Laslo Djere and Making Sense of Wild Cards

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Often, wild cards are a point of contention. Wild cards are frequently given to players who are not even near the cut off for tournaments are given wild cards into tournaments, only to flame out, predictably, in the first round. Then, people complain about the wild cards, the next tournament gives out shaky wild cards, and the beat goes on.

Take the Australian Open, for instance. In the 2019 women’s singles draw, of the eight wildcards, only two wild cards (Zoe Hives and Kimberly Birrell) won a match at the Australian Open, with Birrell’s third round appearance the furthest any of the eight wild cards went in the draw. In fact, out of the 16 wild cards in the women’s and men’s singles draws at the Australian Open, only three wild cards made the third round, and there was not a single Round of 16 appearance.

Now, this year’s Australian Open wild cards could have been worse. Accomplished player Jo Wilfred Tsonga was rightfully given a wild card with Australia’s reciprocal wild card deal with France, and players nowadays have to often play themselves into a wild card for Majors. But at smaller events, often it is the tournament’s discretion, and lower ranked players that should not be near the main draw often make it.

However, with that said, a case like Laslo Djere’s shows the importance of having wild cards, at least in some form. Before the ATP 500 event in Rio de Janeiro, Djere did not experience huge successes on the ATP Tour. Last year, Djere only won 11 matches on the ATP Tour and was toggling between the main tour and the ATP Challenger Tour for the entirety of last year.

This year, until Rio, Djere has been only on the main tour, but with mixed results. He won a round in Chennai, and a single qualifying match in Auckland. However, those were his only two results of the season, with Djere not winning a single match at both the Australian Open and Sofia.

Then, the red clay of South America came into view. Djere had an extremely tough first round matchup, taking on reigning French Open finalist Dominic Thiem. Dominic has been struggling so far this season, only having won three matches since the start of the year, and not looking like the dominant player that viewers have known Thiem to be in the past.

However, this does not take away from the fact that Djere took it to Thiem, winning the match easily, 6-3 6-3.  In fact, Djere did not drop a set all tournament and beat rising star Felix Auger-Aliassime in the final, which is especially impressive given that Auger-Aliassime had already taken care of solid clay courters in Fabio Fognini, Christian Garin, Jaume Munar, and Pablo Cuevas to reach the final. Djere, however, neutralized Auger-Aliassime’s huge forehand and serve, and was able to counterattack beautifully.

The week was punctuated by Laslo Djere’s heartwarming speech where he talked about how he has lost both of his parents, including his father recently (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbcBYdAQmr4). Hearing about Djere’s tragic struggles, and realizing how hard it must be for Djere to play tennis at this point in his life makes Laslo’s win even more special. This is a guy who has struggled so greatly, and yet, here he was having his moment in the spotlight. And that winner’s speech was an extraordinary moment.

Laslo also proved to not be a one-tournament-wonder when he fought through fatigue to make the semifinals of the ATP 250 event in Sao Paolo last week. Djere did not have an easy time in his matches this week. In his three wins in Sao Polo, Djere went to three sets in all three matches. This included a third set tiebreak win over Malek Jaziri and a rematch with Felix Auger Aliassime in the Quarterfinals. And even though Pella beat Djere in straight sets in the Semifinals, but he still battled his way to two tiebreaks, which showed a high level of mental fortitude.

So, how does this all relate to wild cards and Indian Wells? A few days ago, Indian Wells awarded their wild cards to the tournament, and among the wild cards for the tournament was Laslo Djere. This was a big deal because, first off, because of the way entry lists work, Djere would not have been a direct admission into the main draw without the wild card, as his hot streak in South America happened after the entry list cutoff for Indian Wells.

This is also huge, however, because of the number of Americans who could have gotten that wild card instead. There’s plenty of American players who Indian Wells could have, for lack of a better word, copped out and given Djere’s wild card, but Indian Wells recognized his hard work and recent results.

Indian Wells realized that someone who is currently No. 32 in the live rankings, and who would be (and now is) seeded in the event, to not be directly in the main draw would be a farce and a disgrace to the wild card system. And Indian Wells even realized that Felix Auger-Aliassime (Rio finalist and Sao Paolo quarterfinalist) and on the women’s side, Bianca Andreescu (Newport $125k winner and Acapulco semifinalist), deserved wildcards too over other players who might receive the wild card because they are American.

And this is why I think, while we need a total overhaul of the wild card system, that some form of wild cards should stay. We need wild cards for cases like Djere, where because of arbitrary situations like entry list cutoffs, deserving players can get their place to play directly onto one of the main stages of tennis.

Wild cards shouldn’t be given freely. They shouldn’t be given because of a flag that a player plays under. And they hey shouldn’t be given because a player has a connection to the tournament supervisor. They should be given because of merit.

So, the number of wild cards should be cut down, but perhaps not gotten rid of completely. This article centers around Djere, but a guy like Riley Opelka, who won the ATP 250 event in New York, also got a wild card to Indian Wells. And that is also the exact type of wild card that should be given.

This isn’t to say that a tournament shouldn’t be giving wild cards to players from the tournament’s home country. A player like Riley Opelka, who has worked so hard on the Challenger Tour and got his chance for glory on the main tour, deserves it too. And others, including Jared Donaldson (a former top 50 player coming back from injury), Amanda Anisimova (rising star), and Jessica Pegula (finalist in Newport and Midland) are all worthy choices from the United States. Anisimova already is into the second round with an easy 6-0 6-4 victory over Aleksandra Krunic.

What’s being advocated is to just make sure that choices such as those are the only wild cards awarded. That tournaments aren’t at the point where wild cards are being given out like candy.

That wild cards are being given to people like Laslo Djere.

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