Better Players in Smaller Tournaments

Last week, Jurgen Melzer entered the qualifying draw of the ATP Zagreb Indoor event.  Melzer is ranked about #40 in the world; players ranked at least #116 earned direct entry into the main draw.  Melzer decided long after the entry deadline that he wanted some matches in advance of this week’s Davis Cup, so he took the only route remaining open: qualies.

This precise scenario is not a common one.  Because tournament entries must be submitted so early, top players err on the side of entering too many.  If they ultimately decide not to play, there’s usually a convenient injury and an apologetic withdrawal.  When top players do make last-minute decisions, like Melzer did, tournament organizers often have a wild card to spare, giving the star direct entry.

It’s tempting to say that there’s a problem with the early deadlines for tournament entries.  Surely, if players didn’t have to decide so early, they might choose to enter more 250s and 500s.  But the early deadlines are there for a reason.  Not only do they allow players and their entourages to make travel arrangements, but they also lock players in so that tournaments can advertise their lineups.

The problem may not be with early deadlines, but we do have a sub-optimal arrangements.  Players enter tournaments they may not play (and tournaments advertise players who won’t show up), players don’t enter tournaments they may want to play (and events can’t advertise those players), and tournaments have less direct control over their field than they would prefer.  32-draw events only get three wild cards, and they want more.

Here’s my solution: Every withdrawal turns into an additional wild card.

Almost every tournament sees a player or two withdraw after the entry deadline but long before the start of qualifying.  Currently, those openings go to the highest-ranked entrant not yet in the main draw.  It’s not uncommon to see a half-dozen alternates in a main draw, sometimes including guys far down the list, after other alternates have opted for challengers or other ATP events.

Here are some benefits of my proposal:

  • Most obviously, tournaments have more control over their draws.  Rather than admitting a handful of players ranked between #100 and #120, they can add the top-tenner who lost his first-round match last week.   Or a local hero who just won a challenger.
  • More importantly, fans get (probably) better and (definitely) more crowd-pleasing players.  The best players (regardless of box-office value) are still invited to enter, and tournament directors have more leeway to give the fans what they want.
  • Players have less reason to enter events they may not play.  (Of course, this could become something of a vicious cycle–fewer entries lead to fewer withdrawals, which leads to fewer additional wild cards … which could result in more of these entries.)
  • Players can get into events at the last minute.  Melzer would get his Davis Cup warmup without have to go through qualifying.

There are a few potential drawbacks:

  • Fewer opportunities for journeyman pros.  Under my plan, Melzer would’ve booted Grega Zemlja, a guy to whom the tennis establishment hasn’t exactly granted many favors.  Then again, Zemlja isn’t likely to do much for the tennis establishment, either.
  • Tournaments could use the extra wild cards to weaken a draw with low-ranked locals.  A tournament director wanted to do some favors could easily turn Delray Beach into a clone of the Dallas Challenger.  To avoid that, the rule could be supplemented by stipulating that only one of the additional wild cards could be used on a player outside the top 200.   Any number of variations would maintain the quality of the draw.
  • It’s conceivable that tournaments could pressure players to withdraw, making room for a box-office draw.  That’s an ugly situation to imagine, and an appropriately stringent policy would need to be put in place to prevent it.

The only clear losers here are journeyman pros–the guys who hang around on the fringes of the main draws but would not regularly receive wild cards as compensation.  As much as I like those guys, their occasional entry as an alternate into an ATP 250 main draw is a sacrifice I would be willing to make.

The potential benefits are simply too great.  More good players–and by extension, more good matches–in more tournaments? It is almost too easy.

One thought on “Better Players in Smaller Tournaments”

  1. The other access for lower ranked players is the qualifying draw, which at Rotterdam next week allows 16 players to compete for 4 spots in the 500 level tournie. So they are not completely at the mercy of what the higher ranked players and tournament promoters do.

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