How To Use Ratings & Rankings

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I get a lot of emails asking about the various ratings and rankings used in Junior Tennis, so let me try to explain the differences between USTA rankings, Tennis Recruiting Star ratings, Tennis Recruiting rankings, and Universal Tennis ratings and how best to use each one. I have been talking extensively with people at each organization about what their numbers mean, how they are derived, how college coaches use them, and why they are relevant. Since TennisRecruiting.net is in the midst of its Star Rating Period, and since high school juniors and seniors are in the throes of college recruiting, it seems like the right time to present this information again.

First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between a ranking and a rating. A ranking is an ordered list of players from best (#1 or top-ranked) to worst. You can look at a ranking list and see exactly where a particular player falls among his or her peers. Typically, in head-to-head competition, the better-ranked player is expected to win, and it is considered an upset when a player ranked several spots below gets the victory. A rating, on the other hand, identifies and groups together players of similar levels of skill and/or competitiveness. You can use ratings to find practice partners and opponents at a similar level regardless of age or gender, and some tournaments (see the New Balance High School Tennis Championships) are now using ratings as a selection and seeding tool to ensure more competitive matches. Depending on the system, you can predict who will win a particular match based on the range of difference between the players’ ratings.

Let’s start with the Points Per Round (PPR) ranking system since it’s been around the longest and is the one used by USTA (a similar system is used by ITF) to determine selection into sanctioned tournaments. With PPR, a player earns ranking points in his/her current age group (as well as older age groups if the player chooses to “play up”) based on the level of the tournament played as well as which round the player reaches in that tournament. Moving forward in a tournament draw, whether by an actual match win or by a default or walkover, is all that matters in this ranking system. Main draw matches count for more points than do backdraw matches. USTA takes the player’s top 6 singles tournament results plus the top 6 doubles results (doubles only counts at 25%) within the previous 12-month period to determine his/her ranking at the local, sectional, and national level. The only time an opponent’s ranking is considered is in determining whether to award Bonus Points for a particular match win. Rankings are typically updated weekly. The actual points awarded by tournament level and by round changes slightly each year and varies by section, so be sure to look on your section’s website for the latest information.

Tennis Recruiting (TRN) publishes both rankings and Star Ratings based on a player’s high school graduation year. Rankings are updated each Tuesday and Star Ratings are updated twice per year. Unlike PPR, players are not rated or ranked by age group but rather by recruiting class. Head-to-head results definitely factor into both the ratings and the rankings on TRN though the algorithms they use are way too complicated for me to understand or explain (click here for my 2012 article on the intricacies of TRN)! TRN counts only singles matches (doubles are not included) that actually start, even if one player retires during the match. An exception would be a match in which a player plays one (or just a few) points to avoid Suspension Points by USTA. Dallas Oliver of TRN told me, “In our system, winning always helps – although wins over players rated far below do not help much. Losing badly always hurts (close losses can actually help in our predictive rankings which use scores) – although losses to players rated far above do not hurt much. So it’s all about competition – and the back draw gives you the chance to play more matches.” TRN uses both USTA junior tournaments and ITF tournaments to calculate its ratings and rankings. At this time, high school and ITA matches are not included.

Universal Tennis (UTR) publishes ratings based solely on actual matches played. They look at a player’s 30 most recent singles match results (doubles are not included), apply their proprietary algorithm, then rate the player on a scale from 1-16.5 to provide a snapshot of where a particular player is in comparison to other players in a given week. Gender is not a consideration. Neither is age nor country of origin. All players world-wide are rated together on the same scale. Only matches that are actually played are included. Walkovers or defaults are not counted. And, UTR pulls match results from a wide variety of sources including USTA junior tournaments, USTA adult tournaments, high school matches, ITF tournaments, ITA tournaments, and college dual matches among others. According to the UTR guiding principles, any two players within a 1.0 rating differential should have a competitive match, and if a player rated more than 1.0 below the opponent wins the match, that is considered an upset. For more information, click here and here.

