Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Case of the Missing Qualifying Wild Card

You've probably noticed during the four slams that I'm glued to my computer watching the live scoring for the qualifying, and I post a recap of the day's results regularly those four weeks every year.  I'm not sure when or where I became a big qualifying fan, but it's probably due to the number of players in these draws that I know or have seen play in the eight or nine years I've been following college and junior tennis closely.

The traditional qualifying wild card that goes to junior champions didn't get used this year at the French or at Wimbledon by the 2011 boys champions. I heard that Roland Garros boys champion Bjorn Fratangelo was not interested in a wild card into the French qualifying, but Luke Saville was eager to use his into Wimbledon. He was on the wild card list released by the All England Club, but his name didn't appear in the draw, and when I got to Wimbledon, I was determined to find out why. After an interview with Saville during the Wimbledon Junior Championships, I got my answer, and during one of the many rain delays I wrote this piece to explain it. It's a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they might be in the running for a wild card for any level of event.

As the 2011 Wimbledon boys champion, Australian Luke Saville should have been playing in the men’s qualifying this year at Wimbledon. The All England Club has traditionally provided that precious opportunity to both the boys and girls champions from the previous year, but a lack of communication and the strict adherence of the rules of competition for ITF Futures kept him out of the tournament.

“I was entered in another tournament that week because I wasn’t 100 percent sure I was going to get the wild card,” Saville said. “When I was awarded the wild card I tried to withdraw from the tournament, but the withdrawal deadline had already been put in place.”

Expecting only to pay the ITF’s late withdrawal fee, Saville assumed there would be no other problem given the disparity in the levels of the two tournaments.

“My error was in not following it up with the ITF. A $10,000 tournament in Germany, Wimbledon qualifying, I thought maybe I’d cop a $300 fine, whatever. I didn’t think they’d be so harsh on it, but they were, and I’ve learnt the hard way.”

The ITF rule that a player cannot be committed to play in two tournaments in the same week has exceptions, but none that applied in Saville's case.

Although he had not been particularly successful in Futures play in May, Saville was pleased with his level and was looking forward to competing on grass again.

“I’d been playing on clay for maybe five weeks and at the French Open,” said Saville, who lost in the quarterfinals of the junior championships in Paris. “I was loving the grass courts, hitting with a mate, Ben Mitchell, who was also playing in the qualifying event. We were playing great, playing some really high quality sets, so I was itching to get out there, to be honest, and it came crashing down pretty quickly."

Saville, 18 and the 2012 Australian Open boys champion, didn’t hear from the All England Club about this presumed wild card during the months leading up to the event, but he blames himself for not initiating a discussion about it earlier.

“I probably should have emailed, because I didn’t hear from Wimbledon for about eleven and a half months after I won it,” Mitchell said, contrasting this to his communication with Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, who emailed his congratulations and an offer of the wild card into the 2013 men’s qualifying in Melbourne within a week of Saville’s boys title there in January.

“So that’s clear in my head. But from Wimbledon, the whole time, you hear rumors it’s automatic, you hear rumors no, it’s not, so I’m just in the dark. If I don’t get one and I’m not entered in a tournament, I’m sitting around in Europe. I come a long way, and if I’m playing no tournament for two weeks--I don’t want to be stuck like that. So yeah, I learned the hard way.”