A Look Back … The Past 30 Years of National Junior Tennis

Little Theatre

[The following post was written by Robert Sasseville, long-time tournament director and participant in the world of competitive junior tennis. While quite long, Robert’s post gives a thorough history of the junior tennis tournament and ranking structure and explains how we got where we are today. A huge thank-you to him for doing this extensive research and presenting it in an easy-to-understand format!]

The extended discussion that occurred on ParentingAces.com about a week ago (terminating on February 16, 2014) would be amusing if the situation weren’t so sad. The issues associated with tournament admittance and rankings are fraught with contradictions, largely imposed by the national organization.

Although opinion is sprinkled within these notes, an effort was made stick to the facts.* Some older dates have been approximated.

Technology and increased population mobility have served to change all youth sports in the United States. The concept of sports academies (residential or local), and more recently, homeschooling, were foreign to tennis in 1980 except in Soviet Bloc countries.

There have been dramatic philosophical changes that irrevocably altered the landscape of junior tennis between the early 1980’s and 2010, the year before the National Schedule began to be compressed. These changes not only affected the structure of the competitive environment, they also created expectations on the part of players, parents. and coaches.

In 2014 we see abrupt changes to a system that had evolved over a 20-year period. It’s no wonder that many are confused, conflicted, and downright mad.

Changes in the past three decades include:
• Computer Rankings
• Limiting Results that counted for ranking
• Establishment of Tournament levels
• Optimum schedule and the first use of National Standing for selection for National tournament play
• Points Per Round Rankings (PPR)

In the 1980’s tournament play and rankings were independent and existed in “parallel universes”. Rankings were of little practical import except for early year seeding. But all that changed 14 years ago with the adoption of the Optimum Schedule. In 2000 tournament structure and rankings became intertwined and remain so today, so it is impossible to discuss one totally independently of the other.

Any discussion of tournament structure would be incomplete without a “rankings” component. Tournament history without mention of ranking denies the existence of the symbiosis that now exists by USTA fiat. Today almost every aspect of one affects the other, from event levels to draw formats to PPR point tables, one influences the other. And, they all affect how players make their competitive participation decisions.

Everybody knows about tournaments. You register… you check your match time… you show up and play your match … and you do it over again … and again until you lose twice. However, the history, evolution, and utility of “Rankings” are unfamiliar to a great many. A detailed history of USTA ranking concepts is in Appendix A.

The selection process has been closely tied to Rankings since 2000, so Appendix B shows the apparent philosophical inconsistency which has now been imposed on the 2014 schedule.

Appendix C addresses the 2014 national point tables.

Appendix D is for those who appreciate details. It contains the laborious selection process for National Selection Tournaments and Open Regionals.

Now let’s look back to see how we got to 2014.

When was I first involved with a National Championship (1983 Girls’ 14 National Championship), most of tennis as we know it didn’t exist. Draw size was 128. Format: Full FIC in singles; Single elimination in doubles. All matches played the best of 3 sets.

In 1983 there were no computer rankings. In fact hand-held cell phones and the wide-spread use of personal computers were still in the future. The National tournament calendar basically followed the traditional school year. The Hard Courts were in late June, the Clay Courts were in July, The Nationals (Kalamazoo, etc.) were in August, and the National Indoors were during Thanksgiving. The Easter Bowl was a traditionally strong invitational event held during the March-April Easter spring break period.

Age Control Date Change
Rankings (national, sectional, and district) were generated once a year at the end of the ranking year. In 1983 the ranking year ended on September 30. Around 1988 the 12 and under age group began transitioning to the calendar year age control date to align the U.S. with the international age convention. Older age groups continued to use the October-September ranking year until they aged out around 1994.

Player Record Sheets and Rankings 1983
Since no computers were used, the USTA had a Ranking committee made up of one or more “rankers” for each age group. Tournament records were submitted on player record sheets by players for consideration by the committee. [The very first thing a player had to do at check-in at our Girls’ 14 Nationals was turn in an updated copy of their player record sheet. That record, along with the tournament draw sheets would be given to the tournament rankers for Girls’ 14 and was the basis for those players’ year-end national rankings. Other players were free to submit their records to the ranking committee for consideration.]

Results from any event played were considered for ranking. Events like the Easter Bowl, Midwest Open, Texas Open, Florida Open, and even smaller local events generated results that were taken into account. In like manner each section, and even each district in larger sections, had a ranking committee. They generated year-end rankings based on paper player record sheets submitted by the players who “applied” for ranking. Rankings were an evaluation of 12-month’s play and an attempt to order players based on whom the committee felt would likely prevail in head to head match play based on that year’s results. Since rankings were “after the fact” they had limited utility for seeding and tournament selection purposes except early the next year.

Because rankings were static for 12 months, and widespread out-of-section travel and play weren’t common, a system for admittance of players to national championships was devised that relied on sectional play.

Sectional Endorsers and Entry Process 1983
Again, since computer rankings were still in the future, sections had committees that created ordered “endorsement” lists based upon the criteria that each section independently determined. Each section had an individual who was the “Endorser” for each national age group. That person was responsible to collect the paper entry forms, player records, and entry fee checks for all applicants from their section (including alternates) and submit them along with their sectional ordered endorsement list to the national championship. The endorser was the tournament’s point of contact with the section and often with their players as well.

