consecutive main draw at Melbourne Park. The Victorian lost his first nine matches of the season and struggled to find form in the first half of the year.
The 24-year-old put in a strong Roland Garros qualifying campaign but unfortunately went down in the final round. However, the Aussie managed to find some form when he needed it most, qualifying for the Wimbledon main draw, and earning his first win at The All England Club, which was certainly his highlight of the season.
Following Wimbledon, Polmans’ best result was a singular quarterfinal at Challenger level – highlighting his struggle to find his best form. Unfortunately, Polmans only managed just a handful of main draw wins to end his season.
With only 5 wildcards remaining at the disposal of Tennis Australia, we expect to see Andy Murray take the first spot. Needless to say, the Scotsman has earned the right and the Australian Open will be a better event for his participation – both commercially and as a spectacle. The remaining four are likely to go to Bolt, Vukic, Kokkinakis, and Purcell.
Kokkinakis is both a fan favourite and, along with Purcell, the most likely of the next tier to be able to break into and remain in the top 100 (as he did some 6 years ago). Vukic and Bolt have had strong years and deserve to be rewarded. While O’Connell would be extremely unlucky to miss out, he just hasn’t grasped all his opportunities this year.
Lastly, Polmans just hasn’t had the year he would’ve envisaged and will likely need to go through qualifying in order to join the main draw at Melbourne Park.
Over to the women’s side:
After a relatively inactive and poor year by her standards, Venus Williams finds herself at 314 in the WTA rankings. However, like Sir Andy Murray, Williams is a candidate for a wildcard due to her illustrious career, and the fact that she is a major drawcard at Melbourne Park.
The former world number 1 managed just 12 matches in 2021 and won just three of them.
In her favour is the fact that Venus is both a fan favourite and a two-time runner-up at the Australian Open.
There is little more to say other than this may be the last time we get to see Venus Williams compete at Melbourne Park, and a farewell gift, in the form of a wildcard, is indeed enticing for Tennis Australia.
Former world no. 1 and six-time major champion Kim Clijsters finds herself in a similar boat to Venus Williams.
Like Williams, Clijsters will be relying on her CV and her marketability when staking her claim for a wildcard into next year’s Australian Open.
After more than seven years out of the game, the Belgian came out of retirement last year, however, she has lost all five matches since returning to the tour and sits at 1,128 in the WTA Rankings.
Moving forward into 2022, this is the third certainty in life alongside death and taxes. Sanders will get a wildcard.
The highest-ranked Australian outside of the top 100, Storm Sanders sits at 131 in the WTA rankings after a career-best year on tour. The 27-year-old’s stellar season included qualifying for Roland Garros, reaching three WTA Tour quarterfinals, and winning her maiden main draw match at WTA 1000 level in Miami.
Then, if she wasn’t already guaranteed a wildcard, Sanders finished her season in outstanding form, winning two of her three singles matches while representing Australia at the Billie Jean King Cup, which included a win over world no. 18 Elise Mertens.
As there are very few candidates outside the top 100 capable of taking scalps like Elise Mertens, lock her in for an Australian Open wildcard.
Sitting at 139 in the WTA rankings, Maddison Inglis is the second-highest ranked Australian outside of the top 100 behind Sanders.
The 23-year-old put up a strong fight against defending champion Sofia Kenin in the opening round of the Australian Open but was ultimately defeated.
Following the Australian Open, Inglis hit form, reaching the second round at both the Phillip Island Trophy and the Adelaide International.
The West Australian spent the rest of the first half of the year at home, before joining the tour just in time for the grass court season. It took a while for her to get going, but she picked up some handy wins here and there, reaching the second round of several ITF and WTA tournaments, before hitting form in September.
Inglis reached the semifinals at an ITF tournament in Portugal; and just a few weeks later, qualified for the WTA Chicago Classic, where she took a set off Belinda Bencic in the second round.
Looking at her year as a whole, there aren’t a heap of results that jump off the page, but winning six WTA Tour main draw matches sees her consolidate on a breakout year in 2019, and retain her ranking inside the top 150.
31-year-old Arina Rodionova has finished the season as the third-highest ranked Aussie outside the top 100 - at 153 in the WTA Rankings.
The first half of the year didn’t go to plan for Rodionova, who went winless throughout the Australian summer and managed just a handful of wins in the first half of the year. Trying to find form, a run through qualifying to the final of the ITF 100K tournament in Nottingham came at the perfect time for the Victorian and was the highlight of her season leading into Wimbledon.
She made a run to the final round of Wimbledon qualifying but fell at the final hurdle. Unfortunately for the Aussie, she lost her next seven matches after Wimbledon and found herself back in a form slump.
But, like in Nottingham, a strong run at an ITF 60K tournament in Spain was much needed, and making the semifinals saw her rise up the ranks, finishing her season at 153 in the ranks.
Lizette Cabrera finishes her season ranked inside the top 200 in the WTA Rankings for the third straight year.
