Tired of all the exhibition tennis yet? Ready for some real competition? It’s my favorite little tournament of the year, and it arrives just in time for the holidays. The Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia begins in just ten days and is a gift to the biggest tennis fans in the United States: Atlantans.
The playoff format and the compact three-day event makes the AOWC some of the best tennis fun you can have without picking up a racquet. Imagine a joint ITF-USTA Pro Circuit gig, but with bigger prizes. Imagine large crowds (something you don’t always see at an ITF/USTA Pro Circuit event). Imagine a bona fide fan-oriented show with low ticket prices. That’s Norcross.
The only complaint about the Playoffs is that they don’t play it outdoors, where the host Racquet Club of the South boasts a spacious stadium court and beautiful grounds. The Club itself is the once and future home of the Atlanta Open, currently in residence at Atlantic Station in downtown Atlanta.
2011 AOWC Women’s Champion Madison Keys returns to defend her title and collect another wild card. This year, Keys will surprise no one if she conquers the weekend. She was seeded sixth in successful playoff runs for the US Open and Australian Open wild cards last year. This year, she moves to the four seed.
Jesse Levine, the 2011 men’s winner, will not return to RCS this year, having secured himself a ranking guaranteeing a main draw berth in Melbourne. As he told me during the Charlottesville Challenger last month, ‘that’s a good thing’. The top seed this year will be Denis Kudla, who has never been seeded #1 at any event since turning pro.
With Kudla at the top and Jack Sock seeded second this year, at least they won’t have to face each other in the first round as they did in 2011.
The women’s field is notably stronger. The eight women’s contenders for the card have an average ranking of 143, compared to the men’s side which averages a 232 rank. Even if you remove Christian “Little Harry” Harrison at #474 from the field, the remaining seven stack up to a 197 average ranking.
The field features at least a couple of players who wish they weren’t required to compete for a wild card this year. Both Irina Falconi and Bethanie Mattek-Sands enjoyed top 100 status at this time last year. Atlanta’s Falconi came out to the Playoffs as an observer in 2011. In 2012, she’ll be the local favorite on the main court.
The US Open Wild Card Playoffs were sacked this year in favor of bringing a higher level of importance to smaller ITF/USTA Pro Circuit events in aggregating points from three events to determine a winner of the wild card. That’s what we’re told, anyway. The abysmal fan turnout at the 2011 US Open Wild Card Playoffs in College Park, Maryland was certainly a factor as well. The Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross featured a full house of fans for the finals last year. As long as the fans return, this event will remain on the USTA calendar for years to come.
Tennis East Coast will again provide live coverage of the Playoffs from Norcross. Atlanta’s Steen Kirby will handle the men’s side and I’ll cover the women’s competition. Over the next week, we’ll evaluate the player fields and give you a preview of the off-court activities.