Sectional Quotas 1983
Since there was no equitable way to evaluate player strength other than on-court, each section was given a “quota” of players based on the section’s percentage of junior membership. The total of all quota spots in 1983 was 100.

Selection Process 1983
The remaining 28 players were selected based on an analysis of all alternates’ player records submitted by the endorsers. However, alternates had to be selected in the order in which they fell on the sectional endorsement list, unless permission was granted by the endorser to select a player out of order. Some sections permitted it, others didn’t. This created the situation where a deserving player was denied entry by the intransigence of the section, or a weaker player (in the opinion of the National tournament) was admitted to allow the selection of a strong player ordered below him. The tournament made an effort to get the best players possible in the event based on the information available. It was our goal to get the best 100 players in the draw of 128. Obviously, weaker players were admitted because of quotas, but it was amazing to see some of those weaker players blossom in later years. Who knows, maybe that tournament is what made the difference? This was the national structure in the “Golden Years” before tennis became an Olympic sport and tennis became a true international sport.

12 and Under Nationals Eliminated and, National Hard Courts Discontinued
However, in 1989 USTA Junior Competition Committee was convinced that National Championship competition for ‘12 and under players’ was too much too soon, so the members voted to eliminate all National 12 Championship play. They also felt that the summer calendar was too crowded, so the National Hard Courts (mainly in California) were eliminated, as well. So, in 1990 half of all summer National Championships were eliminated. In 1989 there were 24 events. In 1990 there were only 12, and Kalamazoo had 2 of the 12. The National Indoors at Thanksgiving dropped from 8 events to 6.

Computer Rankings
Around that time computer rankings started creeping into use. Eventually, all sections adopted a version of computer ranking and most used the STAR system. Midwest used ‘Sapphire’, and the experimental ‘WinRank’, probably the best of all, was piloted in parts of the Southern section. With the introduction of computer rankings, it became possible for sections to use the generated lists as “endorsement” lists.

In 1996 at least two summer National Championship tournaments conducted 192-draw pilots. Based on responses from players, parents, coaches at the pilots, the 192-draw size was adopted for the 1997-2013 National Clay Courts and The National Championships (August). In 1997 the 192 draws were filled in the following order:
• 144 players from sectional quotas
• 4 wild cards
• 48 (or more) sectionally endorsed players not already selected in the order they fell on the National selection list. Selecting endorsed players to fill remaining vacancies at the end of the process allowed the tournament to mitigate inequities in the quota selection process. Our goal was to get the best 128 players who applied in our draw of 192.

12’s Restored in 1999
In 1999 the 12 and Under National Championships were restored. Initially, 12’s had the same draw size (192) and draw format (full FIC) as the other age groups. In 2000 the draw size for 12’s was reduced to 128, and in 2004 (or 2005) the draw format was changed to compass.

Ranking Challenges and the Creation of Tournament Levels
In 1999 to qualify for a ranking players participating in “The Nationals” (August) had to submit their updated “Player Record Sheet” before beginning play and submit additional tournament results to the ranking committee by September 30. Any subsequent results until the end of the year were to be submitted “as they occur.” Year-end National rankings were also generated by computer. Initially, USTA entered national events and any results submitted by the players from any event played.

Since the summer National Championships expanded to 192 players and there was the expectation that all results should be entered in the computerized ranking program, a problem arose at the national level. There were so many results to enter from across the country that USTA was unwilling to invest in sufficient staff to input the player data. This reluctance on the part of USTA to input all tournament data resulted in a limit being placed on the number events whose results would be considered for ranking, and ultimately caused the creation of tournament levels. It is ironic that when technology finally enabled the USTA to input all data through their sections and districts (which was happening) and import all the data into a national database that they elected to exclude the majority of data. So, in 2000 the concept of levels was born. Initially, ranking levels were to used to limit the quantity of results that counted for national ranking and to determine participation points. Events below District qualifier were designated as level 6 and did not count for ranking. Below is the 2000 table of levels:

Level 1 USTA Super National Championships (6 pts)
Level 2 National Open Championships (4 pts)
Level 3 Other events on the National Junior Tournament Schedule (4 pts)
Level 4 Sectional Championships (2 pts)
Level 5 District Qualifiers and sectional designates (2 pts)
Level 6 All other events (1 pt)

To qualify for a National ranking in 2000 a player had to have played in at least one National Championship or two National Opens, have acquired at least 22 participation points, and have at least 2 wins over players who had qualified for national ranking. Otherwise, he was ineligible for national ranking. Even though results were not being imported into the ranking system, USTA’s crediting participation in Level 6 events did allow players to qualify for ranking without having to travel to only major events to acquire every one of the 22 points required.

If it ain’t broke … The Optimum Schedule
At about the same time, around 1999, members of the junior committee felt that certain inequities existed in the sport that could be addressed using recently acquired ability to generate rankings instantaneously, if needed. Among them were:
1. Fixed ranking year
2. Uneven distribution of National Championships
3. Single pathway to National Championships

Fixed Ranking year: The calendar year rankings were viewed as unfair to those who had “bad” birthdates. They felt that there was institution inequity for those who were born late in the ranking year and that the concept of “Rolling Rankings” would mitigate those inequities. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, looks at youth sports and found that those with “good” birthdays had a significant advantage throughout their youth and adult careers, so maybe the committee members were way ahead of their time on this issue.

