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.

6 Comments on “Who’s Really #1?”

  1. This weekend my daughter was affected by another flaw of the USTA point system. She played a state L3 tournament and based on her ranking she should have been seeded 2nd. However, upon release of the seeds I saw that she was not even seeded. Apparently, 3 girls from the lower age group, who where in the top top in their age group but lower then 200 in the tournament age group, where seeded instead. It is common in level 3 and higher tournaments to recognize top players in the lower age group and hold some positions for them, but to actually use their lower age group ranking for seeding purposes in the higher age group. That’s just not right. We ended up having to come earlier then expected to stay in a hotel since now my daugher had to play an extra match. She went on to easily beat 2 of the lower aged seeded players 6-1 6-1 and then 6-3 6-1.

  2. I really like the universal rating system. I was a college coach and when We came across a player from a country that used this system you knew more accuratley what their level was going to be like. Unlike all the point hounds who play tons of tournaments and earn a facade ranking. Another reason why i wish we used this system is ease of finding more local matches based on level regardless of age or gender. Since I do not live in an area with a large pool of skilled players in each age/gender divison living near by we have to travel at a minimum of four hours to enter a competition that has a decent skill level within certain age groups. Example: a good 12 year old girl can compete with maybe a decent 13 year old boy or a savy 4.0 lady and not have to travel to find a match of same calibre.

  3. We live in Texas and the levels here are crazy. My daughter is a champ, but she consistently beats super champs daily during practices. She has a chance to super-up once a month playing 5 matches in a two day period. If it rains then she has to wait another month to get her chance In a tournament that is full of re-qualifiers. 12-14 year olds have to get 64 points to super and 16-18 year olds have to get 80, in a three month period, during these once a month tournaments. So, if the tournaments, for that month, are 200 miles away well one spends the money or your kid skips the chance to move up. Money, money, money is the only way to play the game. It is out of control.

      1. If your child is playing during the star rating period in Texas. You shouldn’t even waste your money or time to play in an open during the weekend of the Super Champ weekend. The tennisrecruiting.net system only looks at Texas super champs, not champ or zat players as quality competition. To tell you truth, I don’t know which opens my daughter should play or not play because you never know who will sign up at the last minute at a open. My daughter is a #1 seeded player in high school, as a sophomore, but no one looks at that. The systems are just very odd.

  4. My son is a super 14 in Texas. You have an entire year to earn the 80 points needed to super up. After playing the opens for a year, we know which ones draw a good crowd and which ones to avoid. We are fortunate in that we live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area so that we do not have to travel more than an hour to an open tournament. When your child reaches a certain level of play in tennis, travel is just part of the deal, just as I am sure it is in many other parts of the country. And yes, not much thought is given to the high school players in Texas, most of the top players choose to play USTA instead of high school tennis. A very few do play both, however, most feel that high school tennis hurts their game. The few that do choose to play both, have good school coaches who let them skip school practice and just show up for the matches.

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