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While newly-minted grand slam champions Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis more than vindicated their selection as an Australian Open wildcard pairing, Max Purcell is one of a number of players who believe the system requires an overhaul.
The players believe there is no transparency, accountability, or oversight incorporated in Tennis Australia’s decision-making process for its discretionary wildcards; and, alarmingly, they say there are no known criteria for decision making.
Speaking exclusively to The First Serve, Queenslander Thomas Fancutt says “there doesn’t seem to be any criteria or anything that they run off. That’s the biggest thing. There’s no clarity for players.”
Another Australian male player who wished to remain anonymous agreed, “I don’t understand what the requirements are to get a wildcard. No one does,’’ he said.
“It’s obviously not based on winning. And if it’s not based on winning, then what is it based on? There are so many examples of guys who have no titles or [who lack] good results who get the wildcards.”
“Then we have guys who have great results who don’t get them.”
Yet Tennis Australia’s Director of Performance Wally Masur defended the philosophy behind its wildcards, claiming they are designed to assist players to reach the top echelon of world tennis.
“They can be used in a variety of ways to give players a leg up. Our goal is to [use the wildcards] to get players into the top 100”, Masur said.
The playing group, however, believes that philosophy is lost when put into practice.
After being denied a singles wildcard into the main draw of the Australian Open, world No. 176 Max Purcell was outspoken with his frustrations, having believed he was deserving of the opportunity – including the minimum $103,000 that the wildcard represented as a first-round loser’s fee.
"I messaged Wally [Masur] saying, ‘Mate, I’ve got three hours to pull out of Sydney, otherwise I’ll be stuck playing Sydney instead of qualies – what’s going on?'," Purcell said in his press conference after his first-round Australian Open qualifying match.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, no, Lleyton was supposed to tell you; I wasn’t supposed to tell you. I told him to tell you considering he was the one who didn’t want you to have it’.
“So, I didn’t end up finding out until 11 pm Thursday, because I guess he didn’t have the balls to tell me in person," Purcell explained.
Fancutt also revealed that Purcell had the support of the locker room in that he was “absolutely robbed” of a main draw spot.
“I’d say the way they treated Max… [it] was poorly handled. Amongst the players, everyone thought Max was going to get one,’’ said the doubles world No. 342.
“As a group of players, we thought that TA would favour youth with Max being the youngest and having some really big wins.”
What more could Purcell have done to demonstrate his wildcard worthiness? Masur – also a member of the wildcard selection panel – declined to comment on the players’ sentiment, saying only: “The Australian Open is over now so that will be dealt with internally.”
Yet although the Purcell decision is indeed fascinating; it speaks to a larger problem: a lack of transparency and accountability.
As highlighted by Purcell, Tennis Australia seems to reward the same players year after year with AO and other tournament wildcards. Let’s call them “Lleyton’s boys’’ as Purcell did. Others support the sentiment.
“There’s a lot of frustration,’’ Fancutt said. “We have a lot of good Aussie players who are trying to break through and there is just such a clear group of favourites. Yeah, it is demoralising. Max has put light to it and it's pretty true.
“It’s super frustrating. Tennis Australia just seems to select the same guys over and over again and give them the same chances… and the [lack of] transparency with the criteria. There’s just like a big disconnect between the top selectors and this massive group of players.”
The feeling is that these wildcards – especially at grand slam level – are so valuable that they ought not to be reserved for a select group of players or ‘favourites’.
However, Masur said there was a conscious choice made by Tennis Australia to offer younger players a greater opportunity – particularly for singles qualifying and main draw doubles wildcards at this year’s Australian Open.
“A lot of our younger players didn’t travel in 2020 and only in a limited capacity in 2021,’’ said the former Davis Cup coach.
“The last two years have been interesting years. A lot of the younger players just didn’t get an opportunity. So we went very young in qualifying. What we then wanted to do was give some of those younger guys an opportunity [in the doubles as well].”
However, the youth policy was hard to stomach for some players as they felt the younger brigade had not earned the opportunity – particularly when the tens of thousands of dollars being thrown their way can be the difference between turning a profit or losing money for the year as a professional tennis player.
To illustrate the ups and downs of the wildcard system, Fancutt serves as a useful example following a rollercoaster Australian summer.
After winning seven ITF doubles titles last year, Fancutt’s doubles ranking was in a position where he felt he was deserving of further opportunities.
Fancutt and fellow pro Aaron Addison – who at the time was ranked outside the top 1000 in singles and doubles – received a wildcard into the doubles draw of the Adelaide International.
In the second round, Fancutt and Addison upset the second best doubles pair in the world, Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury, (who won the 2020 Australian Open, 2021 US Open and finished runner up in the ATP World Tour Finals) 6-7, 6-4, 10-8.
After their landmark win, the pair then narrowly fell to Ariel Behar and Gonzalo Escobar (who were seeded 15th at the Australian Open) in a match tiebreaker, after having opportunities to win.
“Going into Adelaide I thought I’d at least be in talks [for an Australian Open doubles wildcard],’’ Fancutt said. “Then, after that win, it was kind of like there was no way on any sort of criteria I could be overlooked. Ranking-wise, form-wise, anything really. I thought [Adelaide] really put me in an unreal position for my first AO.’’