Uneven Distribution of National Championships: If the traditional school year was to be honored, but “Rolling Rankings” were to be implemented, the national tournament calendar had to be revised.

Single pathway to National Championships: There were always horror stories of deserving players not being admitted to Nationals because of overly strict sectional requirements, players foregoing opportunities to compete in other tennis events or other worthwhile activities, or deserving players who were injured and couldn’t meet endorsement requirements.

On August 1, 2000 the Optimum Schedule was born and for the first time:
• National ranking (standing) was used as a basis for player selection to National Championship events.
• Remote Qualifiers (National Opens) for succeeding National Championships were created
• Sectional endorsement was no longer required for the top nationally ranked players, nor was it required for National Open qualifiers.
• Age Eligibility was based on month of birth rather than the former birth year.
• Birth month was the criteria for inclusion in ranking lists.
• Rankings were generated monthly (Rolling Rankings) and year end rankings used a composite of the players highest monthly rankings during the calendar year.
• Sectional endorsement was not required for entry
• Sectional endorsement order had no bearing on player selection except for those who fell within the section’s quota.

The Optimum Schedule:
• Eliminated the National Indoors at Thanksgiving
• Created the Winter Nationals in late December and
• Established the Spring Nationals (which absorbed the former Easter Bowl).

This gave a more year-round national schedule, while still leaving the fall and winter school year unaffected. In 2000 the selection order for 192-draw summer National Championships was:
• All who entered listed in the top 60 on the Super National Selection List (rankings)
• 24 National Open Qualifiers (6 from each site)
• 100 Sectional Quota Players*
• 8 Wild Cards
• Remaining Vacancies selected from Super National Selection List

By 2003 the selection order for 192-draw events changed to:
• Players listed in the top 24 on the Super National Selection List
• 24 National Open Qualifiers (6 from each site)
• 100 Sectional Quota Players*
• 8 Wild Cards
• Remaining Vacancies selected from Super National Selection List
* Because Sectional Quota players were selected after ‘Top 60’ or ‘Top 24’ and after ‘National Open Qualifiers’, much lower ranked players likely fell within the quota and made quota player selection much less reliable than they had been in the previous years, when sectional quota players were selected first. The Optimum Schedule created a radical break from tradition and was the first step away from sectional play being the staple for most players.

2004: Points Per Round Ranking System is Hatched
2004 was a watershed year and the face of junior tennis experienced a radical change, both in perception and in reality. In 2004 the Points Per Round ranking system (PPR) was adopted and each section was directed to designate 12 Sectional Ranking Tournaments which would offer national ranking points. Regardless of the section’s size, each section was allotted 12 events with identical national ranking points. In small sections with few strong events this offered an opportunity to grant National status to events that previously could not qualify based on strength, while in some larger sections it caused some event to lose National ranking points, since some events had been granted National Level 5 status based on strength of field (e.g. GA Jr. Open). The points per round ranking concept took on a life of its own, and the junior competitive landscape was forever changed. The rationale for implementing a PPR ranking system was that players needed more match play and head-to-head ranking systems discouraged play because of fear of losing. The proponents were right! Data indicated that there was a dramatic increase in match play, so PPR had succeeded in getting more players to play more matches.

(That seems like that is the reason PPR was adopted in the first place.)

USTA created a ranking environment that begets inequity, but encourages play, so the only way to keep deserving players from “falling through the cracks” is to increase the number of opportunities and make draws at major events larger, not smaller.

By 2005 the following changes occurred in summer Nationals:
• In 18’s players listed in the top 40 on the Super National Selection List were admitted.
• The number of National Open Qualifiers admitted was reduced to 12 (3 from each site – effective 2004)

NOTE: At some point June Closed Sectional Championships were elevated to Level 3.

National Junior Tournament Schedule Expands “Regional” Play
There had been many popular and often unique Level 3 events on the National Junior Tournament Schedule scattered throughout the year. Several were “Bowls” (Copper, Fiesta, Gator, California, etc.), others were “Opens” (Florida, Texas, Midwest, Southern), while many identified a sponsor, a memorial, or location (Pacific Coast, Kentucky Derby, St. Louis Gateway, Peach State, K-Swiss, Muterspaw, Columbus, Franklin, Quicksilver, Roxy, Sportwall, Gamma). These events offered unique and very competitive environments. In 2006-07 the USTA decided to institutionalize the concept of “Regional” play, renaming what had formerly been National Junior Circuit Tournaments as Regional Tournaments. They actually decided to INCREASE the number of Regional events. Apparently, the belief was that players would limit their play to the events held in the player’s geographic “region”. In 2006-08 the number of Regional events increased. Events like the Mike Agassi No Quit in Las Vegas, NV filled vacancies in the calendar. However, the term “Regional” was just that, a “term”. It was not predictive of who would enter the event. Because these events were geographically near transportation centers and well dispersed throughout the calendar, they were very attractive.

Instead of keeping players close to home, “Regionals” attracted players who wanted good competition, new unfamiliar opponents, and an excuse to travel. The first year of the Mike Agassi No Quit in Las Vegas (2007) we had more than 700 applicants for 256 spots. It’s hard to imagine that 700 players were all “Point Chasers”, particularly since the tournament was very strong.

