Why Maria Sharapova Should Get a French Open Wild Card

Maria Sharapova has returned from a 15-month doping suspension and hardly missed a step, advancing to the semifinals of her first tournament back, in the WTA Premier event in Stuttgart. While the draw has done her some favors–Ekaterina Makarova knocked out Agnieszka Radwanska, and Anett Kontaveit ousted Garbine Muguruza, Sharapova has shown she’s ready to compete at the highest level, winning about 57% of points against three credible opponents.

Many players have publicly stated that Sharapova doesn’t deserve to get wild cards, often because WCs are a sort of bonus, and a player who broke the rules doesn’t deserve any kind of handout. We’re likely to hear a lot more about it, as we won’t learn her status for the French Open for another two weeks.

However, wild cards are at the discretion of each individual tournament, and barring new regulations for players returning from doping bans, tournaments have their own incentives. Events often choose wild cards from a marketing perspective, granting main draw spots to former stars, young prospects, or local favorites.

Tournaments don’t have an explicit contract with their fans, but if they did, it would have to begin with an obligation to put the highest-quality product on the court. Most of the time, the ATP and WTA ranking and entry systems accomplish this, guaranteeing main draw places to the highest-ranked players. Occasionally, though, the ranking system fails and massively underrates the quality of a player.

Sharapova, obviously, is such a case. Unranked this week, and ranked #262 next week if she loses today to Kristina Mladenovic, she is already performing at the level of a top-20 player. My research suggests she may very soon be the best active player in women’s tennis, even if it takes many months for her official ranking to catch up.

Wild cards are the only mechanism tournaments are given to correct for the limitations of the ranking system. If the French Open (or any other event) wants to improve the quality of their draw, it should give Sharapova a wild card. If I am right that tournaments owe it to the fans to put on court the highest-level competition they possibly can, there are few opportunities so clear-cut as this one to improve the quality of a draw with a single player’s entry.

I can hear the objections already. First, as so many have claimed, Sharapova doesn’t “deserve” this kind of benefit. Yet by definition, wild cards are for players who don’t deserve a main draw entry. If they deserved one, their ranking (or “special” or “protected” ranking, if returning from injury) would guarantee them one. We use the words “deserve” and “earn” rather vaguely in this context, perhaps saying that a former great in his final year deserves a wild card based on his past contributions to tennis, or that a player has earned the free entry because she won a play-off of some sort.

It’s certainly true that some wild cards are more earned than others, but ultimately it’s beside the point. Even if it offends our sense of fairness, the players who most deserve a place in a draw are those who will make it more competitive. Last year, the French Federation gave wild cards to the likes of Alize Lim and Tessah Andrianjafitrimo, who lost in the first round to Qiang Wang without winning a single game. The eight wild cards won a total of three matches–one of them against another wild card. Except by virtue of being French, most of these wild cards didn’t do much to earn their places, and they had almost no impact on the tournament itself.

Beyond the claim that Sharapova, having broken the rules, doesn’t deserve a handout, there is a more extreme position, that her 15-month suspension wasn’t a sufficiently severe punishment. We can group that with another potential objection, that the French Open can’t be seen to endorse a doper. This is one of the many unfortunate side-effects of a weak central authority in tennis. By this argument, every tournament with the option of granting Sharapova an entry is required to re-litigate her doping ban. Even if we sidestep some of the controversial aspects of her ban and stipulate that she knowingly did something very bad, this seems nonsensical.

The whole point of having a central authority for doping enforcement is so that tournaments needn’t all police the players themselves. By issuing a 15-month ban, the ITF essentially spoke for all affiliated tournaments, saying that after 15 months (and exactly one day, as it turned out), Sharapova’s penalty would be paid and she would, in a sense, be rehabilitated. Giving a rehabilitated player a wild card is in no way an endorsement of her behavior, any more than giving a job to an ex-convict is an endorsement of the criminal act that put him in jail.

As a fan–even when I wish Sharapova wouldn’t win so many matches against my favorites–I want to see the best possible level of tennis every week. Now that her suspension is complete, every week that Sharapova wants to compete but can’t enter a top-level event is a missed opportunity for the sport. As great as the French Open is, it would be better with Sharapova than without her.

Podcast Episode 2: Doubles, Wild Cards, and Megastars

In the second episode of the Tennis Abstract Podcast, Carl Bialik and I give some much-deserved top billing to doubles, especially new ATP No. 1 Henri Kontinen and Elo doubles favorite Jack Sock.

We also cover the role of megastars in tennis, and the benefits and challenges they offer to the sport’s promoters. As we discuss, big names may be key to expanding the appeal of doubles, and they are the one major argument for the continuing existence of wild cards–on whichever side of the Maria Sharapova debate you find yourself.

