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The Great Sydney Wildcard Debate: Breaking Down the Rules

By: Ivan Xie

A visibly upset Tsvetana Pironkova faced the press on Monday to discuss her denial of a main draw wildcard at the Apia International in Sydney:

“Yeah, I did apply for a wildcard, but I got declined. I was just as shocked as most people…I was like, obviously you’re not getting a wildcard. Get over it and try your best.”

The defending champion had narrowly missed out on making the main draw and was forced to play three rounds of qualifying to begin her title defense. After surviving a difficult opening match, she cruised past Donna Vekic and Nicole Gibbs to claim a place in the tournament. Once there, she took out No. 8 seed Flavia Pennetta in straight sets, and led Madison Keys in the second set before the young American retired with a right shoulder injury. Even though (or perhaps because) she managed to qualify and is now into the quarterfinals, it begs the question:

Does a defending champion deserve direct acceptance, regardless of ranking?

Typically, the tournament is only too happy happy to offer a wildcard to last year’s winner; not doing so can be seen as disrespectful by the tournament. Just last year, for example, the same tournament offered a wildcard to Bernard Tomic, whose rank had fallen to No. 51, and below the main draw cut-off. Tomic is a talented hometown favorite, to be sure, but the tournament has been criticized for not extending the same courtesy to Pironkova.

Should a new provision be added for defending champions? Obviously, it would be one used sparingly, but this has been an idea touted by a number of people within tennis media.

The provision itself could take a number of forms – a special wildcard reserved for defending champions in need; a condition allowing players to gain a Special Exempt; or perhaps simply an automatic direct entrance, in addition to the current number of wildcards and Special Exempts allowed on the WTA. The most practical and “fair” option for the WTA would be to include the previous year’s defending champion as a condition for receiving a Top 20 wildcard, putting it in a separate category and thus would not diminish the number of wildcards available for tournaments to give to local and promising players. Considering how rarely these wildcards are used anyway, it’s something that would likely satisfy all parties involved.

Victoria Azarenka was hoping for a Sydney WC after an early Brisbane loss. Photo: Christopher Levy

Victoria Azarenka was hoping for a Sydney WC after an early Brisbane loss. Photo: Christopher Levy

There was a similar incident which occurred this week, as well; 2012 winner Victoria Azarenka also applied for a wildcard but, like Pironkova, was summarily rejected. As mentioned, the WTA does have a special category known as the Top 20 wildcard, one which engenders much confusion because in International-level tournaments only, if a Top 20 wildcard isn’t used:

…the tournament must award a Top 20 Wild Card to any Top 20 Player, past Grand Slam singles champion, past WTA Finals singles champion, past Premier Mandatory tournament singles champion, and/or former WTA No. 1 ranked singles player requestion one.

However, this provision is not allowed for Premier tournaments like Sydney. In Azarenka’s case, she ended the 2014 season ranked No. 32; to be eligible for a Top 20 wildcard, a player must be ranked in the world’s Top 10 or had a ranking of 11-20 at the end of the preceding tour year.

In a week where the wildcard debate was already in full force tournament has received much that much more – in this case unnecessary – criticism due to a misunderstanding of the rules. The existing provision would’ve allowed the former No. 1 to receive a wildcard at Hobart, but she did not apply for one.

The rules surrounding the wildcard distribution are both complex and highly regulated, but this is necessary to maintain the quality of main draw matches on the tour and ensure that they are offered to deserving players.

Follow Ivan on Twitter @fanaticaltennis!

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2 Comments on The Great Sydney Wildcard Debate: Breaking Down the Rules

  1. it was a bit odd to see pironkova having to qualify for sydney this year, but I guess tournament organisers were following regulations and preferred to give wildcard to aussies (which is fair I guess, and gadjosova/gavrilova have played well)

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  2. Strange one. I think a defending champion should have the right to defend his/her title regardless of ranking. I suspect because the champion would normally be expected to be high enough in the rankings to get automatic entry that this scenario was never thought of.

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