By John Delong
The field for the 2013 Winston-Salem Open is almost set, with two-time defending champion John Isner, world No. 11 Tommy Haas and top-ranked American Sam Querrey as three of the top headliners.
But the key word is almost.
Tournament director Bill Oakes is still armed with four wild cards, and that could result in other top players joining the field at the last minute.
Last year, World No. 6 Tomas Berdych was a last-minute addition, and he wound up going all the way to the WSO finals before losing to Isner. In the inaugural 2011 WSO, former World No. 1 Andy Roddick was a late wild card entry and went all the way to the semifinals.
Oakes has already received several calls from agents of Top 25 players inquiring about potential wild card spots, so he is confident that the tournament will land some big names late in the process again this year. The job now is to sit back and wait and see how those players perform at ATP Masters Series tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, and if they do indeed wind up coming to Winston-Salem.
"I think we’ve proven that if we put on a good event, the players will come," Oakes said. "Last year, our field was magnificent, and some of that was based on wild cards. We have every reason to think that will be the case again this year."
The world of wild cards is a fascinating one.
Under ATP World Tour regulations, the Winston-Salem Open is granted four special exemptions into its 48-player Main Draw, to be used as the tournament sees fit to attract players who either didn’t sign up before the ATP deadline or who didn’t otherwise qualify for the Main Draw.
Wild cards pretty much fall into four categories – current top players who for whatever reason decide they want to play even though they did not originally sign up before the entry deadline; players who have been injured and are looking to play their way back into form; long-time stars with fan appeal who may not have a high-enough ranking to qualify; or rising up-and-comers who haven’t climbed high enough yet to be above the cut line.
This year, for example, Oakes is holding one wild card for former Top 10 star James Blake, a wildly popular player in Winston-Salem from his days playing for the United States in three Davis Cup ties at Joel Coliseum. But there’s a chance that Blake will get into the Main Draw based on his ranking, so that would open up another wild card.
The other three wild cards could very well go to Top 25 players, especially if certain players don’t advance far in Montreal or Cincinnati and feel they need more matches before heading to New York for the US Open..
Oakes has always promoted the Winston-Salem Open to players as the perfect way to prepare for the US Open, with practice time always available at the Wake Forest Tennis Center.
"Most tournaments, wild cards are not nearly as impactful as they are for our tournament," Oakes said. "Since we’re a week before a Grand Slam and we’re late in the year, a lot of players will wait and see how they’re doing in the summer season before making a decision about playing here. So we benefit significantly from people having bad summers, candidly."
That’s certainly what happened in the cases of Roddick in 2011 and Berdych last year.
Roddick had been shelved with an abdominal strain much of the summer of 2011 and had played only one competitive match in five weeks leading up to the Winston-Salem Open. He wound up playing four matches in Winston-Salem in reaching the semifinals, and that helped propel him to the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
Berdych lost in the first round of Wimbledon and the Olympics last year, and won only one match each in Toronto and Cincinnati. So he, too, needed matches to rebuild his confidence. He did that by winning four matches in Winston-Salem and reaching the final, and then he went all the way to the semifinals in New York with a win over Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.
Oakes said other top players have inquired about wild cards in the past. Some of those let the original entry deadline pass because they were unsure if they would need to play in Winston-Salem.
"You’re only allowed to withdraw from a certain number of 250 tournaments," Oakes said. "Maybe you’ve maxed those out early in the year. Many of the top players do. They might not want to sign up and so they wait. So this year I had calls on sign-in deadline day from agents of top players, asking to put their players on the potential wild card list. So I’m already getting placeholders of players wanting a wild card, and it’s a very positive thing. We’ve had some that have not come to fruition, but I’ve had wild card requests from some of the top players in the world. The schedule worked out where they changed their mind and we never announced them, but in the process we learned to hold the wild cards until late."
In that sense, Oakes has to play a game of sorts in deciding when to hand out the wild cards, and who to give them to.
"There have been a few guys who have requested wild cards and wanted an answer before we could give them an answer, and then they withdrew their requests," Oakes said. "So it’s an art, not a science. You’ve got to figure out how long you can hold them before you make a decision. And it is an art. It is a learned thing. My first few years as a tournament director, I had to learn the nuances of the wild card issues. I think I do an OK job with it now, but it’s something that you still are kind of running that line. You’ve got to find out where that line is, because you want to hold out just in case you get a last-minute call from somebody, and how long you can hold off somebody. Those are the things you have to figure out as you go."
Bottom line is, wild cards make tournaments better.
And in the case of the Winston-Salem Open, wild cards make those who receive them better.