Southern Level 3s: One Parent’s Take on the New Format

We are more than 6 months into the new format for our Southern Level 3 tournaments, and, given that the Southern Section is often a testing-ground for policies that are later rolled out nationwide – and after spending yet another weekend at one of these events – I thought I would share my thoughts and experiences in hopes of generating some constructive dialog between us parents and USTA.

A quick recap on how the format changed in 2012 . . . the tournaments now have two 16-player draws for each age group with the brackets arranged by “waterfall” – for an explanation of exactly what that means, click here.  These tournaments must be played and completed on Saturday and Sunday with the goal of reducing missed school days.  Players are guaranteed at least 3 matches via a second consolation bracket.  The “real” consolation bracket will not play its final match, though the second consolation bracket will.  All singles matches will consist of a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a third set in both the main draw and consolation brackets.  There is also a new Points-Per-Round table for these tournaments with more points being awarded in every round (please note that there is NO CONSOLATION WINNER, however, so the most points awarded in the backdraw is 180).

The first thing I noticed with this new format is that there are two 1 seeds, two 2 seeds, 2 three seeds, and 2 four seeds in each age group; however, the winners of the two brackets in each age group do NOT play each other (i.e. there are 2 tournament winners in each age group).  That means the two top players at the tournament never have the opportunity to compete against one another, never have the chance to drive each other to work harder to improve.  Since healthy competition and rivalry are key factors in junior development, I don’t see how this new format is in the best interest of helping our players become stronger and more competitive once they leave the Section.  At the very least, I would like to see these tournaments add one more match to the main draws where the winners of each bracket play for the Championship.

I’ve also noticed that these events tend to have very long Alternate Lists in most age groups.  To me, that indicates a need for either (a) bigger draw sizes or (b) more tournament options.  I know y’all are sick to death of reading about my son’s experiences on the dreaded Alternate List, but, really, the size of these lists is a clear sign that there are players who want to play, so why not accommodate them somehow?

Another thing I noticed is that there are now 6 different draws – 2 Main, 2 Consolation, and 2 Extra Consolation – for each gender of each age division.  According to several Tournament Directors with whom I’ve spoken, this creates a mountain of extra work at the end of the first day of play, especially since the TennisLink tournament software hasn’t been updated to include the second consolation draws, meaning they have to be created and scheduled manually.  Assuming the Saturday matches finish by 9pm, that means the Tournament Director and staff start working on the second backdraws at that time for every single age division.  Not only do they have to create the draws, but they also have to schedule the matches and make sure they have enough courts available to accommodate the Main Draw, Consolation, and Extra Consolation matches.  Then, they usually have to be back on site before 7am on Sunday to be ready for Day 2 of play.  And we parents wonder why the folks at the tournament desk are sometimes a little grouchy on Sunday!

And, really, what’s the point of that second backdraw?  In no other tournament that I know of are players guaranteed three matches.  Why at this higher level sectional event is that the case?  Wouldn’t the players be better served by having the opportunity to play out the third set and play out the final of the “real” backdraw?  And, if you think the number of defaults is high in regular consolation draws, you should see what happens in that second backdraw.  There are so many defaults and no-shows which indicates to me that even the players don’t see the value in sticking around for that extra match or two on Sunday when they’ve already lost twice.  Why not use the second backdraw idea in lower level local tournaments instead where the participants could really benefit from the additional match play simply to gain experience?  At these higher-level events, the players are looking at the quality of the matches they get to play, and, really if we’re honest here, the quality in the second backdraw just isn’t there.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at this example from this past weekend’s Boys 18s second backdraw:

I would love to see USTA Southern take a good hard look at these Level 3 events and seriously consider tweaking the format going forward.  I would also love to see more Southern Level 4 tournaments offered on the same weekends as the Level 3s for those players who are struggling to get into the smaller draws of the Level 3s.  That way, more juniors would have the opportunity for tournament match play, increasing participation numbers which USTA keeps saying is one of its top goals.  But, you know, this is just my take on things.  How do the rest of you feel???

