If the American players toiling away on the U.S. Challenger circuit during this three-week period thought they were fighting for the Australian Open main draw wild card, they got a bit of a shock.
Because Jack Sock’s surprise run to the quarter finals at the points-rich Paris Masters last week put him in the catbird’s seat to get the USTA’s reciprocal free pass.
Unlike the women’s wild-card race, which is limited to events in the U.S. (last week was the second week of four), the men had far more latitude.
They could also earn their points at Challengers in Europe and Asia, as well as the one ATP event during the three-week eligibility period. And that one tournament happened to have been the final Masters 1000 event of the season.
The women can only earn points at one event per week. Even the Challengers close by in Canada didn’t count.
On another level, though, it does add some spice to have all of the players vying for the wild card playing in the same events.
Lepchenko, Osuigwe leads the women’s race
Varvara Lepchenko, 32 and Whitney Osuigwe – half that, at 16 – lead the women’s wild card standings after the first two weeks.
The best three results in the four tournaments are counted.
This week’s ITF tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada also awards 115 points to the winner.
But the Houston WTA 125K during the final week of the race is more lucrative: 160 points to the champion, 95 to the finalist.
So it’s a long way from over.
180 points in one week for Sock
On the men’s side, the wild-card winner will be the one with the most points from his best two results over the three weeks.
And by reaching the quarters in Paris, Sock earned 180 ranking points in just one tournament.
Gven the U.S. Challengers offer just 80 points to the winner (125 at the final $150,000 Challenger in Houston), it will be an uphill battle for the rest.
Meanwhile, Tommy Paul stands in second place, with his 80 points won at the Charlottesville Challenger on Sunday.
Champaign choice means no Oz champagne
Sock could probably lay the whole thing to rest by playing next week. But he’ll be a little busy – in London, playing in the ATP Tour Finals doubles with Mike Bryan.
But to overtake Sock, Paul would have to win the Houston Challenger next week. The other option would be to fly all the way to Bangalore, India and compete at a similar Challenger over there.
Except, he can’t. So he’s out of luck.
In Houston, the two top-100 players entered (Hubert Hurkacz made it to Milan this week, and Brit Cameron Norrie) have pulled out.
So there are no top-100 players (barring wild cards). And the main draw cutoff currently sits outside the top 300.
Unfortunately for Paul, he is already entered and accepted into the main draw of another U.S. Challenger next week, in Champaign, Ill. That one offers a $75,000 purse. So even if he won it, he still couldn’t overtake Sock because 160 points wouldn’t be enough.
And by the rules, he’s not allowed to play anywhere else if he pulls out of the tournament.
The Champaign event is the incumbent. Houston is part of the new Oracle/Larry Ellison funded Challenger Series. Unfortunately, it was decided it would be played the same week as Champaign – which hurts both events. And despite double the prize money, it actually has a weaker field.
So, who else has a shot?
Here are the Americans, and where they’re entered the next two weeks.
Let’s note again that the same player would have to win this week and then next week in Houston to pass Sock and get the wild card. So even under optimal circumstances it’s a serious long shot.
But five of these eight, having entered Champaign, have zero shot.
(No Americans are entered in a tournament in Bangalore, India the same week as Houston and offering the same points).
Bjorn Fratangelo (Knoxville, Houston)
Tim Smyczek (Knoxville, Houston)
Mitchell Krueger (Knoxville, Houston)
Tommy Paul (Knoxville SE, Champaign)
Michael Mmoh (Knoxville, Champaign)
Christopher Eubanks (Knoxville, Champaign)
Reilly Opelka (Knoxville, Champaign)
Christian Harrison (Knoxville, Champaign)
Mmoh on the bubble
For Mmoh, ranked two spots ahead of Sock at No. 103 in the rankings, it might be a tough one. He can’t win the wild card. And if a few players with protected rankings bump him down, he’ll be out of the main draw in Australia.
So when you look at it, given how long ago the players had to choose between Houston and the traditionall and popular tournament in Champaign, it’s a tough break.
Actually, it’s a little unfair; the Houston Challenger was only officially announced on Aug. 22. And there was every reason to assume the field would be much tougher than it turned out to be.