Listen here, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.


Regulations for Returning Rule-Breakers

Next month, Maria Sharapova will complete her 15-month doping ban and return to the WTA tour in Stuttgart, where she has been granted a wild card. It’s no surprise that tournaments are eager to invite an extremely marketable former No. 1, and Sharapova has already lined up wild cards for the Premier-level events in Madrid and Rome.

This has generated no small amount of controversy. Many people see wild cards as a sort of reward or gift that is inappropriate for a player caught breaking such a serious rule. Many fans and fellow players think that, even after she has undergone a severe penalty, Sharapova doesn’t deserve this type of advantage.

Crucially, neither the ITF–which handles drug testing and issued the suspension–nor the WTA–which sets the guidelines for tournament entry–has anything to say about the situation. Each event must make its own decision. The French Open may refuse to invite Sharapova this year (and Wimbledon could follow suit) but any other tournament organizer who cares about selling tickets and sponsorships would want her in the draw.

In other words, with the possible exception of Paris and London, Sharapova will be able to pick up where she left off, entering whichever tournaments she wishes. The only disadvantage is that she won’t be seeded, meaning that we could see some draws that will make the Indian Wells quarter of death look like a friendly club tournament. If she plays well and stays healthy, she’ll probably earn her way to some seeds before the end of the season.

I’m not interested the argument about whether Sharapova “deserves” these wild cards. I’m not a fan of tournaments handing prize money and ranking points opportunities to favorites in any case, but on the other hand, Maria’s penalty was already severe. It doesn’t seem right that she would spend months scrambling for points in lower-level ITFs. When Viktor Troicki was suspended for one year in 2013, he was granted only two tour-level wild cards, so he needed six months to regain his former ranking.

My concern is for the Troickis of the tennis world. Both Sharapova’s and Troicki’s comebacks will ultimately be shaped by the decisions of individual tournaments, so Sharapova–an immensely marketable multiple-Slam winner–will get in almost everywhere she wants, while Troicki was forced to start almost from zero. Put another way: Sharapova’s 15-month ban will last 15 months (exactly 15 months, since she’ll play her first-round match in Stuttgart on the first possible day) while Troicki’s 12-month suspension knocked him out of contention for almost 18 months.

The WTA needs a set of rules that determine exactly what a player can expect upon return from a suspension. Fortunately, they already have something in place that can be adapted to serve the purpose: the “special ranking” for those with long-term injuries. (The ATP’s “protected ranking” rule is similar.) If a player is out of action for more than six months, she can use the ranking she held when she last competed to enter up to eight events, including up to two Premier Mandatories and two Grand Slams. Whether the player is iconic or anonymous, she has a fair chance to rebuild her ranking after recovering from injury.

This is my proposal: When a player returns from suspension, treat her like a player returning from injury, with one difference: For the first year back, no wild cards.  Sharapova would get into eight events–she might choose Stuttgart, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros, Birmingham, Wimbledon, Toronto, and Cincinnati. If she played well in her first two months back, she would probably have a high enough ranking to get into the US Open without help, and the whole issue would cease to matter.

The details don’t need to be exactly the same as post-injury comebacks. I can imagine including two to four additional special ranking entries into ITFs or qualifying, in case a player wants to work her way back to tour level, as a sort of rehab assignment. The important thing here is that the rules would be the same for everyone. As harsh as Sharapova’s penalty is, it pales in comparison to the effect a 15-month ban could have on a less popular tour regular, as Troicki’s example demonstrates.

Like it or not, there will be more doping bans, and unless the tours institute this sort of standardized treatment, there will be more controversies about whether this player or that player deserves wild cards after they return to the tour. The ultimate severity of a penalty will always depend on many factors, but a player’s popularity should never be one of them.

Dodig’s Consistency, IBM’s Offensive, and Hopeless Wild Cards

Ivan Dodig just missed out on a seeding at this year’s US Open.  Ranked 37th when seeds were assigned, he had ascended as high as #35, largely on the strength of his fourth-round showing at Wimbledon.

While the Croatian could have drawn any seed as early as the first round, he got lucky, pulling 27th-seeded Fernando Verdasco.  My forecast underlines his fortune, giving him a 51% chance to advance to the round of 64, then roughly even odds again to make the round of 32 against (probably) Nikolay Davydenko–another player who fell just outside the seed cut.

