Slam Wild Cards Serve as a Lifeline—If You’re French, Aussie or a Yank

Qualifying for the singles draw of a tennis grand slam is not easy. You have to be ranked in the top 104 players in the world, which means earning that ranking through a year’s worth of victories in other tournaments. Or, if your ranking falls outside of the top 104 but within the top 250 or so, you can travel to the tournament site a week early and try to win three consecutive matches to secure one of the 16 qualifier spots.

Or you could get a wild card.

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Each of the four tennis majors—the U.S. Open, Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon—awards wild cards to eight men’s singles players and eight women’s singles players, granting direct entry into the first round to players who otherwise would not have qualified. The tournaments determine who gets those wild cards differently, but across the board, the majority of spots are typically given to players from the host country.

Since 2001, however, Tennis Australia and the French Tennis Federation have had a reciprocal agreement in which the countries exchange wild cards at each other’s majors. One Australian man and woman get wild cards at the French Open, and one French man and woman are guaranteed wild cards at the Australian Open. The United States began exchanging wild cards with Australia in 2005 and with France in 2007, and has done so nearly every year since.

The Lawn Tennis Association, the national governing body of tennis in Great Britain, does not participate in the reciprocal agreement. Additionally, a number of players receive wild cards into each event’s qualifying tournament, but there is no such agreement for those selections.

For the 2023 U.S. Open, France’s selections are 26-year-old Fiona Ferro, who has been ranked as high as No. 39 but is currently No. 190, and 27-year-old Benjamin Bonzi, who made the third round of the 2023 Australian Open. Tennis Australia chose 29-year-old Storm Hunter, the reigning U.S. Open mixed doubles champion, and 22-year-old Rinky Hijikata, who won the men’s doubles tournament at the 2023 Australian Open as a wild card with fellow countryman Jason Kubler.

This isn’t Hijikata’s first wild ride. In addition to receiving a wild card in singles at the 2023 Australian Open, where he won his first career Grand Slam singles match, he was a wild card at the 2022 U.S. Open when he took the opening set off of Rafael Nadal in the first round before losing in four. “To play Rafa in the first round was pretty special,” Hijikata said. “It gave me a lot of belief in my game.”

Confidence and a dream-come-true experience weren’t the only things Hijikata took away from his match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He also got an $80,000 paycheck, like everyone who played in the round of 128. “When you’re playing Futures and Challengers, you’re not making too much money, so it’s hard to invest in yourself, and maybe you’re a little bit worried about making sure you don’t run out of funds,” Hijikata said. “That tournament definitely helped me a lot. It gave me a bit of a buffer and probably made me stress a little bit less about the financial side, and I could just go out there and focus on my tennis.”

After a first-round win at the U.S. Open this week, more than one third of Hijikata’s $724,000 in career singles prize money will have been won from major tournaments in which he received a wild card for the main draw. If you count the $85,000 he inked across the 2019 to 2022 Australian Opens when he received wild cards for the qualifying draws, the majority of his lifetime tennis earnings to date were won as a Grand Slam wild card.

The historical success (or lack thereof) of the three countries' selections shows that the reciprocal wild card agreement is primarily a strategy to provide their own players with money and experience, not necessarily to produce likely winners. In the three non-Wimbledon majors, out of more than 100 reciprocal wild cards in the past decade, none have advanced past the third round.

Results of Australian and French wild cards in the U.S. Open have been especially poor. Since the agreement began, 66% of those players have lost in the first round and more than 90% have lost in the first two rounds. A second-round win by an Australian or French wild card hasn’t happened since 2012, when Aussie and former world no. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and France's Kristina Mladenovic both did it.

While wild cards in general rarely win, due to being mostly young or up-and-coming players, that isn’t to say they never win. It is fairly common for the Grand Slam tournaments to give wild cards to former great players who have fallen down the rankings due to age, injury or time away from the sport. For instance, former men's champions Juan Martín del Potro and Dominic Thiem were granted direct entry to the draw in 2016 and 2022, respectively, following injuries.

Some of these more seasoned veterans do very well. In fact, Kim Clijsters won the 2009 U.S. Open as a wild card, becoming the first to ever do so, in her first major since the 2007 Australian Open after coming out of retirement that summer.

"As a past practice, if there's a past champion, they might receive [a wild card]," USTA CEO Lew Sherr said. "We want to support American tennis, and if there are young American players that are earning their way into those spots, we want to be helpful there. But we also think about the commercial aspect of this event, and more than that, the fan aspect of this event. Caroline Wozniacki is in the field this year—she's been a great fan favorite here throughout the years... If Del Potro had decided to play again, that might be another example."

The U.S. Open has also made it a practice to give wild cards to Americans who meet one of a few predetermined criteria. For example, the USTA Juniors National Championship winner and the NCAA singles champion typically get spots. Additionally, the USTA runs a Wild Card Challenge, in which one player earns a spot based on cumulative performance in tournaments on the tour in the months leading up to the U.S. Open. Australia and France have a similar competition for one wild card spot in their respective majors.

Frances Tiafoe played his first three Grand Slams as a wild card when he was a teenager in 2015 and 2016, and eventually climbed his way into the world top 10 in 2023. Being from a country that hosts one of the major tournaments, or a large quantity of other tournaments (which all generally give out at least a few wild cards), is a huge advantage when it comes to getting a pro tennis career off the ground. The reciprocal wild card agreement exacerbates that inequity by allowing for a player from each of these countries to get an additional fast pass into potentially a second or third Grand Slam tournament in the same year.

The Australian Open, though, has one spot designated for a player from the Asia Pacific region, which historically hasn't produced many top players, particularly on the men's side. The U.S. Open does not do the same. This year, 15 of the 16 wild cards went to American, French or Australian players, with the last one going to Wozniacki, from Denmark.

Even among just the core countries, however, there are a lot of candidates and only few get the special privilege. "There’s a bunch of Aussies right now who are probably in contention for it and have been doing really well," Hijikata said. "I just feel like I’m pretty fortunate, and I just want to represent Australia as best I can.”

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