In the dark confines of an indoor arena at the Open 13 ATP tournament in Marseille last month, the name Tsitsipas was emblazoned across the scoreboard during a first-round match. But rather than the Greek world No 5, Stefanos, it instead denoted his younger brother – ranked No 970 – who normally spends his days competing at the lowest level of the ITF World Tennis Tour.
Petros Tsitsipas, 20, entered the Marseille draw after being granted a wildcard. He lasted 45 minutes and 36 seconds in being dismantled 6-0, 6-2 by the world No 52, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. A measure of the 918 ranking places between them: Davidovich Fokina is one of the worst servers on the tour, ranked 102 out of 103 for service games won over the past year; Tsitsipas won just three return points in the entire match.
The sight of the younger Tsitsipas ushered to the top of the sport with little indication that his ability warranted it generated so much criticism that his protective brother described the discussions as “unfair”. The tournament director, Jean-François Caujolle, later explained that he had offered the spot in his draw as “thanks” to the Tsitsipas family for their support of the tournament: “You should know that Stefanos’s guarantee is half of what he could have claimed elsewhere,” he said.
Far beyond an issue specific to Tsitsipas himself, the episode was an example of the absurdity of the wildcard system in tennis, in which spots in some top professional sporting events in the world are used as negotiating tools, to curry favours and also hoarded by big countries at the expense of promising players from lesser tennis countries.
Nepotism is embedded into the fabric of professional tennis. Marko Djokovic, the 29-year-old brother of Novak Djokovic who reached a career high of 571, was granted wildcards into eight ATP events, compiling a 0-8 record. Elke Clijsters, sister of the former No 1 Kim and current contestant on The Bachelorette in Belgium, peaked at No 389 and received seven main-draw wildcards, losing all seven.
Jaslyn Hewitt, sister of Lleyton Hewitt, received four wildcards outside Australia and a dozen at home. In 2019 Mari Osaka, the recently retired sister of the world No 2 Naomi, received a wildcard into the Miami Open through IMG, the tournament owner and Osaka’s management company.
Some of those wildcards functioned in a similar context to Tsitsipas’s – cost-effective ways of wooing the stars, supplementing the appearance fees they receive at ATP 250 and 500 events. Other players have been essentially awarded a wildcard by their own family – the Djokovic family ran the Serbian Open in Belgrade where Marko received numerous wildcards, while this month the 492-ranked Emma Navarro was given a wildcard in back-to-back Charleston tournaments owned by her billionaire father, Ben Navarro.
Historically at the lower levels of professional tennis there have been rumours about wildcards being bought, or else undeservedly achieved by connections and favours. The discussion at tour events also frequently centres on bans. In February this year an ATP 250 event in Córdoba, Argentina granted two of its three wildcards to Nicolás Kicker of Argentina and Chile’s Nicolás Jarry. Kicker was returning from a match-fixing ban, Jarry from a doping ban.
The most common issue with wildcards is they are the preserve of the prominent tennis nations, yet another way to share the wealth. The nations with the most tournaments offer their players the most opportunities. The French, Australian and US Opens all also arrange reciprocal agreements with each other at their grand slam tournaments, shutting all others out.
Wildcards are not synonymous with success, as the state of tennis in Great Britain and the 71 senior wildcards given to the former US prodigy Ryan Harrison underline, and they can produce a culture of entitlement. But those who don’t hail from prominent tennis nations must make peace with their fewer opportunities and use it as a motivating force in their careers.
Clara Tauson, at 18 one of the brightest young stars and the only Dane in the WTA top 800, says: “You see every week, some of the younger players getting wildcards and you think: ‘Why am I not getting those kind of wildcards?’ But, I think it benefits me. At the end of the day, I’ve had to work for everything I have … And maybe it’s better this way. I know that everything I’ve done is my own fault.”
Denmark has improbably produced two young future talents, but while Tauson has had to grind to the top 100, Holger Rune, 17 and ranked 323, has had the red carpet laid out for him. Since March he has received a wildcard into seven of the eight events he has played, including a main-draw wildcard at the Monte Carlo Masters. For Rune, those opportunities stem from the influence of his sponsors, agency and the prominent French academy at which he trains.
In an individual sport such as tennis, where the difference in earnings between the highest- and lowest-ranked players in any given tournament is extreme, every draw placement counts as lower-ranked players fight for their spots in higher tournaments. For tennis to truly function professionally, all important decisions need to be held to higher standards.
In the same way that players are required to provide a medical reason whenever they withdraw from an event, wildcards should be subject to greater regulation with tournaments required to explain their reasons for offering each spot. There should also be a greater effort to guarantee talented players without connections have the opportunity to gain experience at the top level, ensuring tennis is a fairer sport for all.