USTA had set in place a system that encouraged play and was offering more opportunities to do so. USTA created a ranking environment that begets inequity, but encourages play, so the only way to keep deserving players from “falling through the cracks” is to increase the number of opportunities and make draws at major events larger, not smaller, and yet …

Death of National Schedule Events and the Ascent of Concurrent “Regionals”
Around 2010 someone decided that the system was working too well and …
• Players were playing too much.
• Players were traveling too much.
• Players were missing too much school (at least those who were still attending traditional school).
• More Sectional play was needed.
• Point Chasing was rampant and was the downfall of US Tennis.
• Parents were stupid and didn’t have sense enough to keep their kids at home.
• Most players wouldn’t be professionals anyway

So, in a blinding moment of enlightenment, in 2011 the committee concluded:
• Why don’t we neuter all of the National Junior Schedule Level 3 tournaments and rename them “Regional (name of location)”,
• Make them all the same, except summer events can have 64-draws (for a while)
• How about let’s pick 4 weekends out of 52 weeks on the calendar and stack all of the formerly unique events one upon the other.
• In fact let’s have 8 concurrent events on each of the 4 weekends and let’s break up age groups and disperse them throughout the U.S.
• Never mind that we don’t have a computer entry system that will accommodate such a structure.

In 2011 the following changes occurred in National Championships and the tournament calendar:
• The number of National Open Qualifiers admitted was reduced to 8 (2 from each site)*
• The draw sizes of summer Boys’ and Girls’ 14 National Championships were reduced to 128.
• All Boys’ and Girls’ 14 National Championships adopted the compass draw format.
• National Open draw sizes were reduced from 64 to 32 (4 sites)
• Generic Regionals replaced National Schedule events
• Regionals were limited to 4 weekends with age groups scattered at different sites, as determined by the National Junior Sanction and Schedule committee to spread the wealth among competing sites.
• 8 concurrent events were held in each age group.

So what happened?
• Players desperately entered 4 sites in 2 age groups to assure that they could play in one of the few events available.
• Because of the awkward and confusing entry process, families of selected players often found that siblings had been accepted at events 1,000 miles apart.
• Others had other commitments on one or more weekends and missed 25% of the “Regional” year for each conflicted weekend.
• Strength of field took a tremendous hit and was much lower. With 256 spots available on a weekend vs. 64 or 96, it doesn’t take a savant or rocket scientist to realize that the last 100 players selected will be much weaker when there are 8 concurrent events.
• Many, many events that had rich histories of service to the sport were destroyed.
• Rest in peace Copper Bowl, Peach State, Muterspaw, Fiesta Bowl, et al.

Even that didn’t work. Apparently, Point Chasers cannot be discouraged so easily. It appeared that the only way to eliminate them was by putting a stake through their heart, or by just doing away with their quarry. Take away the point-bearing events and there is nothing left to chase.

Charge of the Lite Brigade
A well-meaning committee directed by what appeared to be disenchanted leadership, decided that “enough was enough.” The committee was to reinvent junior tennis and the sport would be better for it. No longer would players spend tons of money chasing a dream that was merely a vapor. It would be back to the real world, and back to school. So, subcommittees met and talked, planned, maybe even argued about the future of junior tennis. Not all sections were included in the subcommittee doing the heavy lifting. In fact, the largest section, Southern, was not included in the subcommittee charged with recommending the new and improved tournament landscape.

2013-2014 Proposed Competitive Structure is Unveiled
On November 16, 2011 a document was prepared and sections were given a peek at what was to happen. Here are some of the things the original proposal contained:
• Elimination of Spring Nationals

• Elimination of Winter Nationals

• Reducing The Nationals (August) to 128 draws for 14-18’s effective in 2013.

• Reducing The Nationals 12 draw size to 64.

• Increasing the number of wild cards for The Nationals 18’s to 16.

• Reducing the 2013 Clay Court Nationals to 128-draws for 14-18’s

• Reducing 2014 Clay Court Nationals to 64-draws and moving event to Memorial weekend

• Replacing 4 National Opens 4 times a year with 2 National Selection tournaments held 2 times per year (Level 2)

• Mandating that concurrent National Selection tournaments play on 3 different surfaces- hard, clay, and indoor (one 32-draw on each … Can you say, “Huh?”).

• Creating Grand Masters event in which four 14’s play to advance one player to join seven 16’s who would advance two players to join 14 18’s and play do determine a champion. Losers would stay and train while the others played. (Level 1, but not sure which age group)

• Creating National Masters for 14’s and 16’s at same time as ITF Easter Bowl (Level 1A) [All sixteen participants who completed the event would be admitted directly to the 64-player National Clay Courts].

• Created a July National Masters for 14’s and 16’s (Level 1A) [All sixteen participants who completed the event would be admitted directly to the 128-player National Championships].

• Creating a Level 1 Winter Team event for 32 players to replace Winter Nationals

• Creating a Level 2 Winter Team event for 32 players to replace Winter Nationals

• Replacing 8 32-draw Level Regionals held 4 times per year with: 4 32-draw Level 3 Regionals held 3 times per year played concurrently with National Masters and National Grand Masters tournaments and 4 32-draw Level 4 Regionals held 2 times per year played concurrently with National Selection tournaments

• All Regionals would be closed to players within the region and selected based on sectional quotas.