New Rules for the New Year

For those of you living in USTA’s Southern section, some new rules went into effect January 1st.  For those of you living in other USTA sections, these rules are probably coming to you soon since Southern tends to pilot changes that are then rolled out nationwide.

The rule that I want to address today concerns Southern Level 3 tournaments.  Even though my son has been playing USTA Southern tournaments for several years now, we got no notice of this rule change.  How did I find out about it?  I went to a Southern Level 3 tournament website to register my son and found the new rules posted there.  I took the following directly from the tournament’s website (typos are on the part of the tournament):

As of Jan. 2012 all USTA Southern Junior Level 3 tournaments will be following the following format unless specifically state on their tournament web site. Highlights of the New Format are as follows:
1. All tournaments shall have two 16 balanced draws in each age division.
2. Two 16 draws will be determined by use of the waterfall system.
3. Format: Will be a feed in with an dependent draw for the losers of the first feed in match. This will guarantee three matches.
4. If number of participants goes under 24 (23 and under), one draw will be used instead.
5. Format will remain the same for all Level 3 events. The only change will be for an Indoor event which will be able to add one day.
6. Seeding shall follow the USTA Southern Section seeding regulations. Players selected on their 10’s standing shall not be considered for seeding in the 12’s division.
7. Scoring: Tie Break in lieu of the third set shall be used in all matches. Short scoring: No ad scoring or “Short” sets, first player/team to win four games wins the set provided there is a two game margin over the opponent(s), may be used due to inclement weather. Before changing format due to inclement weather, this must be approved by Section and State.
8. 10’s will play on 60ft court using Orange Low Compression balls and 25″ racquets Scoring: will be the best of three short sets,with No-Add Scoring, using a set (7pt) tie break at 4 all, with a set (7pt) tie break in lieu of the third set.
9. NEW LEVEL 3 POINTS TABLE: More points for Level 3 tournaments.
10. With the smaller draws more players will receive more points.

How is this different from the old rules?

First of all, Level 3 tourneys used to be held over a 3-day period, typically Saturday through Monday, with a 32-draw.  When I asked USTA Southern’s Managing Director of Diversity, Grants, Jr. Competition & Schools about this change in duration and draw size, he told me that it was designed to reduce the number of missed school days as well as to reduce the costs for the tournament directors.  Fewer days of competition means fewer days of court fees and fees paid to officials.  I get it.  However, with the new format, the consolation draws won’t be completed, and there is no wiggle room built in for weather delays, which means that main draws may not be completed either, even with the proposed short-scoring.

Second of all, the use of this “waterfall system” is something new.  Here’s what it looks like:

Level 3 Waterfall Guidelines
For Setting Up Two 16 Draws
Red Division
Blue Division

The numbers in the chart refer to the ranking order of the players.  For instance, the player with the highest ranking going into the tournament would be in the Red Division along with the 4th highest ranked player, the 5th highest, etc.  I’m not really sure why having 2 draws of 16 players for each age division is any better or more efficient than having one 32-draw – USTA says it’s easier to complete the two 16-draws over the 2-day period – but it’s what we’re stuck with for now.

Third of all, all matches will play a 10-point tiebreak instead of a 3rd set.  The 10-point breaker used to be limited to backdraw matches, which made sense to me from a time-constraint perspective.  However, I’m at a loss to understand how eliminating the 3rd set helps our kids develop into higher-level players who can compete nationally and globally.  The 3rd set is often what separates the mentally tough from the not-so-tough – why eliminate that challenge if the goal is to prepare our kids to compete in college and on the world stage?

Finally, players will receive more ranking points than they did in previous years for this level of tournament.  In 2011, the winner of a Southern Level 3 tourney got 220 points, and the consolation winner got 130; in 2012, the winner will get 320 points, and the consolation winner will get 190.  That’s a pretty significant increase, but I’m not sure what it will accomplish other than driving more players to apply for this level of tournament in the name of chasing ranking points.

So, how will these changes help in terms of junior development? USTA Southern’s answer:  “The committee’s hope is that the competition will be very balanced and every player will have at least three rounds of competition in a two day period for singles. Some events will host doubles as well.”

Do you understand it better now?  Nope, me either!