Lately, there has been a lot of conversation around “gaming” these various systems, especially in terms of avoiding lower-ranked/rated opponents in order to manipulate the numbers. Rest assured that the brains behind TRN and UTR are constantly on the lookout for the “gamers” as are college coaches. With PPR, it’s a bit easier to get an inflated ranking just by scouring draws and traveling to weaker tournaments to earn points. With UTR and TRN, that simply doesn’t work since each opponent’s rating and ranking are taken into consideration. As Bruce Waschuk at UTR explained to me, “If a player ducks too many matches, they could end up with an unreliable UTR, at which point tournament organizers will no longer use their rating for seedings or selections. Some college coaches do check actual draws to see if a prospective recruit demonstrates chronic match withdrawal characteristics. Being too clever with respect to matches played in an effort to ‘game’ rankings or ratings could hurt a junior in the end, if their goal is to play college tennis.”

Now that you understand how the various numbers are calculated, what’s the best way to use these indicators?

For entry-level players who are just starting to play tournaments, PPR is probably the most important number since it determines your USTA ranking and whether you will be selected for certain tournaments as well as whether you will be seeded in those events (for players just starting on the ITF circuit, PPR is useful there as well). There’s a great website called MyTennisNetwork that allows you to search for tournaments and view the USTA rankings of players who have entered each tournament so you can tell if your ranking will earn you a spot in the draw and/or a seeding. I highly recommend this site for anyone new to tournaments as a way to keep track of entry deadlines and to search for the appropriate level tournaments in your area.

Once a player is entrenched in the junior competition structure and has played close to 30 matches, UTR becomes very valuable as a way to find appropriate tournaments (you can copy and paste the entry list from USTA and ITF tournaments into UTR to determine where your player falls in the field) and practice partners. The free account provides enough basic information to get started. But, for those juniors hoping to play college tennis, a Premium or Premium Plus Account is definitely worth the small cost. UTR is incredibly helpful in choosing schools to contact since you can pull up the UTRs of all the players on a particular team or even a particular conference to figure out whether you would be a desirable addition to the team.UTR

TRN typically starts rating and ranking players beginning in their 6th grade year, so it’s good to go ahead and set up a free account once you hit that point in school. As you enter your sophomore or junior year of high school, it may be worthwhile to sign up for a Recruiting Advantage Account so you can see which college coaches are viewing your profile, add more details like photos and videos, and update your GPA and test scores (click here to find out what college coaches can see on TRN). For a complete description of the various features available on TRN, click here.

Speaking of college coaches, I have heard from many of them that they are using all three of these indicators – USTA, TRN, and UTR – in addition to other more subjective factors when deciding whether or not to recruit a particular player.

Rather than worrying too much about ratings and rankings, a junior player’s best approach is to continue working on his/her game, playing matches against a variety of opponents, and – if college tennis is the goal – making sure to have a high enough GPA and SAT/ACT score to ensure admission into a desirable school. Stressing out over the incremental changes that may occur week to week doesn’t serve anyone. College coaches look at trends – are a player’s ratings and rankings moving up or down over time? – and tend to ignore little hiccups that may show up if a player has a bad week or two on the courts. While it’s nice to have a current picture of where you stand against your peers, I sometimes think the once-per-year rankings we had when I was playing juniors was a saner approach to the game. Regardless, these indicators are here to stay, so please use them in the manner in which they’re intended: to help you reach your highest potential as you go through the Junior Tennis Journey.

A National Schedule & Ranking System That Makes Sense

ahamomentThere have been several comments on this blog asking what parents, players, and coaches want to see in terms of a junior competition structure – USTA has asked all of us to email them at LetUsKnow@usta.com to share our thoughts.  Some people who are way smarter than I am have come up with one proposal that just may work.  This proposal addresses the travel and cost issue, the “earned advancement” issue, the missed school issue, and the rankings issue, among other things.  Please take some time to read through it and share your thoughts in the Comments below.

