September 27, 2023

Open Court


Montreal wild card for Venus has trickle-down effect on Canadians

Tennis Canada announced on Monday that another former No. 1 player will join the comebacking Caroline Wozniacki in Montreal next month.

That is 43-year-old Venus Williams, who will be awarded a wild card to play the Omnium Banque Nationale.

The official press release quote from new Montreal tournament director Valérie Tétreault.

“We are excited and honoured to announce that for the first time since 2018 Venus (Williams) will be back in Montreal to play in front of our incredible fans. Venus continues to inspire the tennis world with her relentless effort and determination to getting back to the top of her game, and we are eager to witness her extraordinary talent on the IGA Stadium courts.”

It’s a fun move, although Williams has hardly played in 2023 and hasn’t made a dent in a tournament in awhile. But if you peel the layers back a bit, it has significant consequences.

Basically, Tennis Canada chose Venus Williams over Bianca Andreescu. The top Canadian will get in anyway. But the trickle-down effect means that another deserving Canadian will have to play the qualifying.

(Note: we did contact new Montreal tournament director Valérie Tétreault to get her take on this – these decisions are not easy, and it’s not a criticism. Will update when/if she gets back).

Here’s the rub …

A tournament like Montreal – a “non-Mandatory” WTA 1000 with a 56-player draw – has five wild cards at its disposal.

Two of those are called “top-20” wild cards. Those can be given to current top-20 players who hadn’t previous entered in time. More often, they can also go to former No. 1 ranked players, Grand Slam champions, WTA Finals winners or Premier Mandatory WTA 1000 champions.

Those are the two wild cards given to Williams and Wozniacki, who retired three years ago but plans to return to the courts this summer.

The other three are discretionary wild cards. Those can be players from that country, or in the case of tournaments owned by big agencies like IMG be given out to up-and-coming players they want to promote.

But with the situation in Canadian women’s tennis at the moment, giving those wild cards to Williams and Wozniacki means making some hard calls. And a fully-deserving player is going to be left out.

Venus Williams on the practice court in Montreal in 2014.

Andreescu just short of cutoff?

The deadline for entry at the Omnium Banque Nationale was Monday. And the rankings for July 10 are “supposed” to be the criteria for entry. But there were no updated rankings for Monday, as it’s the middle Monday of a Grand Slam tournament. So, the de facto criteria to get in were the July 3 rankings, which came out before the start of Wimbledon.

The official list is to be announced Thursday, but the only top players who haven’t entered are No. 22 Ekaterina Alexandrova, No. 30 Irina-Camelia Begu and No. 43 Elisabetta Cocciaretto..

There are two players entered with protected rankings: No. 14 Jennifer Brady and No. 27 Elina Svitolina.

That left the cutoff at No. 44 – Jasmine Paolini.

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Which leaves Bianca Andreescu off the list, with a ranking on July 3 of No. 50. Well off – five players out. Had next Monday’s rankings been used, Andreescu would have squeezed in, because her ranking will be … No. 44.

But as it stands, the top Canadian will need a wild card to get into the main draw unless five players pull out before the qualifying begins.

So will Leylah Fernandez, whose current ranking is barely inside the top 100.

That leaves one wild card for … the rest of the Canadians. And it’s not as easy a call as it would seem.

It’s a numbers game, but Rebecca Marino may well be left to battle in the qualifying at her home event, despite being the No. 2 ranked Canadian.

Bouchard … or Marino or Zhao or Sebov?

Among the choices are Rebecca Marino, who has competed hard and well and also has faithfully represented Tennis Canada in the BJK Cup throughout the last few years.

She also happens, at the moment, to be the No. 2 Canadian woman in the WTA rankings. Which should be an automatic, really.

And then there is Katherine Sebov, who has made a big leap this season and qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw in Australia.

And then there is Carol Zhao, who qualified for her first main draw at Wimbledon last week.

And then there is … Genie Bouchard.

Obviously the 29-year-old Montreal native is the hometown favorite, even though even in her best days she struggled at her home-country event. From her interviews during the Wimbledon qualifying, it sounds as though she expects to be there; she has yet to officially enter the tournament, either in the main draw or the qualifying.

