I had intended to write about wild cards once Henin finally lost and then I plum forgot. I must remedy the situation!
Almost every professional tournament, large or small, is entitled to grant wild card entry to a small number of players who would not otherwise be eligible for direct entry. For a living legend and former champion such as Henin, it's a no-brainer but more often, the wild cards go to players of the host country.
At first glance, the wild card system seems a bit unfair. Why should local players be given an advantage over those who have earned higher rankings? However, one does have to appreciate the bigger picture of tennis's promotional needs. Boosting local players raises the in-country profile for the sport, particularly if a wild card does well. Our nearest big tournament is the one in Montreal. Canada has very few top tennis players but certainly hosts a world-class event. It seems a fair trade to give a few of their own an opportunity to shine. When Frank Dancevic made it to the quarterfinals in 2007, even managing to take a set off of Nadal before going down in three, the tournament got far more local press coverage than it would have otherwise.
Out of the 16 total wild cards granted in singles for the Australian Open, nine went to Australians. Four were granted as reciprocal deals with the French and US Opens. A nice innovation by the Australian is the granting of wild cards to players in the Asia/Pacific region as part of their larger marketing effort in that part of the world. Two Kazakh players, Andrey Golubev and Sesil Karatantcheva, were given the honor this year.
One would think that the four Slam nations would have a particular advantage. In fact, I suppose that for a long time they did as Australia, France, UK and USA were the dominant nations in the sport. That seems less worrisome these days as the power base has shifted to Spain, Argentina and Russia. Plus, there's that guy from Switzerland.
When a wild card makes it all the way to the final, as has happened the past two Slams, the tournament directors look like geniuses. Most don't make it past the first round but the investment is still a very important one.