Following Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler’s triumph as wildcard entrants, a year on from the Special K’s feat, Tennis Australia must be thrilled.
Two years. Two slams. The only two pairings to ever do it.
However, having learned of the frustration inside the locker room at Tennis Australia’s wildcard decision-making twelve months ago, The First Serve has monitored the situation.
It would appear that little has changed.
Common complaints among the playing group in 2022 included allegations of favouritism; a lack of transparency; little to no means of communication; and a complete absence of formal structure regarding the wildcard application and selection process.
By way of example, some players who had voiced their desire to be considered a wildcard recipient only learned they’d missed out once the tournament draw was released.
Others entered the tournament with their doubles partner of choice only to find out their partner had been replaced with another player leaving them out in the cold.
More accomplished players were seemingly overlooked without explanation and “Lleyton’s boys”, as Max Purcell said, appeared to be given priority.
The same thing happened this year.
Some of the more bizarre examples this year include Aleksandar Vukic being overlooked for a singles main draw wildcard despite having made the second round in 2022 and being the third-ranked Australian outside direct entry.
Venus Williams’ selection raised eyebrows among fans and players alike before her eventual withdrawal.
Two eighteen-year-old kids ranked over 650 spots from the qualifying cut-off were selected and failed to make a splash.
Vukic himself was then perplexingly awarded a doubles wildcard alongside John Millman. Vukic does not have a doubles ranking. Millman is outside the top 1050.
Alex Bolt was awarded one with a doubles ranking of 899 and career doubles players with higher rankings were overlooked completely in favour of more established singles players who, realistically, are not interested in the paired format.
Of course, the singles player formula has proven exceptionally successful. Although some are perhaps more deserving than others, you can understand how those that dedicate their lives to the half-court game feel harshly done by.
Perhaps the most interesting selection of all was one that went almost completely unnoticed.
American McKenzie Macdonald (#84) and Brazilian Marcelo Melo (#39) received a wildcard into the doubles main draw.
As a team, the pair qualified within the direct acceptance cut off meaning the only reason they would need a wildcard would be due to their own failure to register for the event on time.
Tennis Australia is known to have a policy for its domestic players that reads to this effect: “if you can’t organise yourself to register on time, don’t expect a wildcard to get you out of jail”.
Fair enough, too.
Although apparently, this policy doesn’t extend to international competitors. Making matters more intriguing is the fact that this pair would be far less likely to fill a stadium than a pair of Australians.
Tennis Australia did not respond when questioned by The First Serve.
Having spoken to some disgruntled players, we’ve outlined the three major flaws with the wildcard system below.
No structure, no dialogue
The Tennis Australia website includes a link for players to apply for wildcards into the Australian Open and other lead-in events. The link itself is not operational nor are the players actually required to utilise it.
In any event, players are under the impression that there is no official process to apply for a wildcard. Rather they simply sign up to enter the event which itself acts as the signal to decision-makers that the player is interested. There are no formal means of communication or other dialogue involved.
The result is that players remain totally oblivious to their prospects and are left unable to make alternative arrangements often until it is too late.
To illustrate, one Australian doubles player – who spoke to The First Serve under the condition of anonymity for fear of being blacklisted by TA – entered into the doubles draw with a favourably ranked compatriot and had hopes of receiving a wildcard. Despite their apparent credentials, the pair were overlooked.
The most frustrating part, so our player said, was that they were not informed of the decision until the draw was released which meant they were not able to travel elsewhere to play a lower-tier event in pursuit of prize money and ranking points.
In effect, they’ve now wasted a week where their rivals are gaining points and they’re stuck in no man’s land.
Worse still was the anxiety, disappointment, and crushing devastation of being overlooked.
It cannot be too much to ask that players learn of their fate with enough time to be able to make alternate arrangements. Waiting until the Saturday before the Australian Open (or any event for that matter) starts is unnecessary and, in some instances, cruel.
Different year, same players
The nature of wildcards is that if you’re good enough (unless coming back from injury) you won’t need one. Tennis is after all the ultimate meritocracy.
Speaking to two players, one who was and another who was not selected for a wildcard, a common complaint emerged.
That being that each year, the same players seem to get the same reward to the detriment of others.
One male player this year received his nineteenth main draw wildcard across all events.
Another female player received her fourteenth. Another her thirteenth.
The financial investment this represents in these players is extraordinary.
Yet, come January of each year, they fail to qualify on their own merit.
You can’t begrudge a player for accepting a wildcard but it only takes a quick look at the rankings to see which players are missing what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so that Tennis Australia may continue to pour money into an investment that has not provided returns.
Of course, some players are given years’ worth of opportunities at a young age to kick-start their progress while others do not reach the level required to be considered until they’re more developed.
Perhaps it has reached a point where players’ past opportunities need to be considered when deciding who gets this year’s golden tickets.
The wildcard selection panel is made up of the Head of Men’s or Women’s tennis, the Davis Cup and Fed Cup Captains, the Director of Performance, and the Tournament Director, Craig Tiley with the latter two named decision makers.
The suggestion is that the panel confer to make decisions as a collective.
The belief within the playing group is that while this may happen to a point, in reality, a list is given to Tiley who makes the final call.
Whether the tournament director should have veto powers is a complex discussion. On the one hand, no one would better understand the commercial benefits that recipients like Dominic Thiem can bring.
On the other, Tiley hasn’t even met some players so it is difficult to imagine he is across the minutia of their progression and development. He is, if nothing else, a very busy man.
One recipient ranked higher than nearly all their peers noted that a strong relationship with the Tournament Director was a crucial ingredient for wildcard selection.
That said, no one ‘deserves’ a wildcard. By definition and design, they are discretionary beasts.
However, you’d think that those charged with managing the playing cohort more intimately would be better suited to making the call on who would make the best use of these precious spots.
One solution may be that those across the commercial arrangements could reserve a number of wildcards for those like Sam Stosur or Dominic Thiem while leaving decisions regarding Australian players on the fringe to those with whom they deal more closely.
In exploring and investigating this topic one thing becomes abundantly clear. The current system is leaving many players disenfranchised. Even some that are successful despise the process.
But speaking on record is not something many players are willing to do.
They know not to bite the hand that feeds them.
If they can break into the top 100 the wildcard process will be irrelevant to them. Yet they are wise enough to understand that tennis offers no guarantees and it may not be long until they would need another hand-out.
Irrespective of the success stories, the process itself needs some work.