The key points to this proposal are as follows:

  1. No changes to the existing Level 1s.
  2. Every section (except Hawaii and Caribbean) hosts a Level 2 and at least one Level 3 during the year.
  3. Every region(N/S/E/W) hosts four Level 2s and at least four Level 3s each year.
  4. Each section and region has reserved spots in the tournaments they host for players who do not qualify through the NSL, meaning you don’t need to be running around chasing points to get into a national event.
  5. A combined STAR/PPR ranking structure, if it is designed properly, will incentivize kids to play in the toughest event they can handle as close to home as possible.
  6. Tournaments coincide with holiday weekends where possible.
  7. National Open dates remain unchanged.
  8. Level 3 events occur in Jan/Mar/May/June/Aug/Sep/Oct.
  9. Draws sizes for Level 1s would remain the same – 192 for the two summer nationals and 128 for Easter Bowl and Winters.
  10. Draw sizes for Level 2 national opens would revert to 64 with a possible one day 32 qualifier.
  11. Draw sizes for Level 3s would be demand driven – Copper Bowl might support a 128 draw while Columbus Indoor a 32 draw. A qualifying draw would be at the discretion of the TD.

There are three parts to this proposal – Philosophy, Tournament Structure, and Rankings – and they are all inter-related.

Philosophy

  1. FUN FUN FUN – Ask any kid who played Copper Bowl, Quicksilver, the Southern or Texas Open, or St. Louis Gateway, and they will all tell you the same thing: they loved those events!  The USTA should have a FUN officer at every national event – if the kids are not smiling, kill it.  The first question on any tournament evaluation form should be, “How much fun did your kid have?”
  2. K.I.S.S – Keep It Simple Stupid – Any competitive structure needs to be simple, easy to understand, and easy to navigate. The 2014 changes fail on a lot of levels but they really fail on this metric. If an 11 year old can’t understand it, it’s too complicated.
  3. RANKINGS – ACCURATE rankings are the backbone of competitive tennis, and tournament selection must be driven by a single unified and accurate rankings structure. The beauty of linking rankings to tournament selection is that it motivates across a wide range of players. Kids ranked 400 are trying to get to 300 to get into a higher level event. The kid ranked 20 is trying to get into the top 10, and the kid ranked 2 is trying to get to 1. Any competitive structure should embrace this as a powerful motivator to keep kids in the game.
  4. OPPORTUNITY and CHOICE– The USTA should be in the business of providing opportunity and choice – as much opportunity and as much choice as the market can bear.  This is the holy grail of cost.  More opportunity and more choice will result in lower cost.  There just can’t be much argument over this. If the cost of more choice and opportunity is a few kids chasing points, who cares?

Tournament Structure

In terms of tournament structure, we would look to combine the best of the old Optimum Schedule (which had a lot of fun events and a lot of opportunity) with the best of the ITF system (which has an easy-to-understand pathway combined with a selection system that favors proximity to event). Sectional events need to flow seamlessly into the national schedule, and the section must commit to a unified competitive structure leading to national events. With that in mind we propose the following:

Five levels of national events as follows:

  • Level 5 – These would be the existing National Level 5 sectional events, but sections must commit to open entry – everyone who enters must be accommodated either through draw size or through a qualifier. Each section would be allowed to hold between four and six of these events.
  • Level 4 – These would be the existing National Level 4 events with a higher points total, but they would be selective entry events based on sectional ranking. There would be between two and four of these events per section.
  • Level 3 Open – These events would be the backbone of the national tournament structure. Each section would be expected to host at least one of these events a year but no more than three. Local communities and/or the USTA would be expected to provide sponsorship particularly in parts of the country with smaller pools of players (e.g. Northern section). Selection to these tournaments (AND THIS IS THE IMPORTANT BIT) would be as follows in this order:
    • For a 64 draw event:
      • 40 players from the current national standing/rankings list (NSL)
      • 6 players from the top 100 of the NSL of the age group below
      • 10 players from the sectional standing list of the host section, not selected through the NSL
      • 8 qualifiers from a one-day 32 draw event involving two pro sets (same selection process)
  • Level 3 Closed – Each sectional championship would be designated as a Level 3 event.
  • Level 2 – Like the old National Opens – four times a year with one event in the North, South, East, and West. Tournament selection here would follow the same template as for the Level 3s, but ten players from the host region (not section) not originally chosen would be accepted into the main draw.
  • Level 1 – We would tweak the order of the selection process slightly so that the first X players came from the NSL and sectional quota spots were filled afterwards.

