The USTA organized a conference call today with French Open wild card winners Melanie Oudin and Brian Baker, and I spoke with both about the new process the USTA implemented to determine the recipients.
In the recent past, the USTA has held small invitational tournaments to decide the wild cards, the most recent being last December in Atlanta for the Australian. For this wild card, the USTA decided to make use of spring clay court Pro Circuit tournaments. Points earned in three women's $50,000 tournaments (the best of two were used) and two men's challengers, one $50,000 and one $100,000, were tallied and the US player with the most points received the wild card.
Both Oudin and Baker said they like the new way, because it opened the wild card up to more Americans. Oudin rightly pointed out that draws mattered, and if two Americans did well in one tournament and they met early in the next, one would be eliminated, which is pretty much what happened with Oudin beating Julia Cohen in the first round at Indian Harbour Beach last week.
And as the USTA's Tim Curry pointed out in his introduction, players are not required to forego the opportunity to earn ATP and WTA points to participate in the USTA's 8-player tournaments, as they had to do under the old system.
The fact that Baker qualified for both the Challengers was also an important consideration in evaluating how the new method worked. Some American players received wild cards into the main draws, including Maria Sanchez, who would have won the French wild card over Oudin if she had beaten Grace Min in the Indian Harbour Beach final Sunday. Sanchez qualified into Dothan and then received two wild cards; Oudin got two wild cards and then entry into Indian Harbour Beach via a special exemption. So there is unquestionably an advantage to being on the USTA radar, although there is still the path that Baker took, one that results in a head start in points, as you earn points by making it through qualifying. He said he didn't feel at a disadvantage having to qualify, particularly in Savannah, where he lost only 10 games in three qualifying matches.
I asked Baker if he thought he would have been invited to one of the eight-player events the USTA has held in the past.
"I really don't know. Maybe not just because I'm still coming back. I'm just now getting my ranking back to a respectable level. So honestly I don't know.
"I mean, obviously if you're the one you know you're going to get picked, it's better chances for you if you know there's only eight people vying for it. I think this is a fair way to do it."
It will be interesting to see if the USTA sets up a similar method this summer to determine one of the eight US Open wild cards they have at their discretion. (three of those are spoken for: the Australian reciprocal, the French reciprocal, and the Kalamazoo/San Diego winner). Last year, the USTA had a tournament to decide one of those, with Madison Keys and Bobby Reynolds earning a main draw wild card.
Most of those I've spoken with like this new method, and although it did take a while to sort itself out, there were several "sudden death" matches, where the winner stayed in contention and the loser was eliminated, just like the old system.
For the complete transcript of the conference call, see ASAP Sports. Oudin talks about parting with her longtime coach Brian de Villiers, and Baker answers questions about returning to Paris after a nine-year absence.
Matt Emery, the son of Kentucky men's head coach Dennis Emery, was a outstanding junior player, reaching No. 15 in the ITF World Junior rankings back in 2001, and was, coincidentally, a frequent doubles partner of Brian Baker that year. The 28-year-old Emery, who is now a volunteer assistant under his father at Kentucky, is dealing with cancer for a second time in the past year. This Kentucky.com feature on Emery, his family and his health struggles, is not your usual pre-NCAA regional article, but it certainly provides valuable perspective on the importance of winning and losing tennis matches.