What is a Wild Card in Tennis?

Maria Sharapova. Getty Images

In professional tennis, a wild-card player can bring added excitement to a tournament or be the source of controversy. The wild-card system is also used to develop junior players into the professionals of tomorrow. 

Wild Card Regulations

The sport of tennis is governed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which established the rules for tournament play and sanctions major tournaments like Wimbledon in Great Britain and the French Open.

But the ITF doesn't set rules for wildcards. Instead, they delegate that authority to national governing bodies, such as the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which sets standards for play in the U.S. and organizes major tournaments such as the U.S. Open. and competitive circuits.

The UTSA has established guidelines for both men's and women's tennis and who qualifies for wild-card play. Not just anyone can apply to be a wild-card player; you have to have an established a record of collegiate, amateur or professional-level play and meet a number of other criteria. The UTSA awards wild-card qualification on both the junior and professional level. For developing players, wild-card status can open doors to major tournaments they might not otherwise qualify for, offering them major exposure.

The other major international tennis bodies, such as Britain's Lawn Tennis Association and Tennis Australia, have similar policies regarding wild-card status.

As with the USTA, players have to apply for wild-card status, which can be revoked for rules infractions.

Tournament Play

Tennis players qualify for tournament play at the national and international level in one of three ways: direct entry, prior qualification, or wild card. Direct entry is based on a player's international ranking, and major tournaments will reserve a certain number of slots for these players.

Qualifying players gain admission by winning matches in minor events that have an affiliation with the tournament. The wild-card selections are left to tournament organizers.

Players may be chosen as wild cards for any number of reasons. They may be well-known players who are still competitive but no longer highly ranked or rising amateurs who don't yet have a qualifying ranking. For example, Kim Clijsters, Lleyton Hewitt, and Martina Hingis all have played at the U.S. Open in recent years only because they had wild-card status. A wild-card player may also be a relative unknown in the larger world of tennis but who may be a local or regional favorite.

Wild Card Controversy

Wildcards are also sometimes awarded to players who have been out of the spotlight for a prolonged period of time. Occasionally, this can lead to controversy. One recent example involves Maria Sharapova, the Russian tennis star who was suspended in 2016. In 2017, after her suspension had expired, Sharapova was granted a wild-card spot at the U.S. Open. Although some tennis greats lauded the decision, such as Billie Jean King, others criticized the USTA for its decision. That same year, the officials at the French Open refused to offer Sharapova wild-card slot, making her ineligible to compete in that event.