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Does Junior Tennis Need a DNF Rating?

Over the years I’ve been involved in USTA junior tennis, there have been several instances where our governing body has created a rule or policy without considering or accounting for potential unintended consequences. A new Withdrawal Rule is yet another case where innocent juniors may be punished unintentionally.

Effective January 1, 2018, USTA Middle States adopted the following:

All Defaults, Walkovers and Withdrawals will receive 2 Suspension Points.
Suspension points will be assessed for each default, walkover or withdrawal occurrence.
 If the player has not accumulated enough points (10) to be suspended, the player will not have the right to appeal the individual points to the USTA MS Grievance Committee; Written Verification will not be accepted for a medical situation, personal situation or parent decision, until 10 suspension points have been accumulated.

 The “rollover” principle works as follows: The first point received will be dropped from your record on its first year anniversary. The second point listed will then become the beginning of your new 12-month period. This procedure will continue in chronological order for each point already in your report and for any points received subsequent to those listed on the report.

 The USTA MS Tennis Junior Competition Department will then notify you if you are suspended. If suspended, you have the right to appeal the points to the USTA MS Grievance Committee.

Since the Middle States rule seems to be spreading to other sections, I emailed the section’s Director of Junior  Competition, Michael Kennedy, to ask why withdrawing due to illness or injury isn’t excluded. His response:

“Please understand, it is not our intent to suspend any players who are legitimately injured, sick or have family emergencies. We are just notifying players of the suspension points list that is kept only at our Middle States Office and it is not necessary for you to appeal these points to the Section unless players accumulates a total of 10 points total. At that time a letter will be sent for you to submit any documentation regarding each of the legitimate withdrawal/walkover/default, such as documentation for an injury. THEN we will remove 2 points for each legitimate documented occurrence at that time. Players are suspended from participating in USTA Sanctioned events only if they cannot produce legitimate documentation for at least one of the occurrences, in order to reduce the number of suspension points below 10. The objective for this new change from the USTA Middle States Junior Competition Committee is to deter players from leaving tournaments early and not playing in consolation rounds, resulting in players who want to play with no opponent.  It is also to deter players from entering tournaments knowing that they are not available to complete.  It is not to punish players who follow the rules, which is why nothing will happen until 10 points are issued. Thank you for your understanding in this matter.”

In other words, the onus is on the player/parents to appeal – after the fact – instead of on the governing body to do a better job at recognizing and punishing those players who are trying to game the system.

And, now, the Texas section has adopted the same rule just as the weather begins to heat up into triple digits, forcing players to make a choice between their health and their standing with USTA.

For the upcoming Texas Slam event being held June 9-17, 2018, here is what it says on the tournament website:

New Withdrawal Penalty for Super Champ Level Tournaments

There will be no penalty for withdrawing from singles or doubles prior to Wednesday, June 6th at 12 Noon for Super Champ Level or Major Zone events. After that time, if a player withdraws from singles and/or doubles, they will be penalized 2 suspension points for the withdrawal. This includes any withdrawals, walkovers, and retirements after Wednesday, June 6th at Noon until the end of the tournament. The maximum penalty is 2 points per tournament. You will not be penalized twice for singles and doubles withdrawals. If a player does reach the suspension threshold, they will be able to appeal any points at that time.

On its surface, the rule sounds harmless enough. There has been an epidemic of tournament withdrawals by players concerned about negatively impacting their TRN and/or UTR ratings by losing to lower-rated players. Why not implement a rule that penalizes these types of system-gaming maneuvers?

The way the rule is currently worded, though, it will punish players who are hard workers and highly motivated to succeed. Why hasn’t USTA gone to both TRN and UTR to work with them to come up with a solution that doesn’t penalize juniors who are legitimately ill or injured?