Making the Dodig-Verdasco comparison more interesting is that in the last 52 weeks, the unseeded player has won more matches (38 to 29) with a higher winning percentage (58% to 56%).  What the Spaniard has done, however, is bunch his wins much more effectively than his first round opponent.  While Dodig achieved a career highlight with his R16 showing in London, Verdasco made the quarters.  Fernando reached the final in Bastad, and earlier in the year, won two matches at the Madrid Masters.

A telling comparison is that while Dodig has lost five opening-round matches in the last year, Verdasco has lost nine.  As Carl Bialik explained two years ago, consistency isn’t such a great thing in tennis.  Certainly, the ATP rankings–and the seedings that utilize them–prefer inconsistency.

You know there’s a Grand Slam in the offing when the PR pieces from IBM start to appear.  Last week, a particularly bald-faced plant showed up in the New York Times, a publication that–one fervently hopes–should know better.

This particular piece includes such hard-hitting journalism as, “The keys are updated during matches to track any shift in momentum, and they correlate well with the final outcome,” and “These extra features are likely to drive traffic to the event’s Web site, USOpen.org, and its various mobile versions. ”

The Times should be embarrassed.  What makes this particularly frustrating to the statistically-oriented fan is that while IBM speaks the right language, the results of this effort to “fulfill fans’ desire for deeper knowledge” are so disappointing.

The much-vaunted Keys to the Match are frequently arbitrary, often bizarre.  In Kei Nishikori‘s second-round match at Wimbledon, one of his “Keys” was to “Win between 71 and 89 of winners on the forehand side.”  He didn’t do that–whatever it means, exactly. He didn’t meet the goals set by his two other Keys, either, yet he won the match in straight sets.

Most frustrating to those of us who want actual analysis, the underlying data–to the extent it is available at all–is buried almost beyond the possibility of a fan’s use.  IBM–like Hawkeye–is collecting so much data, yet doing so little with it.

Lots of fans do desire more statistical insight. Much more. The raw material is increasingly collected, yet the deeper knowledge remains elusive.

Stay with me as I leap from one hobby-horse to another.

Wild cards cropped up as a topic of conversation last weekend, largely thanks to Lindsay Gibbs’s piece for Sports on Earth, in which Jose Higueras said, “If it was up to me, there would be no wild cards. Wild cards create entitlement for the kids. I think you should be in the draw if you actually are good enough to get in the draw.”

I don’t object to wild cards used as rewards, like the one that goes to the USTA Boys’ 18s champion, or the ones that the USTA awards based on Challenger performance in a set series of events.  There’s even a place for WCs as a way to get former greats into the draw. James Blake shouldn’t have gotten the deluge of free passes that he has received in the last few years, but it’s probably good for the sport to have him in more top-level events than he strictly deserves.

The problem stems from all the other wild cards, and not just from a player development perspective.  Are fans going to get that much enjoyment out of one or two matches from the likes of Rhyne Williams and Ryan Harrison, Americans who didn’t have a high enough ranking to make the cut?  Of the fourteen Americans in the men’s main draw, six were wild cards, and it would shock no one if those six guys failed to win a single match.

There are further effects, as well.  By exempting Williams, Harrison, Tim Smyczek, and Brian Baker from the qualifying tournament, fans seeking quality American tennis last week barely got to see any.  Donald Young–who has received far too many wild cards himself–was the only American to qualify, largely because the US players at the same level as the other would-be qualifiers didn’t have to compete.  The remaining Americans were in over their heads.

This leads me to a great alternative suggested by Juan José Vallejo on Twitter: Be liberal with free passes in qualifying, and take the opportunity to promote those early rounds much more.  At the Citi Open a few weeks ago, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday for qualifying were comparable to those Monday and Tuesday.  Because qualifying often falls on the weekend, the crowds are there.  But if they want to see Jack Sock play, they’ve got to come back Tuesday night (and spend a lot more money), and they’re much more likely to see him overmatched by a better, more experienced player.

Cut the entitlement, improve the quality of main draw play, and give the fans more chances to watch up-and-coming stars.  I wish there was a chance this would happen.

How Much Do Wild Cards Matter?

Last week, I presented a lot of data that demonstrated how American (and to a lesser extent, French, Australian, and British) players receive the bulk of ATP wild cards, mostly because there are so many tournaments in these countries.  That leaves nationals of other countries to fight their way up through the rankings more slowly, earning less money and facing tougher odds.

How bad is it?  Does it really help to get a handful of free entries, especially if most wild cards are doomed to lose in the first round or two?

To get a sense of the effect, let’s take a look at Jack Sock, the most gifted recipient of wild cards in 2012.  He entered seven tour-level events this year, all on free passes.  (He was also wildcarded into another three challengers and the Cincinnati Masters qualifying draw.)  If you take away the wild cards, he would’ve played a couple of challengers, some qualifying draws for US 250s, leaving him to fill most of his calendar with futures.