Bouchard at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2016.

But she’s ranked No. 221. And she has not been ripping it up since her comeback from shoulder surgery nearly a year ago, even though she has competed well.

But … she’s Genie Bouchard. And the others are not Montreal natives; nor are they … Genie Bouchard.

if you have any institutional memory you’ll recall when Montreal gave a wild card to Stéphanie Dubois over Ana Ivanovic – a decision brayed upon on the interwebs, who couldn’t understand the logic. Ivanovic’s ranking had dropped and she wouldn’t have been straight in, even though she had essentially saved the tournament the previous go-round, after most of the big names dropped out.

But Dubois would sell more tickets at home than Ivanovic. That’s still hard for people on the outside to fathom (we still remember how many people accused us of making it up; they couldn’t understand it, so it MUST be a lie … Ahhhh, the Internet). But it was true nonetheless.

These days, selling tickets in Montreal is far less of a focus (although it’s always a focus, and should be). The tournament is entrenched in the Montreal summer, whether the men or the women are in town.

The trickle-down effect

The thing about this is that Andreescu, by virtue of her title at the 2019 US Open as well as her title at Indian Wells that same year, would be eligible for one of those top-20 wild cards.

Handing those to Wozniacki and Williams precludes the Canadian from being able to get one and leave one of the three regular wild cards for another of her countrywomen.

And those decisions trickle down to the qualifying as well. Marino would get into the qualifying on her own ranking. But if you posit that Zhao and Sebov need wild cards that leaves just two for all of the younger players on the come-up – and perhaps even for players like 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin (who falls just short), or any other barter arrangements Tennis Canada might have made with other federations – as they have done in the past.

Typically, Tennis Canada has had a “wild-card playoff” for those young players anyway, with the winner getting the qualifying wild card.

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Venus and Montreal – it’s been hit and miss

It’s not as though Williams has been a faithful attendee in Montreal during her career. But the 43-year-old legend has been around so long, the landscape has completely changed during the summer hard-court season.

We witnessed her Canadian debut in 1995, when she was just 15 and in on a wild card.

Williams didn’t even have a ranking at the time; rules required that you have three tournaments on your resumé, and this was only her third pro event. She came onto the charts after the Canadian event, at No. 313.

She played Sabine Appelmans, the No. 17 seed but ranked No. 33, in a night match in Toronto. (She lost, 7-6 (3), 6-4).

Venus returned in 1997 – again to Toronto. And lost in the first round to No. 115 Nathalie Dechy.

And then she didn’t come back to Canada for more than a decade, through her peak years. She returned only in 2009, when she was ranked No. 3 (and lost her opener to Kateryna Bondarenko). Again, in Toronto.

There was a caveat in those early days. Cincinnati wasn’t a 1000 yet, it was a “Tier III” tournament. And so much of the focus – especially for the American players – was a three-tournament swing through California, including Carlsbad and Stanford.

So it wasn’t unusual for top players to skip it. And if they did well during that California swing, still many more were last-minute withdrawals. Which made it pretty tough on the Canadian event at the time; they’d put up giant-sized banners of top players, only to have them be late no-shows.

Venus never once played in Montreal until … 2014, when she put in a spectacle and went all the way to the final. She beat sister Serena in the semis, and lost to Agnieszka Radwanska.

Remember this? Venus beating sister Serena in Montreal. The crowd were wild for this.

She’s been much more of a regular since then, playing in Toronto in 2015 (losing 6-0, 6-3 to Sabine Lisicki in the first round), in Montreal in 2016 (losing to Madison Keys in the third round), Toronto in 2017 (losing to Svitolina in the third round) and Montreal in 2018 (losing to Halep in the third round).

She went out to Carla Suárez Navarro in Toronto in the opening round in Toronto in 2019, and didn’t return until a year ago in Toronto.

There, on a wild card, she lost to Jil Teichmann 6-3, 6-2 in her opener.

Let’s see what she can do in Montreal this year.

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