A lucky loser is a sports player who loses a match in the qualifying round of a knockout tournament, but who then enters the main draw when another player withdraws after the tournament has started because of illness, injury or other reason. The lucky loser then enters the main draw, normally in place of the withdrawn player. This can only happen before all players in the main draw have started their first match in the tournament.
Lucky losers as tennis tournament winners and finalists
It is rare for a lucky loser to win an Association of Tennis Professionals tournament; Heinz Gunthardt did it in 1978 (at Springfield), Bill Scanlon in 1978 (at Maui), Francisco Clavet in 1990 in Hilversum, Christian Miniussi in 1991 in São Paulo, Sergiy Stakhovsky in 2008 in Zagreb and Rajeev Ram in 2009 in Newport. In total, seven men and one woman have done it from 1978 through 2015. Andrea Jaeger, 1980 Las Vegas, is the only lucky loser to win a WTA title. Three men's doubles teams have won a tournament as lucky losers.
Lucky losers who have reached the finals of a tennis tournament and lost include Andreas Haider-Maurer, who reached the final in 2010 Vienna before losing to top-seeded Jürgen Melzer, and Marcel Granollers who lost against David Ferrer in 2010 Valencia. On the women's side Melinda Czink reached the final of the 2005 Canberra International, but lost to Ana Ivanovic, who had also defeated Czink in the final round of qualifying. In 2012, Coco Vandeweghe finished runner-up to Serena Williams at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford.
Ethical issues and change in policy in tennis
In tennis, the rule for choosing a player to enter the main draw as a lucky loser is as follows: from all players eliminated in the final round of qualifying, the highest-ranked player in the ATP or WTA rankings is the first one to enter the draw, followed by the second highest-ranked player and so on (if more players withdrew before the start of the tournament). On rare occasions that there are more late withdrawals than losers in the last qualifying rounds or players eligible for lucky losers are not available, a player who lost in the penultimate round of qualifying may enter as lucky loser.
Prior to the 2005 Wimbledon Championships, American player Justin Gimelstob faced George Bastl from Switzerland in the final qualification round. Gimelstob, who was the highest-ranked player remaining in the qualifying tournament, aggravated a chronic back complaint during his second qualification match against Vladimir Voltchkov. Gimelstob planned to withdraw before the match with Bastl, and informed his opponent of his intent. However, officials suggested that Gimelstob play at least one game, as it was almost certain someone would withdraw from the main draw before the tournament started, giving Gimelstob a good chance of getting a berth as a lucky loser (as well as giving him time for his back to recover). Gimelstob did indeed enter the main draw as a lucky loser after the withdrawal of Andre Agassi, reaching the third round, where he lost to Lleyton Hewitt.
While Gimelstob's behavior was not generally considered unethical, it raised concerns by pointing out that any player in a similar position would have little incentive to play a competitive match. For example, a high-ranking player paired against a lower-ranked friend might deliberately lose the match to help his friend gain entry to the tournament, if the first player had already clinched a lucky loser spot. The possibility of bribery was also a concern.
Shortly thereafter, a new policy was introduced in Grand Slam tournaments. Since 2006, the four highest ranked players who lose in the last round of qualification take part in a four-way random draw, the results of which are used to determine the order in which each player will enter the main draw. Consequently, if only one main draw spot for a lucky loser is available, the highest-ranked loser has just a 25% chance of entering the draw, instead of 100% as in the past. This element of uncertainty helps to ensure that final-round qualifying matches remain competitive. However, this rule does not apply in all other tournaments.
Lucky losers in other sports
It could be argued that US sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis fits this description, as she did not qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics in direct qualifying competition (losing the slot on the US team to Sada Jacobson). However, when Nigeria withdrew their fencer from the Games, her slot went to the highest ranked fencer who had not already qualified — Zagunis.
Zagunis went on to win the gold medal in Women's Sabre at the 2004 Games.
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- Bricker, Charles (June 19, 2005), "Gimelstob is a lucky loser", South Florida Sun-Sentinel