Who are Wild Cards?
Almost every ATP tournament has a few entrants designated as “Wild Cards.” These are guys who either didn’t enter on time or whose ranking didn’t qualify them for a tournament, but got in anyway. Most ATP events have 3-5 WC spots, and the grand slams generally have 8.
Anecdotally, it’s clear that WCs fall into a four main categories. Tournament organizers usually use WC spots to generate more interest in their event, so there is usually some element of crowd-pleasing in most of these categories. Note that they often overlap.
- Local players who didn’t make the cut. The US Open has almost turned this into a science–it generally awards WCs to the top-ranked US players who did not qualify for the main draw. Usually “local” means “home country,” but issues of residency can complicate things. Also, some countries that host tournaments do not have strong national tennis programs so they turn to neighboring countries; thus, a Kuwaiti gets a WC into Dubai, etc.
- Former top-ranked players who are aging or returning from injury. The two players who got the most ATP-level wild cards last year were Taylor Dent and Marcos Baghdatis, both fighting back from injury (and, not coincidentally, fan favorites). Sebastian Grosjean and Gaston Gaudio both got 5. These seem to be more likely to go to players who have had success at the specific event.
- Current top players who didn’t enter the tournament. Marin Cilic got three WCs last year, all when he was ranked in the top 20. Sometimes a player returns from injury quicker than expected or needs more practice after a couple of quick exits. Even Federer took a WC once last year; Murray took one this year.
- Stud juniors. In 2008, Grigor Dimitrov won the boys’ singles at both Wimbledon and the US Open. He was rewarded the following year with wild cards into 6 ATP-level events. We could put John Isner into the same category based on his college success–he got 5 last year. Dimitrov is a better example, though, since all 6 of his WCs came outside of his native Bulgaria. 4 of Isner’s 5 came in the US, and the 5th was in the Aussie Open, on the reciprocal wild card granted to the USTA.
I found 225 wild cards in my database of ATP-level matches from 2009. 127 of the 225 lost in the first round, and they had an overall record of 169-222 (43.2%).
Once we start to break them down, we might expect that the local boys are less successful. And we’d be right. Here are W-L records for guys playing in and out of their home country:
- Home: 41.2%
- Non-home: 46.8%
But…those “non-home” players represent a very mixed bag. Cilic went 10-3 as a WC in Basel, Beijing, and Vienna and Fernando Verdasco won New Haven as a WC, but Dimitrov went 2-6 and Baghdatis went 3-8.
Let’s break down the numbers one step further. We’ll assume that if a player was ranked in the top 40 the week of the tournament, he would have made the cut and falls into my third category above. Here are the winning percentages for the four ensuing groups:
- Home + top 40: 6-1 (85.7%) — only two players, including Roddick, who won Memphis on a WC
- Home + not top 40: 97-146 (40.0%)
- Not home + top 40: 26-11 (70.3%)
- Not home + not top 40: 40-64 (38.5%)
Taking out the guys who didn’t really need WCs, the numbers start to even out more.
How Good Is That?
Most tennis players would rather win more than 40% of their matches, but as a WC who couldn’t make the cut, is that a respectable showing?
As I discovered by accident in an earlier project, wild cards do better than their rankings would suggest. Put crudely, if you have two matches where the 100th-ranked player is playing the 30th-ranked player and in one of them, the 100th-ranked player is a wild card, the wild card is the one more likely to win. ATP rankings represent a lot of information, much of which has predictive value, but tournament organizers often draw on knowledge that is not encapsulated in the ranking, whether that be home-court advantage, dominance more than one year ago, or something else.