Rankings
STAR and PPR both have their advantages – PPR encourages play and STAR is accurate – we would use them both.

Ranking points would be a combination of how far you got in a tournament (PPR) and the strength of the people you beat. The beauty of this is that it solves one of the big problems with the current ranking system:  the points advantage that the small sections currently have.  We would add an SOS factor (strength of schedule factor) to simulate that important aspect of the prior STAR system.  The idea is that a particular tournament or draw within a tournament (based on depth or strength of field) would have a factor/multiplier applied to it (ranging from .75 to 1.25 for instance) – so a relatively weak L2 tournament would be discounted in point value by some factor (e.g., PPR value x .80) – so instead of a potential 1st place value of 320 as provided by PPR, the maximum point value for this tournament/draw would be 256, and so on for every round completed.  Similarly, you may assign more value to a particularly “stacked” field (e.g., average ranking of 46 for all competitors entered) – so the max value might be 320 x 1.25 (or 400).  This would level the playing field so to speak – similar to how an RPI ranking metric works (used to rank NCAA basketball teams for selection into the NCAA tournament in March).  The SOS Factor would be determined based on the Average Ranking level of those competing in the event (using a sliding scale).  For example, average ranking in the draw of 500 or higher = .75, 400 – 499 = .80, 300 – 399 = .85, 200-299 = .90, 100-199 = 1.00 (or point value = PPR value table), 75-99 = 1.10, 50-74 = 1.20, < 50 = 1.25.  (The actual translation function for this sliding scale could easily be worked out based on the Average Ranking of the Draw in question.)

The basic thought is that this would entail simply applying an objective SOS factor to the existing PPR award values to account for the disparity in depth/strength of the draws selected around the country – and would produce a ranking method that is more equitable and more predictive (while supporting the underlying goal of encouraging more play by junior players to maintain their national ranking level).  We would also continue to award “bonus points” for significant wins as is the current practice.

What are the advantages of all this?

  1. Takes the best parts of the old system and gives back opportunity and choice and gives us back the tournaments people loved.
  2. The selection system means that you don’t have to travel far if you don’t want to in order to get a strong national ranking.
  3. The combination of PPR and STAR will give greater weight to the strong sectional events, and doing well in your section (if you choose to only play sectionally) will get you into all levels of national events.
  4. Solves a lot of the issues that the new system is trying to address in terms of cost but doesn’t kill opportunity.
  5. Encourages players to seek out the strongest tournaments that they are, or can be, competitive in as opposed to purely chasing points.

Click here to see the spreadsheet showing this proposed tournament calendar overlaid onto comparisons between 2010, 2012, and 2014.

A tremendous thank you to Geoff Grant, Steve Belsito, and many others for their input on this proposal.  Please remember: it is just that, a proposal.  It is a work in progress.  If you have information you’d like to add or specific questions, please put them in the Comments below, and I will be sure Geoff  and Steve and the others see them.  I feel very good about where this proposal is heading and am hoping that the USTA Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee will take it under consideration instead of moving forward with the existing 2014 plan.  The devil is in the details – but this is a template we believe could be workable and supported by a broad tennis constituency.

Who’s Really #1?

USTA rankings vs. Tennis Recruiting star ratings vs. Universal Tennis levels . . . is anyone else confused here?  I don’t know about the rest of you, but this obsessed Tennis Momma spends an inordinate amount of time trying to understand what the different ratings and rankings actually mean and how my son can best use the information to improve as a player.

A quick overview of some of the different ranking/rating systems out there . . .

USTA currently uses the Points Per Round (PPR) system which awards ranking points based on the level of tournament and which round the player reaches in the tournament.  A player’s top 6 singles tournament results and top 3 doubles tournament results for the previous 12 months are included in his/her ranking.  There is a National PPR chart, but each USTA Section also has its own PPR chart based on how its tournament levels are set up.  Please note that it doesn’t matter if a player loses his/her first round main draw match or whether that player wins several rounds in the main draw – all that matters is where the player ends up in the draw at the end of the tournament.  So, in a 64-draw, a player who loses in the first round of the main but gets to the semifinals of the backdraw will earn more ranking points than a player who wins three rounds in the main then loses his/her first backdraw match.  Head-to-head wins/losses are not considered in the PPR system.  Quality of wins is considered only when a lower-ranked player has a win over a player in the top 100, though this can also vary by Section.