• Each Sections would be given an additional National Level 3 event (total of 2) and 4 National Level 4 events to do with as they pleased.

• The 8 sectional Level 5 events previously allowed would be eliminated altogether, so sectional designated events no longer had national value.

• The Level 3 August doubles event would be elevated to a Level 1 National Doubles Championship.

• Entry to National Clays and The Nationals based solely on Quotas (except wild cards and the sixteen National Masters entrants directly admitted to 14’s and 16’s).

• Sectional Championship winner admitted directly to The Nationals.

• Quotas would be determined by 60 % on strength (players ranked in the top 150 nationally) and 40% on membership.

While few knew about this November 16, 2011 proposal, or even understood it after a cursory review, those who understood it had grave reservations.

Resistance to the Proposed 2013-2014 Structure and the ‘Listening Tour’
Although it took a few months to coalesce, individual and industry stakeholders began to express their disapproval through Facebook, online petitions, blog articles and discussions, and other public and private communications. The pushback to the proposal took a quantum leap forward when Sean Hannity published an article on his website questioning the wisdom of a system that eliminated more than 50 percent of national competitive opportunities and more than 75% of national play outside a player’s region compared to the 2010 opportunities, and calling on the tennis community to get involved. (June 26, 2012)

Patrick McEnroe responded publicly on the USTA.com website, but deferred to Timothy Russell, chair of Junior Competition, for comments. Dr. Russell used a little sarcasm in his response, so the battle was on. Because of the uproar created when these changes became public and began to draw fire, the USTA made an effort to educate the tennis community by sending Patrick McEnroe and others from Player Development to the 2012 National Championships to conduct player/parent/coach forums to explain why the changes were in the best interest of tennis. At the meeting at the Girls’ 14 Nationals in Peachtree City, GA there were civil and courteous interchanges of opinions, but the vast majority of the comments were negative. It became obvious that Patrick McEnroe had very limited knowledge of the changes and had been recruited to make an appearance simply because of his celebrity status. [About 3-4 months later Junior Competition was moved under the Community Tennis umbrella.] In September and October 2012 two meetings were held between USTA staff and officials and a group of individuals who were labeled as “industry” representatives. As a result of the October meeting, USTA agreed to maintain draw sizes for all events in 2013 and to conduct a “Listening Tour” at various events and sections’ annual meetings around the country. While some events were very well attended and opposition to the new schedule was generally overwhelmingly expressed, the die had been cast. The USTA staff and board were unwilling to pause implementation of the plan for a year to have further review, but were willing to make some modifications to the original plan. However, at the end of the day, the opportunity reductions from 2010 (or even 2013) to 2014 were dramatic and the attempt to “pause” the proposal for at least a year failed. USTA had been encouraged to have a “blue ribbon” task force look at the proposal and make suggestions regarding modification, implementation, or scrapping it and starting over.

If you compare the proposed changes above with what actually occurred in 2013 and what is scheduled for 2014, you will see that the “Listening Tour” resulted in some important changes , namely the restoration of the Winter Nationals, maintaining the National Clay Courts in July with larger draws, and keeping 128-draws for the 12 Nationals. Qualifiers were added to the 16 and 18 summer Nationals in an attempt to mitigate the reduction in draw size from 192 to 128.

The Final Product
After analyzing what was being added and what was being deleted from the 2011 and 2010 schedules, the data showed at least 50% of the individual national competitive opportunities that existed in 2010 had been eliminated. The continued stacking of events of different levels scheduled concurrently on the same weekend exacerbated the reduction of opportunities. A player cannot compete in both a Level 2 and a Level 4 event, even if he would be qualified to do so, if they are held at the same time.

Additions to the schedule seemed to favor the highly ranked players. After years of access to national events and national championships, USTA decided to limit both access and availability to events that had become cherished and desired. USTA by implementing a PPR ranking system had created a demand for national play, and with the stroke of the pen (or delete key) USTA was slashing the supply. The effect is that many will give up trying to acquire the product at all (they may find other sports are more appealing).

Top Players Will Suffer

Since the number of events are fewer, and thereby creating geographical dispersion, it will be more costly for players who do have the necessary standings to compete. Lower ranked players who don’t qualify and remain close to home will have to appreciate a reduced number of opponents and hope that unhealthy relationships and habits don’t ingrain themselves because of boredom or familiarity. The select few who are the top players have recently realized that they don’t have any periods during the year that can be set aside for training and preparing for major events because of the changes.

Top players have the traditional National Championships, the Orange Bowl, Eddie Herr and other ITF events that important to them. Now USTA has created new boutique events for top players, and on top of that, mandated that they play within their sections, since National Championship admittance is exclusively at the pleasure of the sections’ endorsement order (except the June Sectional Champion who qualifies for the Nationals in August). So, top players must add sectional events to their list of “must play” events. The concept of “periodization” is a casualty of the latest tournament structure.