As it is, Sock has boosted his ranking from 381 to 164 in a single year, earning $137,000 along the way.  About half of that comes from his third-round showing at the US Open, which required him to beat Florian Mayer (who retired) and Flavio Cipolla, not a particularly tall order (as it were).  Another $27,000 came entirely from first-round losses–tournaments that he didn’t earn his way into, and where he failed to win a match.

I don’t mean to pick on Sock.  Kudos to him for winning as many matches as he has this year and establishing himself as one of the better prospects in the game.  But if he weren’t from a Grand Slam-hosting country, he would have been lucky to get a single wild card, perhaps benefiting from two or three freebies at the challenger level.  He would have spent most of 2012 on the futures circuit, hoping to pick up the occasional $1,300 winner’s check.

What would have happened then?  A handy test case is Diego Sebastian Schwartzman, a young Argentine about one month older than Sock.  At the end of last year, Schwartzman was ranked 371 to Sock’s 381.  Schwartzman doesn’t exactly constitute a scientific control group, but as a point of reference, we couldn’t ask for much more.

In terms of on-court performance, Schwartzman may well have had a better 2012 than Sock did.  The Argentine won six Futures events on the South American clay, and he added another four doubles titles at that level.  He wasn’t nearly as successful at the next level, going 5-10 in Challenger and ATP qualifiying matches.  Perhaps he was a bit worn down from his 49 Futures singles matches this year.

It’s an open question whether Sock or Schwartzman had the more impressive year.  Some might prefer the American’s challenger title and handful of top-100 scalps; others would prefer Schwartzman’s 30-match winning streak at the Futures level.

But here’s the kicker: While Sock made $137,000 and raised his ranking to #164, Schwartzman made $17,000 and is currently ranked #245.  By showing up at the Indian Wells Masters and losing in the first round, Sock made about as much money as Schwartzman did by winning six tournaments.

The rankings differential isn’t as striking, but it is just as important for both players in the near future.  Sock was able to earn direct entry in the Tiburon Challenger earlier this month.  A ranking inside the top 200 is good enough to get into almost all Challengers and a substantial number of ATP qualifiers.  245 will get you into many of the Challenger events with lower stakes (read: less money, fewer points on offer) and a much smaller number of ATP qualifiers.

Thus, the favors handed to the American–and never considered for the Argentine–will effect the trajectory of both players’ careers for some time to come.

Andrea Collarini, perhaps you’d like to reconsider?

Which Tournaments Award Competitive Wild Cards?

For the last two days, we’ve looked at tour-level wild cards from various angles.  Many top players never received any; others have gotten plenty but never taken much advantage.  Still others have managed to prop up their rankings with occasional wild cards despite not having the game to take themselves to the next level.

Wild cards are perhaps most interesting from a structural perspective.  Every tournament gets to give away between three and eight free spots in the main draw, and what they do with them is fascinating.  Events must pick from among several priorities: Bring in the best possible players to build a competitive field? Award places to big names, even if they are unlikely to win more than a single match?  Support national objectives (and perhaps invest in future fan interest) by handing the places to the best rising stars the home country has to offer?

Obviously, these priorities conflict.  The Canada Masters events give out most of their wild cards to Canadians–56 of the last 59.  But those local favorites have failed to win even one quarter of their matches, the second worst record for home-country wild cards among the current Masters events.  Wimbledon is the least home-friendly of the Grand Slams, but perhaps it is still too friendly, as British wild cards have won barely one in five matches over the last 15 years.  Lately, it has been even worse.

The dilemma is most pronounced for tournaments in countries without a strong tennis presence.  These events generally hand out most of their wild cards to non-locals, saving a few for the best the homeland has to offer.  Dubai, for instance, has only awarded 10 of its last 42 wild cards to Emiratis.  Unfortunately, those guys have gone 0-10.  The story is similar in Doha and Kuala Lumpur.

A different approach is evident in Tokyo, the only remaining tournament in Japan.  These days, the 32-player draw only gives the event three wild cards to work with.  The tournament isn’t wasting spots on outsiders: Every wild card since 1992 has gone to a Japanese player.  The local wild cards have done better than we might guess, winning almost 30% of their matches, good for 45th among the 65 tournaments I looked at.

In fact, there is not a strong correlation between home-country favoritism and poor wild-card performance.  Of long-running tournaments, Newport has seen their wild cards have the most success, winning more than half their matches.  Next on the list is Halle, also a bit better than half.  But the two tournaments take drastically different approaches to local players.  Newport only awards 63% of its WCs to Americans–second-lowest among tourneys in the USA.  Halle, on the other hand, gives nearly all of its free spots to Germans.

