Elke and the wildcards
Wild (card) Kingdom
Recently we heard a rumor -- and it's just a rumor, there is no reason to believe that it's true and we've done no research on the matter and don't intend to -- that the Clijsters family is attempting to use older sister Kim's participation in tournaments as leverage to help younger sister Elke. That is, that the family (specifically, the father) is telling tournaments, "If you don't give Elke a wildcard, Kim won't play either."
There is at least one good reason to think this isn't true, and that's that it's doing Elke exactly zero good. It perhaps says something about heredity and environment: Kim is the world's top player, at least in the rankings (and certainly top five no matter how you slice things) -- and Elke is barely in the Top 400 despite playing a full schedule and getting into a lot of tournaments because of her name. She's had some decent results in junior doubles -- but in singles, she's nowhere and shows no signs of going anywhere. If she is to improve at all -- and there is no particular reason to think that she will, though we won't say it's impossible -- then she needs to play more low-level events and get some matches in, rather than play at the Tour level and get spanked.
But suppose it's all true. Suppose tournaments are being blackmailed into giving Elke Clijsters wildcards. Does it matter?
Probably less than you'd think. Because there are actually restrictions on wildcards. Though these are quite complicated. Gold Exempt players (roughly the top fifteen plus a few other players) have unlimited wildcards available, for reasons to be explained below. But Silver Exempts (roughly, the players ranked #20 to #50) do not: "Silver Exempt players may receive a total of 7 Wild Cards in singles and 7 Wild Cards in doubles during the calendar year with a maximum of 5 Wild Cards in the Main Draw in each of singles and doubles" (WTA rules, III.B.6.e). For lower-ranked players, the rules are even more strict: "Except as otherwise set forth, the maximum number of Wild Cards any player may receive into a WTA Tour singles Tournament (including Grand Slams) during a Tour Year is six (6) with a maximum of three (3) allowed in the Main Draw. Players will forfeit any ranking points earned at Tour Tournaments and Grand Slam events by the acceptance of Wild Cards above this limit" (XII.C.5.a.iii).
Of course, there are a lot of exceptions and footnotes, e.g. "Players who have competed in professional Tour Tournaments for ten (10) years or more (not necessarily consecutively) will be allowed three (3) additional Wild Cards, either in Main Draw or in Qualifying" (III.C.5.c.iii), and "Any player who is a past singles champion of a Grand Slam or Tour Championship will be allowed an unlimited number of Singles Main Draw Wild Card nominations, including the Gold/Silver Exempt Wild Card nomination, if such player is a Gold or Silver Exempt player" (III.C.5.c.iv). But only handful of players meet these conditions -- Elke Clijsters, for instance, is not Gold Exempt, is not Silver Exempt, is not a ten year veteran, and has not won a Slam at the WTA level. So she is limited to three main draw wildcards and three qualifying wildcards.
And then, too, there aren't that many wildcards to hand out. Theoretically, there are four at every Tour event (except the year-end championships), and more at larger events. But it's not that simple; the tournaments don't entirely control who gets wildcards. The WTA also has a voice.
And that's a good thing.
It's good because the WTA bans appearance fees. At least officially, and the Gold Exempt rules are set up in such a way that they really aren't needed. The WTA guarantees a certain number of top players to all events above the Tier IV level, and guarantees gold exempt players (i.e. big names) to the Tier II and stronger events. That means that you simply don't see the sort of situation we had recently at Bangkok, where four of the top eleven men were signed up (and three played) -- and no one else of any significance was in the draw. There isn't much doubt that a player or two (usually Anna Kournikova or a Williams) gets paid a "consulting fee" or the like by a lot of tournaments. But appearance fees do not decide who plays and who doesn't; most of the players in the field at a WTA event are there simply for the prize money. And even the Gold Exempts have to meet some significant standards: A high ranking the year before, or a year-end Top Ten ranking, or something. Plus they have obligations to meet.
But if the WTA is to supply a guaranteed field, it has to be able to put the players into the draw. Which means, if they don't sign up initially, that they must be wildcarded. And so the WTA reserves a "gold/silver exempt wildcard" for meeting obligations to tournaments. For instance, Moscow is a Tier I. That means the WTA owes it at least one of the top three Gold Exempts -- Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati. It was pretty clear that neither of the Sisters would play. So the WTA had little choice but to beg, coax, or cajole Capriati into playing; it could even hard assign her to Moscow if it hasn't already hard assigned her elsewhere (though we suspect it had previously hard assigned her, to the Pan Pacific and maybe other events; leave it to the tournament directors to name the three players who play least as the top three Gold Exempts). But the WTA could only plug Capriati into the draw if there is a wildcard available with which to plug her in (and, indeed, she is in the draw because of a wildcard). Thus the WTA has to have the right to name wildcards at every event. The tournament names two (or more at larger events), but only the Slams name all their wildcards.
So what it comes down to is that it's very hard for an inexperienced player to engage in "wildcard abuse." For starters, there are only about 200 main draw wildcard slots available to tournament directors. And the inexperienced players (whether genuine prospects like Maria Sharapova or Michaela Krajicek or seeming stiffs like Elke Clijsters or Jaslyn Hewitt) can't take many of them anyway.
I can hear you thinking that it would be nice if the Sharapovas and Krajiceks could get more wildcards. But the WTA has a better answer for that: The play-up: Win a low-level Challenger, get direct entry into a high-level Challenger. Win a high-level Challenger, get direct entry into a low-level Tour event. This program could perhaps be expanded (e.g. if you are under 16 and win a Challenger, you get two direct entries; also, while players can play up into low-level Tour events, there is a "glass ceiling" at the Tier II; it would be nice if winning a Tier V should confer direct entry into a Tier II). But that's a detail.
Does this mean that there is no wildcard abuse at all? It depends on your definition. There are players who ride wildcards, but they're older. Jennifer Capriati, for several years in the late Nineties, was getting into main draws almost exclusively by wildcard. Iva Majoli for a while was using six or more wildcards in a year. That, to the author's mind, is wildcard abuse: If you want to get into tournaments, you should get into shape and work on your game and you won't need wildcards -- as indeed Capriati proved in 2001. But these weren't no-names grabbing wildcards; the very reason Majoli, e.g., could take all those wildcards was because she was a Slam winner. So there is no blackmail involved -- at worst, it was an overinflated estimate of a player's remaining potential.
The wildcard situation may not be ideal -- but at worst it's a very minor problem.
From Bob Larsonīs tennisnewsletter.