February 28, 2021

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Andy Murray leads the pack as Australian Open wild cards nearly all distributed

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With a little more than two weeks left before the Australian Open qualifying in the Middle East, and nearly six weeks before the main event, most of the Australian Open wild cards have been distributed.

Andy Murray, the former No. 1 and five-time Australian Open finalist, leads a list that almost exclusive includes Australians.

It’s somewhat of a make-good for Murray, who had to sit through this tribute video a year ago as if his retirement was already a done deal.

It was … awkward.

That’s how it goes. If you are lucky enough to hail from a country that hosts a Grand Slam (or you repatriate there), there are major benefits.

The other former No. 1 who might have benefited from a free pass would have been 2011 women’s singles champion and honorary Aussie Kim Clijsters.

But the 36-year-old’s third act in tennis has been savaged. First there were injuries as she trained to get back to a pro level. That caused her to have to have to postpone a return that originally was to take place in Australia last January.

Then came the pandemic. And then, when tennis resumed again, Clijsters suffered an abdominal injury playing team tennis and was only able to play one match inside the US Open bubble.

She did not return on the clay. And now, it’s possible we may not see her for awhile.

Stosur, Popyrin on the wait list

The main-draw wild cards on both the men’s and women’s sides are more or less rankings-based.

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They include one spot in lieu of what would have been the winners of the Asia-Pacific wild-card playoffs.

For the women, the wild card went to 19-year-old Xiyu Wang, ranked No.123. She is the highest-ranked player from Asia not already into the main draw on her ranking.

For the men, 23-year-old Sumit Nagal of India was chosen.

At No. 139, Nagal is … not the highest-ranked Asian player not straight in.

That honour belongs to 27-year-old Taro Daniel, ranked No. 117.

Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Nagal’s 31-year-old countryman, is ranked No. 129 (ahead of Nagal) and also was bypassed.

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Sumit Nagal (seen here during Roland Garros qualifying) was given the “Asia-Pacific” wild card into the AO main draw.

Why? Well, it’s a discretionary choice. But there are already four Japanese players in the main draw, and no Indians. There might be a little ageism in there as well.

As for veteran Samantha Stosur (No. 112) and Alexei Popyrin (No. 113), one spot remains on both the men’s and women’s wild-card rosters.

There may yet be withdrawals in the main draw. You would think those wild cards held back would be destined for those two players, if they don’t get in on their own.

Qualifying wild cards all over the map

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As for the spots in qualifying for those players ranked below the current cutoff of No. 230, they’re a little all over the place.

Youngsters Gadecki and Kempenaers-Pocz get in

Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz, just 16, is currently ranked No. 145 in the ITF junior rankings, but has no WTA Tour ranking.

She hasn’t played a match, either in the pros or the juniors, since last March although she has been active on the UTR circuit in Australia

Kempanaers-Pocz 16, gets an AO qualifying wild card. (ITF)

Gadecki is 18 and currently ranked No. 97 in the ITF junior rankings. She qualified and reached the third round of the Aussie Open juniors back in January.

Her career-high WTA ranking was No. 988 back in Aug. 2019.

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Jimenez-Kasintseva, just 15 and a native of Andorra, played three $15,000 ITFs on clay this fall in Europe. She lost in the first round in the first two, but made the semis in her final event in Spain in September.

The Andorran lost in the second round of the juniors at Roland Garros and won a J1 in Bulgaria out of the qualifying (eight wins, one set lost). She reached the final of another J1 in Spain, losing to world No. 1 junior Elsa Jacquemot 10-8 in a third-set tiebreak in the final. At the Orange Bowl a few weeks ago, she lost in the third round to eventual champion Ashlyn Kruger.

Youth rules for men’s wild cards

As for the men who have received qualifying wild cards – those are definitely not close to the rankings list.

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Australian Open junior champion Harold Mayot, 18, is still the No. 1-ranked junior in the world. He lost in the second round of the Roland Garros juniors, and in three close sets to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina as a wild card in the first round of the big boys’ event.

World No. 1 junior and 2020 AO junior boys’ champ Harold Mayot gets a wild card into the Doha qualifying. (ITF)

He retired in his first-round matches the last two weeks, at $15,000 ITF tournaments in Tunisia.

It looks like 33-year-old Matthew Ebden, who was in the top 40 just over two years ago but is currently ranked No. 317, has been bypassed both for a main draw or a qualifying wild card.

While his social-media accounts (never a true reckoning of someone’s life) indicate that he is training, he may well be injured.

One each on the men’s and women’s side, both in the main draw and qualifying, remain to be distributed.

Director of performance Wally Masur weighs in

Here are the quotes from Tennis Australia director of performance Wally Masur.

“It’s been a difficult year in so many ways, all our players have had a truncated season and we’ve not had the usual flow of results and changes in rankings we’d usually see.

“We’ve been lucky to run UTR events for our players across most of the year so they’ve had the opportunity to compete, and have a body of matches under their belt. And many of these players have fronted up, competed professionally and achieved good results.

“In terms of making what are always difficult decisions on wildcards, we’ve stuck a little closer to the rankings than we may have done in the past. We had a lot of players who were just outside the cut-off, and as they were on the cusp, they deserve a wildcard and a guaranteed spot in the draw to enable them to plan their preparation.”

Quarantine awaits on return

These players will have to fly to Doha and Dubai for the Australian Open qualifying, which begins on Jan. 10.

Upon their return home, they will have to do the 14-day quarantine. (It’s unknown if they will have to serve the full-blown time, or will be part of the group doing the modified quarantine, with the five hours allotted for training).

It’s a pretty big ordeal for, potentially, one match. But the payoff would be great if they can overachieve.