One of the best things the LTA has done in recent years, and now it looks like they are getting rid of it.
Wimbledon will reveal the full range of its wares today when the prize-money levels for the 2007 championships are issued. For the leading players in Britain, and especially the women for whom financial equality was settled last month, there will be a special fascination as to the spread of the All England Club’s largesse.
In these days when the drive is to find “warriors” in the British game, the abandonment of the LTA’s play-offs for one of eight wild cards into the main draw for the championships is perverse, a decision that would once more insulate the players who had been brought up to think that their ranking alone should guarantee a berth in the world’s most prestigious tournament.
The rest of the grand-slam world is going down the play-off route, but the LTA will once more nominate eight men and eight women and that the All England Club will, as ever, have the right to decide how many of them merit a wild card.
If, for instance, it thinks that six players are worthy, the two who miss out would be given a wild card into the qualifying competition.
Four years ago — bedevilled by criticism that too many British players were in the comfort zone of knowing that a few half-decent results in the tennis minor leagues equated to a lucrative grass-court payday — the LTA performance team decreed, in agreement with the All England Club, that there ought to be a stricter qualification process.
Traditionally, the majority of the eight men’s and women’s wild cards have gone to British players. The LTA said in 2003 that it would recommend to the committee that the four “most deserving” men ranked inside the top 350 on the ATP Tour would benefit and two more would be selected after an eight-man play-off. For the women, the LTA would similarly nominate four wild cards, with four others having a play-off for one place.
“The LTA gets criticised for giving wild cards away and we want to get away from that,” David Felgate, the former LTA performance director, said when the plan was first announced. “I think it sends a hard message to players who might be expecting them.”
The decision was greeted with acclaim, the loudest of which came from the club, which had wanted to help the development of British players but was aware that the prize-money they accrued from playing one round in a grand-slam tournament could guarantee another year of travelling the world and not achieving very much.
The “plucky Brit loses in first round” stories are the staple of each Wimbledon and yet, when he arrived as chief executive a year ago, Roger Draper insisted that he did not want wild cards to be awarded to British players who were simply there to make up tournament numbers.
As things stand, the top eight British men apart from Andy Murray, Tim Henman and Alex Bogdanovic — the latter being a borderline case for direct entry into the main draw — include Jonny Marray, who has just returned to practice after a six-month absence with a shoulder injury, Lee Childs, who has struggled to back up successive wild cards into ATP Challenger Series events with victories of any note, and James Auckland and Jamie Delgado, the doubles specialists.
Last year, Delgado came through a 32-man wild-card play-off draw — a lot of which was watched by Tim Phillips, the Wimbledon chairman — and, on the back of the adrenalin rush that it gave him, won his first-round match against Michael Berrer, of Germany, in five sets and took a set off Sébastien Grosjean, of France, the No 15 seed, in the second round. Naomi Cavaday, 16 at the time, won the women’s play-off and extended Ai Sugiyama, the No 18 seed from Japan, before losing 6-4, 7-5.
The form of each of the players will be monitored more closely than in years past as indications strengthened that the Davis Cup World Group play-off against Croatia in September will be played on grass, with Wimbledon’s No 1 Court and Nottingham emerging as prospective venues.