Sections are back in control (partially)?
In 2000 Sectional Play was an unintended casualty of the Optimum Schedule. With multiple pathways to National events, players no longer had allegiance to their sections. Southern California was an extreme example, where their sectional championship could likely have been held without their top 10 players in some age groups. The current schedule attempts to restore sectional sovereignty. Unfortunately, it has overlaid sectional control over a process that has evolved for over 15 years and relied heavily on the nationally ordered selection lists. The tennis community is now being asked to revert to an older more nostalgic time when interstate travel was uncommon and intersectional play was almost unheard of except 4 times a year. It’s no wonder that there is discontent about quotas. The discontent is about the entire system and the perceived withdrawal of opportunity for the majority of those who were formerly competing in National events. The attempted reversion to a pre-Optimum Schedule structure is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. You might get it back in there, but you certainly wouldn’t want to brush your teeth with it.

Simple Solution Overlooked!
The saddest part is that all of the constituencies could have been satisfied by maintaining the 2010 tournament calendar and merely adding the requirement that all players admitted to National Championships must be endorsed by their home sections.

Players would have more flexibility, and likely lower expense, with a year-round schedule of events which offered all age groups at the same or nearby locations. Sectional influence over their stronger players would have been restored to pre-Optimum Schedule levels, and those who needed or wanted an expanded menu of opponents and surroundings would have been free to fulfill those needs and desires.

It’s not Quotas that are the problem, although they tend to illuminate the problem. The real problem is the contraction of the system to which players and families had become accustomed and largely satisfied with for more than a decade.. It’s taking a system that was using protocols like PPR rankings to expand, then diametrically deciding to compress it.

The Ideal Gas Law says it best: PV=nRT

If you increase the pressure on a closed system, the temperature within the system will rise. And so it has!!!!

Appendix A:
National Rankings – The Past 30 years – A Brief History, Just in Time
In 1980 rankings were an evaluation of how well a player had played against those in his age group. Because they were head-to-head based, they were a starting point for college recruiting and the basis for qualifying for manufacturers’ “Free Lists”. Number of players ranked Rankings were based on head to head results, not points. The total number of players with 1994 year-end National rankings per age division were:
Boys’ 18 – 199; Boys’ 16 – 181; Boy’s 14 – 180
Girls’ 18 – 177; Girls’ 16 – 164; Girls’ 14 -1983

The total of all Nationally ranked players in 1994 was 1,084. Standings did not yet exist. For perspective, there are 2,111 Boys’ 18 players in the 2/20/14 national standings.

Rankings give way to “Standings”
The Optimum Schedule spelled the end of the line for year-end “Rankings” as the standard. Starting in 2000 “Standings” became functionally important while “USTA Rankings” became a beauty contest with no prize for the winner. The Optimum Schedule used ordered lists to select players, so the rankings used for that purpose were renamed “standings”. In addition, they were further used to order alternates, so “rankings/standings” took on an absolute value. Since the ordinal aspect of standings was absolute, it was important to have them include as many players as possible. Subsequently, when that was realized, the minimum point threshold needed to be listed in the “standings” was removed. Under the Optimum Schedule if a player, particularly a sectional player ranked near, or just below, the bottom of the sectional quota, wanted to assure that he would have a chance to get to play in National events through at least one of the pathways, he would have to acquire a national “standing”.

After 2004 and the adoption of the Points Per Round ranking system acquiring a national standing meant harvesting points. This system was easy to understand, eliminated fear of losing, and encouraged more match play. A points-based system is by its very nature an incestuous creature. Those who are in the system and have the points are able to get into more events where points may be accumulated. It’s an imprecise and generally arbitrary way to apportion competitive reward, but because it has been shown to increase play and eliminate “ducking”, its concomitant inequities can be overlooked.

USTA created a ranking environment that begets inequity, but encourages play, so the only way to keep deserving players from “falling through the cracks” is to increase the number of opportunities and make draws at major events larger, not smaller.

Rankings have been used as a behavior management tool. Doubles play had long been promoted as being essential to a well-rounded all-court game, but some coaches and players had decided not to play doubles and rest or drill instead. Since the committee agreed that doubles was essential, they decided to establish standings (used for selection purposes) that combined both singles and ranking points into a single standing list.

In 2008 combined standings became the norm, and guess what? Doubles play immediately increased, and remains so today.

You may ask, “If we allow people who can afford to travel to gobble up all of the ranking points, then how will players of lesser financial means ever have the chance to be recognized?” Those with resources will have an advantage if they choose to exercise it. But that is the case in all endeavors, not just tennis. However, removing the opportunity to travel and play events outside of their home area won’t have any effect on those who don’t have the resources or inclination to do so. The elimination of national play opportunities levels the playing field for everyone, but it does so in a “lowest common denominator” fashion. It also removes the developmental and social benefits that may be associated with those events. Elimination of events also reduces the chance that a player will have a national event close to home or a relative’s home.

One other point here …
The Sectional pathway to National Championships has never gone away! A player who elects to play only within his section, still can compete in all four National Championships, Zonals, and any other national event held within his section. There is no requirement that a player leave his section to qualify for national play. Contrary to what has been alleged, players of limited means can still play within their section and have the opportunity to play at Kalamazoo, San Diego, or any of the other National Championships. Because of the evolution of rankings from a year-end ordering process to the basis for entry into many national events, a demand has been created in the playing population to have opportunities available to seek an improved ranking and thereby improved chances to be included in more national events.