The Queenslander has been one of Australia’s promising youngsters on the verge of the top 100 for several years now and has received wildcards into the Australian Open main draw in four of the last five years.
The 23-year-old won just one of five matches during the Australian summer of tennis, and stayed in Australia for the first half of the year, before hitting the road just in time for Roland Garros qualifying – only to lose in the first round.
Quickly getting off the clay, Cabrera reached the second round in Nottingham two weeks in a row, before going down in the opening round of Wimbledon qualifying.
In her first six tournaments following Wimbledon, Cabrera picked up just one win. However, like many of the Australian’s, her back end of the year saw her find some much-needed form – reaching two ITF and one WTA quarterfinal.
26-year-old Ellen Perez had a fantastic second half of the season on the singles court, rising back inside the top 200 in the WTA singles rankings.
Perez, ranked inside the top 50 in the doubles rankings, won just a handful of matches on the singles court in the first half of the year. However, a run to the final round of Roland Garros qualifying proved the catalyst to turn her fortunes around.
Perez then went one better at Wimbledon, navigating her way through a strong qualifying field into the main draw before unfortunately falling in the opening round.
Playing predominantly on the ITF Tour after Wimbledon, Perez reached two finals, a semifinal, and two quarterfinals to finish her season at 195 in the WTA singles rankings.
Perez was also a member of Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup team – although in her capacity as a doubles specialist.
Coming into 2021 unranked, rising star Olivia Gadecki had a fantastic breakout season, rising to 233 in the WTA singles rankings.
Gadecki turned heads in January when she took down 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the Phillip Island Trophy, which took place in the second week of the Australian Open, for those who had been knocked out of the tournament.
The Aussie played predominantly on the ITF Tour for the remainder of the season, and proved her quality, claiming some tremendous results.
Gadecki won two titles in 2021 along with two finals, three semifinals and three quarterfinal appearances. Finishing her remarkable season with 50 wins, Gadecki was called up to the Australian Billie Jean King Cup team and made her debut on the doubles court.
22-year-old Seone Mendez enjoyed a career-best year in 2021, rising to a career-high 206 in the WTA rankings.
Mendez has been chipping away on the ITF Tour for the last few years, gradually rising up the rankings. But 2021 was certainly a breakthrough year for the Spanish-residing Aussie having claimed her maiden WTA Tour main draw win, and reaching her maiden WTA Tour quarterfinal.
Mendez competed in 22 tournaments, winning 30 out of 50 matches on the singles court in an impressive year.
2021 was a different year for 23-year-old Priscilla Hon, who spent most of the year working to overcome and manage various injuries.
Hon missed the entire first half of the season and commenced her season in Roland Garros qualifying, where she went down in the first round.
The Queenslander won just one match in three tournaments before competing in Wimbledon qualifying, where she suffered a nail-biting defeat in the final round.
After Wimbledon, Hon swiftly returned home to Australia after just a month on the road in a pre-planned decision to further build her fitness and conditioning.
She then returned to the tour again in September, before briefly flying home in October prior to a quick trip to Prague to join Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup team.
Sam Stosur has conceded the 2022 Australian Open “probably will be the last time” we see her at Melbourne Park.
Despite her success on the doubles court, the world no. 380’s form in the singles games has dipped significantly, as she picked up just one win in 2021, which came in the opening round of the Australian Open.
Daria Saville (nèe Gavrilova):
Daria Saville’s 2021 season was spent predominantly on the sidelines after surgery shortly after the Australian summer of tennis.
Dasha opened the season by reaching the second round at both the Yarra Valley Classic and the Australian Open but was defeated by Serena Williams and Ash Barty respectively.
After the Australian summer, Saville had surgery on her achilles which has given her hassles in recent years, and was out of action until the final event of the season.
Saville was called up to the Alicia Molik led Billie Jean King Cup team last month, where she made her return to court and won her singles rubber for team Australia, defeating Belgian world no. 70 Greet Minnen in inspired form. A fantastic win after 10 months on the sidelines.
From the remaining five wildcards, we expect Tennis Australia will choose to go with five Aussies, turning down draw cards and legends Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams.
Clijsters, despite her magnificent CV, has not done enough since returning to the tour to earn a wildcard and Williams feels too much like a farewell offering. If Tennis Australia is going to offer a wildcard as a parting gift, Sam Stosur may be a more appropriate choice for the Australian fans.
But who are the lucky five?
Well, Storm Sanders is a lock. As is (fitness providing) Daria Saville, who has frequently saved her best tennis for the Melbourne crowds and, unlike many outside the top 100, is a genuine A-grader at her best.
Inglis and Gadecki seem the next most likely. With Inglis rewarded for another strong year and Gadecki as a rising star of Australian tennis.
The last spot will come from Rodionova, Cabrera, Perez, and Hon. While each player has a strong claim to the opportunity, after a strong second half of the year, our money is on Ellen Perez.