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.
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).
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.
(Tennis.Life was also told by a reader in Israel that his country, which hosted 14 Futures events in 2018, also will cancel the entire slate in 2019. There’s a chance some could survive – financed by players’ parents. The national federation is planning a pair of Challengers instead, but that won’t come close to making up for it).
A plan to compensate for that, to give the country’s young players and aspiring pros the competitive experience they need, has been months in the making. But it still has not been announced.
On Friday, the USTA announced an “expanded system of allocating merit-based wild cards” for American juniors, collegians and young pros.
The USTA will allocate about 150 wild cards to Americans who produce results in selected tournaments. The goal is to maintain “an adequate volume of competitive opportunities for Americans in the new ITF World Tennis Tour structure,” according to a press release.
There were already wild-card rewards in place for some results, such as the under-18 champions and the NCAA championships.
But the USTA will now award wild cards to the year-end No. 1s in the boys’ and girls’ 18s. Wild cards will be available at the four USTA National Open championships.
And it also is adding four new “National Closed Championships”, which will come with more wild-card opportunities.
Beginning in 2019, $15,000 tournaments will no longer award any ATP Tour points, only “ITF Transition Tour” points.
But any American player who wins a $15,000 Futures event in the U.S. will automatically earn a wild card into a $25,000 event. Those events, at least for 2019, will offer a few precious points in the final stages.
Notable in the tentative 2019 USTA tournament schedule for the men is that the number of ITF Futures events at the $25,000 level remains the same, at 21.
There were 14 $15,000 tournaments in 2018. The 2019 schedule lists three additional ones in 2019, for a total of 17. But there have been multiple changes of dates and locations.
For example, in 2018, there were $15,000 Futures events taking place during four consecutive weeks to start the season. All were in Florida. And three of them were within 90 minutes’ drive: Naples, Weston and Sunrise.
Beyond that, there’s a far more significant change: a major reduction in playing opportunities.
It’s worth noting here that many, many of the players who compete in these events are NOT American. And so, they will be left to fend for themselves, with reduced opportunities.
The qualifying draws for many of these lower-level Futures events, especially in Florida, are huge. For those four tournaments this year, two had full 128-player draws. The other two had nearly-full draws, with a few first-round byes.
All that is gone now.
The $15,000 events will have 24-player qualifying draws. Which means that fully 100 players will no longer have a place to compete for weeks on end.
Even allowing for the fact that some of those 100 are not viable potential pros, it’s still a shocker. As well, it’s a move that makes Americans – regardles of professional potential – play less tennis. Which defeats the purpose of the USTA, which should be to get as many Americans playing tennis, as much and as often as possible.
Women’s Circuit changes
For the women, there generally are far fewer tournaments at the $15,000 level in North American.
In Canada in 2018, there was only one.
In the U.S. in 2018, there were just four.
In 2019, there will be 10 – some of which have locations will to be confirmed.
But again, a big change. Instead of 64-player draws, these $15,000 “Transition Tour” events will be reduced to … 24-player qualifying draws.
Meanwhile, at the $25,000 level, there originally were 20 women’s events (two were cancelled).
This year, there were 15 higher-level Women’s Pro Circuit tournaments in the U.S. Purses ranged from $60,000, to one $100,000 tournament in Midland, Michigan.
Next year, a $60,000 tournament will be added in Innisbrook, Fla. in April. As well, the prize money at the tournament in Charleston, S.C. will be raised from $80,000 to $100,000.
Another $100,000 tournament will be added in Bonita Bay, Fla. the week after Charleston.
The USTA divides its wild-card deserving players into four categories: “high-performance juniors”, “transition pros”, “collegiate players” and a final category whose name is sure to please those involved, “adult players (late maturers).
The focus on this appears to be transparency, as the USTA plans to make “post-tournament wild-card reports” available after every event.
The ITF’s new plan pays little attention to anything beyond the transition of its (ITF) juniors to play in the (ITF) tournaments. The USTA is attempting to fill in the gap to continue to make college tennis a viable path to the pros.
But … it’s complicated.
When a player earns a wild card on the basis of their results in an event, they have to email the USTA within two weeks. They must offer up three options where they want to use that wild card, and they must be within the next nine months. And then, they have to fill out an online form.
The USTA does not guarantee they’ll get any of their first three choices. In fact, they might have to go option No. 4 or No. 5. For players with school, or whose finances limit them to a certain area in terms of travel, that’s complicated.
It sounds pretty labor-intensive and fraught with drama, to be honest.
Wild cards for juniors, college players
The way the chart describes it, there will be more $15,000 tournaments on college campuses, and a national “top 500” list used as one criteria for acceptance into the $15,000 events.
There is a long list of wild cards into $15,000 and $25,000 tournaments for various junior champions, finalists and third-place finishers.
As one example, the winners of the Easter Bowl boys’ singles will get a wild card into the junior US Open singles main draw, a wild card into the singles draw of an ATP 80 or 90 Challenger (this is a whole ‘nother reorganization system for 2019), and another wild card into the singles draw of a $25,000 event.
The men’s singles champion at the ITA National summer championships will receive a main draw wild card into one $25,000 tournament. The women’s singles champion will get a wild card into … a $15,000 tournament.
(Again, worth noting here that only American players are eligible for these).
It all sounds completely insane. And it’s equally problematic that an organization like the USTA has to expend the time, money and resources to completely revamp its entire competitive structure, because of changes decreed by the ITF.
Let’s remember that the basic philosophy behind this is to greatly reduce the number of players with a professional ranking. And thus, it greatly reduces the possibility that a longshot, or a late bloomer, can somehow still make it.
Notably, you wonder how national federations with far fewer resources than the USTA are going to manage this sea change for the prospects in their pipelines.
A mountain of paperwork
You hope the USTA has managed to create a bespoke database that can track all the tournament results, all the different wild-card opportunities, and all of the players’ requests, restrictions and priority lists.
Otherwise, you get this visual of a bunch of USTA employees printing out wild-card email requests, and online forms, and matching them up. And then spreading out a big master schedule and trying to get the priorities correct to assign wild-card opportunities to players.
And you wonder what they’ll do if they can’t match those opportunities to players within their selections and the time limits. And you wonder what they’ll do if those players, for whatever reason, can’t end up playing their designated wild-card assignment.
In a word, it all sounds completely insane, and rife with possibility for error, duplication and missed requests. They’re also going to have to check every single request to ensure the player is American, has never considered playing for another country, has done everything they can to attempt to be eligible for international competitions. And on, and on.