Yet what followed was silence from Tennis Australia and its selection panel.
“I heard nothing from selectors or anyone involved in Tennis Australia after that win or after the tournament. I eventually reached out to a selector later and said, you know, ‘thank you for the opportunity. I hope that result puts me in a good position to be considered for the Australian Open’.
“It was super awkward [to send that text]. But I felt like I had to at least make some contact. But that’s the position we felt we were in.”
The situation did not improve. After waiting in Melbourne with hopes of playing his first Australian Open, Fancutt only learned he had not received a wildcard into the doubles draw when the draw itself was posted at 3 pm on tournament eve.
“I still to this day haven’t heard anything from a selector,’’ he said. “I feel like I kind of got stuffed around with that whole weekend. I mean I could’ve struck while the iron is hot and gone and played an event that weekend.
“From there I checked out of my hotel and flew home two hours later.”
Unsurprisingly, Fancutt feels like he’s been let down by Tennis Australia. “Of the 12 Aussies [to have earned a doubles wildcard]. I [was] ranked higher than 11 of them.’’
The wider playing group was equally disappointed for Fancutt who revealed he’d received over 60 messages of support from players and coaches after expressing his frustrations on social media.
“If I was to match these Aussie guys [who got a wildcard] and make the third round of doubles, then I’d be [ranked] like 200. Then I’m playing every challenger and some tour events in doubles.
“I did seven months on the road last year and I won seven doubles titles, I made a singles final and a semi, mostly at futures, and I came home minus $15,000.
“It’s just demoralising. I just felt like I earned it.
“For me now, if I want to play Australian Open I have to get in directly. People will tell you that it’ll taste sweeter and all that stuff but wildcards can speed up the process of players who should be there in the first place.”
Fancutt also suggested that it seemed doubles players were sacrificed to give additional opportunities for more established or favoured singles players.
“It seemed like this year that Tennis Australia used the doubles to fund singles players that are [ranked] 150 to 350 [in the singles rankings].
“It seems like they used that prize money to just go ‘here’s $15,000 from Tennis Australia’.”
Another player who wished to remain anonymous agreed and posited “we’re filling their pockets for no reason – they already get the singles wildcard”.
When questioned whether there is any truth to this theory, Masur did not disagree.
“There’s an element of that. It probably speaks a little bit to Thanasi and Nick, you might question where their ranking is at the moment and what their potential is. There is always that element to it.”
Of course, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis undoubtedly validated this theory after the fact. But they are in a category of their own.
Highlighting the opportunity that Fancutt was denied, Australian Open doubles wildcard recipients Nick Kyrgios (up 219 places), Thanasi Kokkinakis (388), Dane Sweeney (291), Li Tu (649), Tristan Schoolkate (142), Jason Kubler (212), Rinky Hijikata (253) and Christopher O’Connell (688) all received huge ranking boosts at Melbourne Park.
While Fancutt was nothing but happy for his fellow Aussies, it is understandable that he felt he too should’ve been given the same opportunity as some of his compatriots were not even in the top 1,000.
Masur, however, would not be drawn into discussing individual decisions.
“I don’t want to get into the detail of who got into what with who. We just made some decisions based on who we thought was most deserving.”
Fancutt also revealed another quirk in this supposed system. That being the players themselves do not necessarily select their doubles partners. Rather, Tennis Australia plays puppeteer and puts together the doubles pairings themselves.
By way of example, Fancutt and a would-be partner both nominated each other to play together at the Australian Open, only to be told that the TA way is to pick which wildcard wannabes play with whom. As it goes, Fancutt’s would-be-partner was selected to play with someone else, while Fancutt was left out in the cold.
“I’ve never really been in contention so I had no idea and I thought ‘that can’t be the case’ but I asked a couple of guys who had played Aussie [Open doubles] before and they said that’s how they do it.”
When asked, Masur confirmed as much, saying: “we kept a few… but we did juggle a few teams. Sometimes we look at the players that sign up and think it would be better if that player played with someone else. These are all the decisions that are made.”
Which does not necessarily please the players, of course, with so much - including prizemoney - at stake.
As to how the system could be improved, the playing group noted that it was not necessarily an easy fix.
One player noted that the system was unlikely to change as no one who is in receipt of a wildcard would then suggest to Tennis Australia that they’d made the wrong decision.
According to Fancutt, “there are the same frustrations with the American, French, and British systems. I don’t think this is solely a Tennis Australia problem.”
“Yeah, I mean maybe if they announced these things in a WhatsApp group or even an email. Like, ‘here’s our thoughts for Adelaide and Sydney wildcards’.”
As for the Australian Open wildcards, Fancutt thought there could be a departure from what appears to be a purely discretion-based system.
“Maybe three are confirmed [on ranking] and two are to be decided based on form or something.“
Another player had similar thoughts and suggested a transparent hybrid system whereby a certain number of players are rewarded on year-round performance against defined criteria and metrics; others by winning a playoff (which has been done in previous years); and others through a set youth policy.
Ultimately, it is clear that while Tennis Australia does indeed have a challenging job, its current system is leaving players disgruntled and frustrated.
It is unrealistic to expect the system to change immediately, however, Tennis Australia ought to at least open up more consistent dialogue with its players as those who miss out should know why they’re not granted the opportunities their peers are.