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The Volley: Making sense of the Madrid wild-card debate (plus, what makes an ideal WC?)
In their debut exchange about tennis topics, David Kane and Stephanie Livaudais tackle the recent discourse surrounding the Mutua Madrid Open’s decision not to award a wild card to veteran Fernando Verdasco.
Published Apr 29, 2022
WATCH: Osaka made the most of her main-draw wild card in Madrid with an emphatic win over Anastasia Potapova.
The Mutua Madrid Open kicked off an unintentionally “wild” debate when organizers revealed their list of wild cards before the tournament. Players like Fernando Verdasco aired their grievances on social media, but should the veteran and Madrid native have been given a spot to play in front of his home fans? What makes an ideal wild card?
TENNIS.com reporters David Kane and Stephanie Livaudais break down the discourse in the premiere edition of “The Volley”:
David Kane: ¡Hola, Steph! It feels like old times, only now with twice the tours to cover from when we both reported for wtatennis.com. What have you made of the Mutua Madrid Open matches thus far? Naomi Osaka looks primed for a clay-court redemption arc with an impressive win over Istanbul champ Anastasia Potapova on Friday, and I’ve got my popcorn ready for Paula Badosa’s second-rounder against Simona Halep. What’s stuck out to you?
Stephanie Livaudais: Hi David! For me it’s always great to see Garbiñe Muguruza get a win at home—and her 300th career win at that—especially after coming back from a shoulder injury and spending time away from the court. The men’s draw just came out, and we’ve got Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz in the same quarter, and both in the same half of the draw as Novak Djokovic, which should make for some exciting matches. As popcorn matches go, there's another featuring Dominic Thiem and wild card Andy Murray meeting in the first round.
DK: Fun as it’s been to cover things from home, I, for one, am personally furious to not have been extended a wild card so I could be there in person—and it would appear I’m not the only one! Fernando Verdasco kicked off quite a debate on social media when it was revealed the 38-year-old and former world No. 7 had not been awarded a wild card into either main draw or qualifying action. After initially noting his displeasure alongside the official list of wild card entrants—which did feature the likes of former No. 1s Andy Murray and Naomi Osaka—the two-time Madrid quarterfinalist went deep on a nota that was, in own words, quite importante. (Can you tell I only ever took French?)
SL: He and a few other Spanish players released a pretty strongly-worded statement against what they viewed as the Madrid tournament’s “surprising” and “frustrating” decision to award only one of their nine main-draw wild cards to a Spanish player.
Here’s part of that statement, translated into ingles:
We don’t understand how the promotional agency [IMG] and the tournament owners have felt that these were reasonable criteria for awarding these wild cards. We understand that some are given at their own discretion, but not that all of them should put their commercial interests ahead of Spanish sport, and fall completely out of step from the pattern of the previous years…If we look at any other tournament of the same category, there is much greater support that’s being shown to those local tennis players. Without looking too far, the tournament in Rome the week after Madrid has just announced its first five wild cards, and all of them are for Italian players.”
DK: Verdasco’s manifesto has unsurprisingly attracted plenty of attention, among them fellow Spaniard Paula Badosa, who received qualifying and main-draw wild cards for this event early in her career and credits them to her eventual success.
Dragged into the debate via snitch-tag, Murray entered the fray to clarify he would be happy to play Madrid with or without a wild card. While both Murray and Verdasco are coming back from lengthy injury lay-offs, Murray can claim former champ status at the Caja Magica, which could explain his inclusion. But I can’t help but wonder: what, exactly, makes an ideal wild-card recipient?
SL: I was surprised to see Murray become the target of ire after Verdasco posted his statement. Out of anyone on the list, he ticks the most boxes of what many believe an ideal wild-card recipient should be: a big name that attracts fans to the tennis, a Grand Slam winner and Olympic gold medalist, and probable Hall of Famer.
But a lot of fans do feel strongly that the Brit shouldn’t be getting as many wild cards, that maybe they should go to a young promising player instead, or someone more established.
DK: I think hardcore fans and tennis insiders tend to want to see an element of merit in their WCs. Did a young up-and-coming player just miss the ranking cut-off? Put him or her in the draw! Much is also often made of the lack of wild cards given to players from non-powerhouse countries like, say, Poland or Denmark. Iga Swiatek and Clara Tauson, where’re you at?
But noble as this aim may be, momentum can be as subjective as any other part of what is typically a holistic decision, one made to serve multiple interests—particularly (and sometimes frustratingly) those of tournament sponsors.