When discussing the structural biases of the wild card system, it’s easy to pick on the USA.  America hosts far more tournaments than any other country, and thus US events have the most wild cards at their discretion.  Many of those decisions are made by a single organization, the USTA.  But US tournaments are far from consistent in their approach.

The US Open is by far the most nationalistic of the Grand Slams, having awarded about 85% of its WCs in the last 15 years to US players.  The French comes next at 78%, then the Australian at 69%, followed by Wimbledon at 67%.  But even that understates the case.  Take out the French reciprocal wild cards since 2008 and the Australian reciprocals since 2005, and 100 of the last 105 wild cards in Flushing have represented the home nation.

Yet as we’ve seen, Newport shows less home-country favoritism than almost any other ATP event, and the Miami Masters is even more extreme, living up to its billing as the “South American Slam” by giving barely half of its wild cards to US players.  Even the most biased US tournament (aside from the Open) is the clay court event in Houston, which isn’t even in the top third of all events, handing out “only” 86% of wild cards to Americans.

The problem isn’t the behavior of US tournament officials–if anything, they are more international in their thinking than their colleagues in other countries.  Instead, their priorities–put home-country players on the court; amass a competitive field–combined with the sheer number of US events, result in one wild card after another for a small group of Americans and no equivalent advantages for players from countries that do not host tour-level events.

After the jump, find a table with many of the numbers I’ve referred to throughout this post.  All tour-level events that took place in 2011 or 2012 are included, and data goes back to 1998. homeWC% is percentage of WCs that went to home- country players, WCW% is the winning percentage of all wild cards, and hWCW% is win% of all wild cards from the home country.  I’ve excluded wild cards who were seeded, since those are usually just late entries, and don’t reflect tournament priorities in the same way that other WCs do.  For a sortable table with even more data, click here.

Continue reading Which Tournaments Award Competitive Wild Cards?

Who Takes Advantage of Wild Cards?

Yesterday, we saw that ATP tour-level wild cards are the privilege of just a small subset of top pros.  If you play for a Grand Slam-hosting country, or you are a major junior prospect, you’ll get plenty.  If you fit neither of those categories, you’re on your own.  Donald Young gets 27 wild cards while better players work for years to earn their way into as many as 27 ATP main draws.

This discrepancy raises plenty of questions, not least the issue of whether the wild card status quo is good for tennis.

The title of this post raises another: Who used those wild cards to rocket to the top?  Andy Roddick is one, having amassed a 20-9 record, including two titles and one Masters-level quarterfinal, from 11 wild cards spots in 2000 and 2001.  On the flip side is Nicolas Mahut, who received 9 tour-level wild cards before his 25th birthday, winning only one match–and that one by retirement.

When players do take advantage of their wild cards and string a few wins together, what are we to make of them?  Roddick was clearly on his way to the top.  After winning Atlanta and Houston in back-to-back weeks in 2001, he never needed a wild card again.  But other highly-touted Americans, such as Jesse Levine and Ryan Sweeting, never manage to get their ranking fully out of wild card territory.  They’ll both probably receive more, taking opportunities to win a tour-level match or two that gives their rankings a boost.

The ranking effect of a tour-level win or two compounds the effects that keep down players like Grega Zemlja.  First, someone like Levine or Frank Dancevic receives a substantial number of wild cards, consistent opportunities to play in a main draw that other, similarly-ranked players don’t get.  Then, unless they really aren’t that good, or they get a slew of unlucky draws, they win a match or two.  A mere appearance in a Grand Slam main draw is worth 10 ranking points; a single win gets you another 35.  In some challenger events, you need to reach the final to earn that many points.

More ranking points, of course, lead to a higher ranking.  A higher ranking leads to more direct entries into tournaments.  And then, somehow, you have Donald Young in the top 50.

Thus, “taking advantage” of wild cards has strong positive and negative connotations.  Guys like Roddick and Federer were ready to compete at the highest level before their rankings said they were, so they took advantage of their opportunities to the fullest.  But when a player gets 10 wild cards and wins four matches, he’s made the best of his situation in a manner that exploits the inequities of the ATP tour.

After the jump, find a table that shows everyone currently in the top 200 who received at least four tour-level wild cards before their 25th birthday.  (I’m using that age as a cutoff to avoid counting wild cards handed to players on the comeback trail or a retirement tour.)  It’s sorted by number of wild cards received pre-25.  For a sortable table, click here.

Continue reading Who Takes Advantage of Wild Cards?