What Grega Zemlja Can Tell Us About American Tennis

Last week, virtually unknown Slovenian qualifier Grega Zemlja reached the final in Vienna.  Like many players–Eastern Europeans in particular–in the back half of the top 100, he has finally established a toehold on tour after putting together a good sequence of challenger results.

The final run in Vienna–only his 16th tour-level event–will help keep him in the top 100 for most of the next year, earning him direct entries into all of the Grand Slams and many smaller ATP events.

Zemlja turned 26 one month ago, so he is hardly a “prospect.”  But I call your attention to him because he has achieved his new berth in the top 50 almost entirely by merit.  When the AELTC awarded him a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw this summer, it was the first tour-level wild card of his career.  In fact, he has only received a single wild card into a challenger main draw.

While the Slovenian has been a fixture in the top 200 since the end of 2008, he hasn’t gotten any favors.

The distribution of wild cards

As it turns out, he’s not alone.  21 players in the top 100 (including Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic) didn’t receive a single tour-level wild card before their 25th birthday.  Another 16 (Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer among them) got only one, and yet another 23 received only two.

When I started researching this post, I expected to find that Zemlja was uniquely disadvantaged.  But no: Wild cards are the privilege of players who happen to be born in the right places.  Free entries tend to go to home favorites, with a few more awarded to star youngsters like Grigor Dimitrov.

Thus, the geographical distribution of wild cards has everything to do with where tournaments are located.  And tournament locations have an awful lot to do with where the tennis world was centered 20, 50, or even 100 years ago.

The U.S. of Assistance

Much has been said of Donald Young‘s 27 tour-level wild cards.  (Some of it by Patrick McEnroe, recipient of 37.)  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Did you know that the seven active players who received the most wild cards before age 25 play for the USA?  Young is followed by Mardy Fish, Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey, Jesse Levine, John Isner, and James Blake.  (Blake has been handed by far the most career wild cards, but the majority have come in his more recent comeback attempts.)

The current top 200 players received 748 wild cards before the age of 25.  139, or 18.6% of those, have gone to these seven, or 3.5% of players.

Put simply, the distribution of tennis tournaments doesn’t match the distribution of tennis talent.  The US is the only country with more than one Masters 1000 event–it has three.  Plus a slam.  And two 500s.  And another seven 250s, at least in 2012.

All those tournaments have at least three wild cards to give out.  This year, seven of them handed main draw spots to Jack Sock, who at age 20 has already amassed 10 career tour-level wild cards, more WCs than 90% of the top 200 have received.

A structural problem

This is an easy subject to get worked up about, especially if you prefer to root for players like Zemlja.  Yet it’s difficult to blame anyone in particular.

Tournaments fiercely guard the few wild card spots they are given, so it would be difficult for the ATP to meddle.  The events want to attract fans, and an up-and-comer with an easy-to-pronounce name is a great way to sell tickets.  And you certainly can’t blame a player for accepting main draw berths.

Here’s a modest proposal: Convert a few more “wild card” spots to merit-based spots.  The USTA is doing more of this, setting up playoffs for reciprocal wild card placements at the Australian and French Opens, among other strategies.  But that doesn’t help with geographical distribution, since only Americans can compete!

Better yet is a version of how Zemlja got into Wimbledon.  He won the Nottingham challenger two weeks previous, and the AELTC wasn’t going to give away all the free spots to Brits.  The Slovenian was a deserving up-and-comer, even though he doesn’t play under the right flag.

Perhaps every Slam and Masters event should reserve a spot for the winner of a corresponding challenger.  Or every tournament with a 48-or-bigger draw should be required to hand at least one wild card to a non-national.

If a player is good enough, he’ll break in eventually.  But wouldn’t the sport be better off if some players didn’t have to wait longer than others, based simply on how many tournaments are played in the country they play for?

6 thoughts on “What Grega Zemlja Can Tell Us About American Tennis”

  1. Your article is just a sample of the WC issue. With US tennis its the same kids that get the wc’s, in every tournament. The system allows them to become decent players, because if you get hot one week you can jump up the rankings in a heartbeat. The USTA is upside down, if your not one of the “special kids” they want nothing to do with you, especially the college players. Does the USTA support the other kids, NO, should they, sure. There is no medium ground, either your a special kid and get every WC you cry for, or you get nothing, no WC’s, no coaching and most importantly, your taste and love for the game is diminished. You sit and watch the special kids get every thing, alot of the other kids would be go too, if they had the $ support and coaching and most importantly, the chance. The USTA needs to belive in the other kids, they’ve worked just as hard, in most cases, harder than the special kids and just deserve a CHANCE.

  2. That is some great work and some excellent points. One thing that I know would be harder to figure out is how many of those WCs went to players because they decided to attend a tournament late and would have had to play the qualies, not because of their ranking. I know some of the Americans do not enter tournaments for one reason or another then ‘fall back’ to other tournaments when their schedules open up. They know those will be there, if needed. There’s a certain mindset there.

  3. To illustrate this point, here is a comparison of two 19 year olds.
    Oliver Golding has 89 points and has earned approx. $42,000 this year.
    Jiri Vesely has exactly twice as many points, 178, and has earned $25,000.
    Golding made more than half his money through wild cards to British events, with Wimbledon being a particularly good earner. It’s iniquitous for sure when failure can earn more than success.

    1. Yes, good point.

      In some cases, the comparison is even more galling — WCs lead to more money AND more points, even without a lot of wins. I’ve got another post coming up early next week illustrating that further.

    2. Oli was going to get a wildcard b/c he won the US Open juniors last year, and the LTA need to hype him. Also, I was looking at Vesely’s year, and every Challenger event he played in was on a wild card (also Aussie Open qualies), so it’s not like he got no help.

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