WILDCARD CONUNDRUM CONTINUES: IMG & ITS VESTED INTEREST


Photograph: Getty Images


While there are many trivial formulations of ‘the golden rule’, perhaps the most truthful of them all is that ‘he who has the gold, makes the rules’. In tennis, this formulation of the golden rule rings as true as ever.


As previously explored by The First Serve, decision making power when it comes to discretionary tournament wildcards is a controversial business – and such controversy is not merely limited to the first slam of the season.


In the lead up to this week’s Masters 1000 Mutua Madrid Open, tournament organisers and owners were slammed for their allocation of nine precious main draw wildcards.


This year the lucky nonuplet comprised Sir Andy Murray, Lucas Pouille, Carlos Gimeno and Jack Draper on the men’s side as well as Naomi Osaka, Linda Fruhvirtova, Monica Puig, Marta Kostyuk and Qinwen Zheng.


Despite the Madrid Open being the premier tennis tournament on Spanish soil each season, of the aforementioned, only 20-year-old Carlos Gimeno (ranked 369) is Spanish.


Unsurprisingly, these selections were not warmly welcomed by the Spanish tennis playing community.


A key factor in the resultant outrage is the fact that IMG, an international sports and entertainment company with an enormous management arm, who last year purchased the Madrid Open from Cyprus based tournament organiser Super Slam, represent seven of the nine wildcard recipients. Murray and Gimeno are the exceptions.


In previous years, when the Spanish Tennis Federation was charged with wildcard selections, as one would expect, a majority of the recipients would be Spanish.


To illustrate, in 2021 five of nine wildcards were awarded to local talent.


Nowadays, although Spaniard Feliciano Lopez remains the tournament director of the Madrid Open, part of IMG’s acquisition of the event included IMG personnel being charged with overseeing its day to day operations.


In a statement posted (in Spanish and translated to English) by tour veteran and Davis Cup tournament director Fernando Verdasco, the Spaniard, in collaboration with a number of his countrymen and women including Carlos Taberner (94) and Pablo Andujar (79), expressed their disappointment in IMG’s new wildcard strategy.


“Given the announcement today of the Mutua Madrid Open regarding the invitations they will offer for this year’s tournament, many Spanish players cannot help but give our opinion. We find it surprising, as well as very frustrating, that the biggest tennis event in Spain shows such little (or no) support for Spanish tennis players with the invitations granted, especially to the main draws.”


“We understand that some of them (tournament organizers) give them (wild cards) at their own discretion, but not that in all of them their commercial interests prevail over Spanish sport and totally leaving the trajectory followed in previous years. We have many tennis players who have remained at the gates of being able to participate, and have been ignored in their requests to receive an invitation. If we look at any other tournament of the same category, the support shown to local tennis players is immensely greater. Without going any further, the tournament in Rome, which is held the week after the one in Madrid, has already announced its first five invitations and all of them are for Italian tennis players”


They went on to say that the players were confident that the Spanish sponsors of the event “want to support Spanish tennis and invest in this tournament with the intention of helping our sport and hoping to see the greatest possible Spanish presence, so we imagine that they share our disappointment and hope that they will manifest it as well.”


In support of her fellow Spaniards Paula Badosa, now ranked number 3 in the world, expressed her disappointment in the decisions, while stating that her wildcard into the Madrid Open last year and subsequent semi-final appearance was the catalyst behind her rise from number 64 in the world.


Debate then raged as to the meritocracy behind discretionary wildcards.


In particular, a beneficiary of one of the prized wildcards, Sir Andy Murray, provided some poignant reminders to the enraged tennis community.


In a series of tweets, Murray highlighted both that no individual deserves a wildcard and that not every country is fortunate enough to host tour level events; and, in those circumstances, wildcards should not be exclusively limited to local talent.

Of course, by definition, wildcards are not merit based. However, the Spanish playing group do have grounds for disappointment as only one Spanish recipient out of nine available wildcards is rather one-sided.


Mind you, a wildcard recipient is not required to turn down the opportunity in favour of the moral preferences of others.


We know that there is no perfect answer as to how to structure a wildcard system. At least not yet. However, the major frustrations with the Australian system centred around a lack of communication and transparency from the decision makers to the playing group.


Of course, the difference between the Australian wildcard system and that employed by the Madrid Open lies in the respective decision makers. In Australia, representatives of Tennis Australia – an organisation charged with the growth of tennis nationally decide who deserves a wildcard.


In contrast, the same decisions in Madrid are made by a private organisation beholden to no one.


To expect IMG to act with the same sense of ‘the greater good’ as events run by national governing bodies would be naïve.


While all events benefit from marquee players such as Murray competing via increased ticket sales, IMG also has the additional benefit of taking a cut of their players income which IMG can directly manipulate by providing their players with entry into top tier tournaments.


It’s clever business really. Buy the event, enjoy the operating profits, maximise your players’ income and take a percentage of that too.


Ultimately, in yet another example of discretionary wildcards upsetting more people than they please, it appears that the frustrations of the Spanish players will continue to exist into the foreseeable future.


After all, IMG have the gold, so they get to make the rules.