Appendix B:
2014 Selections … Sectional Quotas or National Standing? It Depends!!
Selections for Level 1 National Championships (Clay, The Nationals, Winter) and Level 4 Closed Regionals are via sectional quotas and wild cards. (8 players for 16-18 Clay and The Nationals are qualifiers.) Selections for the Level 1 Grand Masters and National Doubles Championship (gold ball), Level 1A Sweet 16’s, Easter Bowl 12-16 National event, Level 2 and Level 3 National Selection Tournaments, Level 3 National Warm-up Tournaments, and Qualifiers for 16 and 18 summer Nationals are made based on USTA National Standings.

What this means is that if a player wants to play Level 1 national championships and other Level 1, 2, and 3 national events, he must have a high sectional standing plus maintain a national standing, as well. The system bounces from sectional quotas to national standings in a whimsical selection process that forces players meet both sectional and national ranking requirements if they want to have the opportunity to play in the complete national menu of events. The selection process has evolved over the 10 years that the Points Per Round “ranking” system has been in place. The point/ranking criteria for selection for national play has been periodically adjusted.

These selection criteria demand a large pool of players with national standings, while the structure itself serves to limit the numbers of players in the pool who qualify through intersectional national play and substitute them with players who acquire national ranking points in sectional events.

To see detailed 2014 selection criteria, see Appendix D.

Appendix C:
Radically Increased 2014 Point Table Values
Point totals will change radically in 2014 as the year progresses. While the opportunities to acquire points nationally drops, the points awarded to each win are 200-300% higher than their corresponding level in 2013. [The #1 player in Girls’ 16 just won one of four Level 2 32-draw National Selection Tournaments and received 1500 base points, compared to her 1250 base points for winning the Girls’16 National Championship in San Diego.] It is hard to understand this logic, since the relative weighting within the table is relatively close to 2013. Multiplying each value by 3 only serves to devalue results acquired in 2013 and excessively weight results from sectional events with National points. The winner of a 2014 sectional National Level 3 event will acquire more points that the 5th place finisher at the 2013 Nationals at Kalamazoo.

Increasing the point values for rounds reached by 200-300% basically keeps the players point totals similar to 2013 while representing many fewer matches played. Had the point tables been applied retroactively, the desire to increase the importance of National Championships or finishing in the top echelon of any National event would have been satisfied without the skewing that is now occurring, particularly as a result of early-year closed Sectional Level 3 and Level 4 events.

One parent related that his child had no points to defend in January and February and yet has dropped 50 places in the standings

Appendix D:
Selection Process for National Selection Tournaments and Open Regionals
According to the 2014 USTA Junior National Tournament Committee Manual. selection of players for National Selection Tournaments sets no minimum number of points, but rather uses “top 200” of the National Standings List of the next-younger age division, and has no limit on the age division of the event.

Ordering of alternates for National Selection Tournaments uses the top 600 of the natural age division, followed by top 400 of the next lower division, followed by all below 600 on the Standings list of the division, followed by all below 400 on the Standings list of the next younger division.

The 2013 Year-End National Rankings have only one age division (Girls’ 16) with more than 400 “ranked” players. They have 401. None come close to having 600 players, so “rankings” give way to “standings” in the National Selection tournament selection process.

The Open Regionals selection process has different set of tiers, using “top 250” as the cutoff for next-younger age division selection and no cutoff or the age division of the event. Filling remaining vacancies has no restrictions except that the age group of the division is considered first. Alternates are ordered first from the division of the event considering all those with 100 or more points, then those in the next-younger division with 100 or more points.
* Sources include:
• 2002 and 2009 National Junior Tournament Schedules
• Friend at Court: 1994 to 2014 (except 1995 and 1998)
• USTA Yearbooks as far back as 1995
• 2014 USTA National Junior Tournament Committee Manual

12 thoughts on “A Look Back … The Past 30 Years of National Junior Tennis”

  1. Most informative words I have read. I was told about this history but to see it on paper Clear/Concise and void of much opinion is re-freshing.

    Having been told by many (~10+ parents) of kids that are know 14-17 and playing ITF’s to leave the USTA because of everything written in this post provides just another piece of evidence in a long list of reasons to forge a plan as they have done.

    Anyone with a Jr Tennis player would be selling themselves short otherwise. ITF has US Kids from 13-17 with relatively low USTA National Ranking, most 3-4 stars on Tennis Recruiting. net. Playing these events Grade 5-4-3’s Qualies and getting into MAIN DRAWS. They have decided to take their TIME/$$$ elsewhere since they were casualties of the changes listed in this post. Having met them first hand I know their stories and completely understand.

    Read top right of Homepage and look at some of the US Kids in Drawsheets.

    1. One issue with going the ITF route is the fact that the tourneys run during the week requiring kids to miss tons of school. Couple that with the fact that there are very few ITFs in the US during traditional US school vacations, as well as no backdraws, and it makes that a challenging alternative to USTA.

    2. Perhaps you should look at the top 40+ ranked itf players from the US. They are primarily blue chips and only a few 5 stars. Three and four stars would not be successful in the current itf environment.(An rnvironment that I agree with you is a product of what the Usta has done to the junior tournament structure.)

  2. The ITF route would be great, except it is not realistic for families that have two working parents. All the ITFs and Futures events I see are conducted during the work week. I sacrifice all my personal and vacation days already as my player goes deep in most of her events, and we are still there on Mondays. It only starts to become viable once the player can drive themselves to events, and I am not really comfortable cutting my 16-year old daughter loose to travel hours or days away from home without a support network in close proximity.