From their perspective, I can imagine being most swayed by candidates I believe would inspire fan attendance. For example, if he ever needs one, best believe Rafael Nadal will be given a wild card anywhere, up to and including the opening of an envelope. Some players simply command this kind of special treatment and even players like Osaka and Liam Broady would agree.
SL: That’s part of why wild-card debates are so silly and circular. Is there anything inherently fair about wild cards? You’ve awarded a personal invite to a player over a potentially endless stream of “more deserving” players, numerically speaking. And in this case, although I can understand why Spanish players are upset, there’s a limit to how bad I feel for them. In terms of opportunities, they enjoy a lot more support from their federation and robust national system than the average player can dream of. There are several other ATP and WTA tournaments in the country and juniors have a clear path to the pros—having so many opportunities available, and then complaining that you’re not getting all the opportunities, is just not a good look.
The bigger topic, which Verdasco highlighted in a follow-up statement, is that the majority of players who received wild cards were represented by IMG, the same agency that also owns and organizes the tournament. They’re the real powerhouse in this situation: they also own the Miami tournament and hold a seat on both tours’ board of directors. Not to sound like Reilly Opelka here, but these conflicts of interest come up all the time in pro tennis.
DK: These are some of the external interests we’re talking about, and IMG is no exception. Tournaments run by Octagon (including high-level events in Cincinnati, Berlin, and Tokyo) and, historically, Lagardère, have given these kinds of breaks to their players; it’s part of why young talents sign with big agencies in the first place!
But therein lies more circular logic: agencies sign talented players they believe audiences will want to see, ergo ideal wild-card candidates.
SL: Speaking of ideal wild card candidates, Osaka—also an IMG player—began her Madrid Open run in serene fashion with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Potapova. There’s no arguing over whether Osaka, a former No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam winner, merits a WC, especially considering her ranking drop was one that only briefly left her on the bubble of most major entry list cut-offs.
She was given wild cards into Indian Wells and Miami, but didn’t end up needing either after pre-tournament withdrawals cleared the way for her into the main draw. Those unused wild cards were redistributed to other players like Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska, and following her run to the final in Miami, she’s officially out of wild card range in the immediate future.
DK: Osaka fits the model of an ideal “returning champion” wild card, one who needs only a few to rebuild her ranking. Bianca Andreescu, who also won her opening match over Alison Riske in Madrid, could follow in similar footsteps over the next few weeks, having also initially needed a wild card to begin her own comeback in Stuttgart. Buoyed by an encouraging run in Miami, Osaka did well to snap Potapova’s nine-match winning streak that began with a first WTA title and took her through Madrid qualifying—should Potapova have gotten a wild card?
For a player who has regularly voiced her discomfort with the surface, I’ve always been a believer in Naomi’s abilities to translate her power game to clay. Plenty of flat-hitters have found success on the dirt, and Osaka’s decision to arrive in Europe early seems to have sharpened her movement and helped her feel more confident and even inspired by former champions like Nadal. Regardless of how her week in Madrid ends, it feels safe to call hers a wild card well spent.
But the question remains: does the system need fixing, and what could even be done to change it? To my eye, the awarding of wild cards has always been one in which you take the appropriate with the—shall we say?—unexpected. Wild cards, by definition, are given to players who don’t “deserve” a spot in the draw, which makes efforts to make them more merit-based all but impossible to implement. In the immortal words of Naomi Smalls, “Life’s not fair.”
What say you, Steph?
SL: In other sports, wild cards are usually earned in a competition, but tennis already has qualies for that. Other than a hypothetical expansion of qualies draws, or hinging wild cards to “play-off tournaments” the way the USTA has often awarded theirs to Roland Garros, I’m not sure how to make wild cards strictly merit-based.
But in all honesty, I don’t think they should be. To your point, wild cards are the result of holistic decision-making that combines business interests and fan engagement along with player resumes.
I like to see returning champions and big names, promising locals in need of a breakthrough, players on the comeback trail—ideally, it should be a varied mix. What I don’t like to see, and I’m sorry to the Spaniards on this one, is one country or entity hoarding all the wild cards for themselves and their players—whether that’s IMG for IMG players, or the FFT and FIT for French and Italians.
DK: Ultimately, everyone wants a tournament to include the highest level of competition, and when the rankings don’t cooperate, thank God for wild cards. Let’s just hope they’re used to ensure that happens as often as possible.