The Tennis Recruiting Network (TRN) uses the Star Rating system which awards stars based on a player’s ranking within his/her high school graduating class.  The Star Ratings are updated twice a year – once in the Fall near the beginning of the school year and once in the Spring in mid-March.  TRN does consider head-to-head match-ups in its rankings, so many coaches, players, and parents consider these rankings to be more accurate and reliable than the PPR system.  (See my blog post on TRN for more details.)  As one fellow tennis parent commented, unlike USTA’s system, “TRN rankings aren’t influenced at all by where you go to play a tournament and which #900 ranked player in the nation you happened to knock off in the back draw for your only win of the event (to secure those prized PPR points).”

Universal Tennis features 16 levels of tennis and provides tennis players worldwide a common rating system to determine their level of play. The 16 levels – ranging from 1 for beginners to 16 for the top professional players – are based on actual match results (the last 30 matches within the last 12 months) without regard to age or gender using the Competitive Threshold (i.e. how close were the matches?) to determine accurate ratings.  This system – developed by Harvard Head Coach David Fish and former Old Dominion players Dave Howell (who will be my radio show guest on December 3rd) and Alex Cancado – is relatively new on the tennis scene and is meant to be used in conjunction with the other rating/ranking systems.  Thankfully, it, too, is becoming more recognized as a reliable resource for parents, players, and coaches.

Unfortunately, all sanctioned USTA junior tournaments currently use only the PPR rankings – the least reliable of the three, in my opinion – to determine which players get into the events and who is seeded in those events.  One complaint that I hear repeatedly is that PPR rankings can be “bought” by players who have the means to travel to tournaments with weaker draws in order to win more matches and, as a result, wind up with better rankings, allowing them entry into the higher-level events.  I am loathe to admit that my son and I have taken that approach on more than one occasion – driving to the other side of our very large section where the competition runs a little less deep – in order to boost his USTA ranking to the point where he could get into events closer to home without going through the alternate list.  And, sadly (but fortunately, I guess), it worked, but is it honestly in the best developmental interest of a junior player to take this tack?

Of course, the answer is no, but it’s oftentimes a necessary step under the current PPR ranking system in order for a player who is aging up or is a late bloomer to get into the tournaments where he/she has competitive matches.  One parent commented on a previous blog post, “How do you reasonably explain to a 12 year child (or any child, for that matter) that a child he/she has beaten easily (possibly numerous times) is ranked above him/her [and, therefore, getting into tournaments when your player is not]?  The only reasonable explanation is that he plays more tournaments. In other words, his parents spend more money.”  It may not necessarily be that the child is playing more tournaments but that he/she is traveling all over to tournaments with weaker fields to get those match wins and coveted ranking points.

Another parent shared, “It would be great to see at least a few tournaments each year use that [TRN] ranking system to select and seed fields. If the USTA were to switch to TR[N] as their primary ranking system, I think that would solve many of the problems they’ve been trying to address with the proposed changes to national tournament structures, etc. (i.e., players/parents trying to buy PPR points/rankings by traveling to all the big national events).”  I agree wholeheartedly!  At the very least, USTA could use other ranking or rating systems in conjunction with PPR for a more accurate overall picture, especially when creating acceptance lists for the larger national tournaments.

We’re now seeing some creative tournament directors putting on events – like the Holabird-Adidas All-In Junior Tennis Challenge – where PPR ranking isn’t the sole criteria for entry or seeding.  Hopefully, our junior players will have more opportunities outside of USTA to develop and test their tennis skills.  ITA, ITF, and other organizations offer several options.  In the meantime, though, we have to work with what we’ve got and either (1) learn to play the system effectively and/or (2) be creative ourselves and help our kids find opportunities outside the system to become better players.

I would love to hear from you about how your junior player is balancing the challenge of getting into the tournaments he/she wants (needs?) to play while at the same time continuing to develop his/her game.  Please share your Comments below.