  3. Thank God my kid is in college and we don’t have to deal with the horrible changes that have recently been made. I doubt tennis would have been nearly as attractive to him with the new tournament changes. The USTA is an insane, corrupt, beaurocratic organization that has too much money and zero interest in helping its membership. Hopefully one day this will change. The USTA only cares about one thing — the higher level, overpaid employees within the organization.

  4. I didn’t want to suggest it was an Alternative to the USTA. Disclaimer —– With the recent changes and seeing THE SHEER NUMBER of experts that agree to disagree with these changes I have no confidence in the current system, but hope USTA will revert back in some fashion.

    Talking to these folks they see the USTA as the alternative. If we have some time and …. We will enter a USTA event. They saw the USTA changes as abandoning them in the middle of their Journey. They were very very distraught and hurt by the changes over the last few years.

    Coupled with College’s taking kids with ITF experience it wasn’t difficult to understand.

    2 of the kids are from single households with very little means. Folks you would never think of as ITF types. I was very surprised and asked many questions about this pathway.

    Why – These were THEIR replies

    – ITF Schedules rarely change the events the countries so scheduling was not difficult

    – Cost to North/Central America and Caribbean / Northern part of South America was cheaper than a lot of US destinations. (example Cost to fly to Mobile is TWICE cost to go to Jamaica) Lodging if Hospitality NOT included (it is for some events) is comparable.

    – Just plain more fun than a good number of the USTA event locations, the TD’s treat them well and want their business.

    – Driving to US events takes 5 hrs just to get out of Florida so its a pain.

    – Yes it may be Qualies/But they can plan a trip for an August event in February and not wait 2 weeks out as Air Fare’s DBL (I’ve LIVED this one)

    To a man they plan their calendar/budget/days away and they all said it was Easier to plan, cheaper, and their kids missed less school. They did fewer events but built college resumes and seems it worked for them.

  5. Lynn said – “Perhaps you should look at the top 40+ ranked ITF players from the US. They are primarily blue chips and only a few 5 stars. Three and four stars would not be successful in the current itf environment.”

    Lynn You cherry Picked the Top 40 ITF kids from the US, I was talking about kids well below that level. Look Several Hundred numbers lower/look @ their National USTA ranking and TRN.
    Kids that are not 5 Star and Blue Chipers are going the ITF route. It is not as elite as many profess. It goes to my point as not the Elite but it is these Middle of the Road kids that felt left aside.

  6. You can look at the ITF list in Claremont, and decide the level yourself.
    It’s high…

    I think we shouldn’t be talking about the level of kids though.
    It is the same as talking about sections….
    It just divides the unity of this group.

    The bigger questions should be:

    1) What is more attractive about ITF’s?
    I think it is well run tournaments, less cheating, MORE FUN.
    For the parents, clearly defined rules that don’t change every ten seconds.

    I find it extremely odd that the USTA seems to be shooting themselves in the foot. They seem to have had no modeling computer software to plan out how this would all lay out….

    The better players are not playing the sectionals and they don’t have enough wildcards to get the best players in this country into Kalamazoo. I am not a fan of wild cards, but if the winner of Kalamazoo gets to go to the MAIN DRAW OF THE US OPEN, this sectional quota list makes zero sense. A quota now to get into the US Open…..

    And I will ask the same question again?
    Where is the countability for their own players…………………..
    It almost appears if there are one set of rules, but some players don’t have to follow them.

    6 Florida players ( USTA PD) signed up for the USTA Level 2 in Florida
    ( President’s Day weekend tournament)
    and pulled out two days before the tournament actually began.

    Where did they go?

    The qualifying for the FUTURES.

    How did most of them get in?

    Wild cards.

    If you or I pulled our kid out of a national tournament to play another tournament, there would be penalties….. Consequences.
    But, for the PD kids, it is like they beat to their own drummer…

  7. Thanks for the enormous amount of work that went into this, Robert. It will be a great starting reference point for future discussions.

    Now that you’ve tackled this, why don’t you go after a history of why the 12s national tournaments and rankings were eliminated and the consequences of those decisions? It may be relevant in the context of the elimination of serious 10s competition and 10s rankings.

    I know running a business and running tennis tournaments leaves you lots of free time to do all this :).

  8. I don’t know what needs to be done, but we just left the Florida Level 4. Kids on the Courts 8:30 finished @ 5:30, with 3rd set Tie Breaks and DBLS 8 game proset. This is tough, and for Sectional endorsement these events matter. For competitive Natl, the DBLS matter. This is just too much to get in 3 days (perfect weather). Can’t imagine in May-Jun-Jul…. Just wondering if this is too much. We skipped the Level 5, and we will most likely skip the next one in Apr just too much.

    Sections with National need to create a better Flow, I can’t see why missing the extra day of school per event isn’t better than playing 6 hrs in the HOT SUN.

  9. All it would take to clean up junior tennis and produce great American players again is to erase everything that has changed in tennis since the late 1990’s and go back to what worked in the past but with the benefit of computers The last generation to benefit from the old system was Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick..
    Since then, I could and should write a book titled “USTA : All The Wrong Moves- How To Kill a Sport Thoroughly”

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