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Tennis wildcards explained: How do they work?

Every professional tennis player, no matter how talented they have been as a junior, begins at the bottom of the ladder and progress can only be made by beating higher-ranked opponents.

But some shortcuts do exist and the tennis wildcard system is a way for some talented youngsters to gain entry to events that their ranking would exclude them from, while also offering a chance for former stars that have been off the circuit to kickstart their careers.

What are wildcards and how do they work?

A wildcard is an invitation that allows a player to participate in an event for which he or she would not qualify with their current world ranking.

Any player awarded a wildcard bypasses the qualifying tournament and goes straight into the main draw.

Each wildcard player receives prizemoney on the same basis as direct entrants or qualifiers, although they are unlikely to face another player in receipt of a wildcard in the first round.

Who determines which players receive wildcards?

Each event reserves a certain number of spots for wildcards with Grand Slams and the biggest ATP/WTA events allowing up to eight players in the men's and women's singles main draws to benefit.

It is up to the organizing committee of each event to decide who gets the wildcards, with players from the same national federation that stages the tournament usually the first in line.

For example, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club handed out five men's singles wildcards to British players in 2023 and three to overseas stars.

Local players, particularly those on the rise, tend to be prevalent among the wildcards for most of the big tournaments.

Competition for these places, especially when it comes to Grand Slams, can be fierce with a certain degree of lobbying usually taking place behind the scenes before the final announcement is made.

A player's age and potential can be a crucial factor in such decisions with young up-and-coming talents almost always preferred over more experienced players of a similar ranking.

Current stars like Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Jannik Sinner all received wildcards for big events during their early years on the circuit.

Established players returning from injuries or career breaks are often handed wildcards too. This enables them to rise back up the ladder much faster than if they had to start at the bottom again with no ranking points.

Former world number seven David Goffin, who missed several months of action between 2021/22, was among the eight male recipients of a wildcard at Wimbledon in 2023.

Goran Ivanisevic famously won Wimbledon as a wildcard entrant in 2001 and Pat Cash took one in 1986 - 12 months before he won the title on Centre Court.

Cash, then ranked No.413 in the world, underwent an emergency appendectomy four weeks before Wimbledon in 1986 but reached the quarter-finals on his wildcard.

Tournament organizers also look favorably on players who have had success at their event in the past. Dreadlocked German Dustin Brown received a wildcard for Wimbledon in 2016 after coming through qualifying and knocking out former champion Rafael Nadal at SW19 the year before.

How tournaments differ in wildcard distribution

At Roland Garros, French professionals receive six of the eight invitations allocated in the men's singles draw while the same amount of wildcards are reserved for female French players.

The same is true for US players at Flushing Meadows while, in Australia, five wildcards are reserved for domestic players.

At Wimbledon, because the event is organized by a private club and not a national federation, there has been greater diversity in the wildcard distribution with more overseas players invited.

Some national tennis federations have agreements in place whereby they exchange wildcards for big events.

For the Grand Slams, the United States Tennis Association, the French Tennis Federation and Tennis Australia swap one wildcard each year, leaving it up to the other to decide which of their players is awarded the place.

Therefore an extra American and an Australian are invited to participate every year to Roland Garros, a French player and an American that would otherwise have missed out gain entry to the Australian Open and an extra French player and an Australian will receive wildcards at the US Open.

Grand Slam winners who were wildcards

Ivanisevic's fairytale win at Wimbledon in 2001 would not have been possible without a wildcard and neither would Kim Clijsters' stunning comeback at Flushing Meadows in 2009.

Ivanisevic was a three-time Wimbledon finalist but his best days seemed to be behind him because of persistent struggles with a shoulder injury.

He was well outside the world's top 100 prior to the 2001 event, but did not disappoint the tournament organizers as he upset a succession of star names to win in front of a raucous crowd on 'People's Monday'.

In the lead-up to her US Open win in 2009, Clijsters had not played a competitive tennis match in more than two years due to taking time off to get married and have a baby.

She requested and received wildcards for the Cincinnati Open, the Canadian Open, and the US Open, defeating three top-20 opponents in Cincinnati and ousting world No.9 Victoria Azarenka in Canada.

She upset both Venus and Serena Williams en route to the final at Flushing Meadows before defeating Carolina Wozniacki in straight sets to become the first mother to win a Grand Slam singles title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980.

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