Heat stroke and dehydration are real concerns are not caused by “not training hard enough or not hydrating properly”

We do not have maximum heat index limits or access to indoor courts for our summer tournaments. Players can and will get dehydrated and feel heat-stroke— at no fault of their own. We cannot control the weather and mimic tournament conditions all the time (nor would it be healthy to train players by playing 2-3 full singles matches and 2 doubles matches every day). In addition, cramping and dehydration are results of complex physiological, metabolic and neurological triggers that are individual to each person. There’s not enough data or education out to help any of us predict the conditions under which someone will suffer from cramping or dehydration. Yes, there are general precautions we can take, but it’s not a fail-safe.

Injuries are legitimate and common

USTA Junior Tennis has no off-season or recovery periods. Instead, USTA keeps adding more and more tournaments to the schedule which not only conflict with public school schedules but create more pressure to play (ie what will I miss out on if I don’t play?) Because there are no built-in recovery periods and players feel pressured to play as many tournaments as possible to keep up their rankings, these players are prone to overuse injuries that can appear/reoccur at any time and last for an unknown period. It requires a lot of fortitude, courage and drive to return from injury— don’t punish these kids for trying to return to tennis (trying to play). From experience, we know it is difficult to determine when a player is “ready” to return to competitive play; training conditions are different from tournaments. Players have to go out and just try— and putting additional pressure of penalty points for not finishing the tournament seems a bit cruel and unnecessary. We want these junior to keep playing tennis, not drop out.

Without a medical clause, the USTA is putting players at risk for serious illness/injury

If anything, DON’T MIX penalties for these health concerns with penalties for poor behavior— they are NOT THE SAME and should not be categorized as such. This new rule will put players at a health risk: whether they push themselves or their parents do, these players will play past what is healthy BECAUSE they want to avoid penalty points. These kids (yes, they are still children) will make an injury worse by playing through pain to avoid repercussions. They will feel heat-stroke symptoms but refuse to stop. They will play until their bodies give out in cramps or something even worse. Did you know that low potassium levels will cause the heart to stop? Will the USTA supply defibrillators at every site? These kids are the ones you want playing USTA— they’ve got grit and determination. Please do not endanger them or scare them into pushing beyond what is healthy. Having penalty points is a badge of dishonor— ask any good student/high achiever, no one wants them for any reason!

I know some will say that the ones who will get penalized are the ones abusing the system. But based on how the rule is written, you will also be penalizing the high achievers BECAUSE THEY PUSH HARDER and often won’t give up. These players will be put at a HEALTH RISK in an effort to AVOID breaking this rule. It’s a double whammy: penalty points plus illness/injury that will take a longer recovery time since they pushed through instead of retiring or pulling out of the tournament. Even one incident is serious enough.
Because I get frustrated by people who point out problems without offering up potential solutions, here are some ideas to avoid the unintended consequences of this new rule:
Suggested solutions:

1) Add a clause to the rule to allow for medical conditions.

2) Require players who are ill or injured to submit a doctor’s note within 14 days of withdrawal from a tournament to avoid accruing the suspension points in the first place. That way, the player doesn’t have to deal with the USTA appeal process (which, I can tell you from personal experience, is very unpleasant), and those players who are truly ill or injured won’t risk exacerbating said illness or injury by playing through it simply to maintain a clean record.

3) Use a separate penalty point system for withdrawing (don’t place it in the same group as penalties for poor behavior). An ankle sprain is not the same as throwing a racquet— a sprain happens to you while throwing a racquet is an action that you choose to do. In addition, I doubt that a tournament director or the USTA wants to be liable for putting a player in this potentially “no-win” position with their health.

4) UTR and TRN should add a feature that shows Failure to Complete Tournament – aka the DNF (Did Not Finish) Rating – alongside the player’s tennis rating. They could put the number of unfinished tournaments in a bold red font that would catch the eye of any college coaches interested in such a statistic. A number of 2 or 3 probably wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but anything higher than that might cause a coach to dig a bit deeper. USTA could add a similar feature to its player rankings as well. NOTE TO COLLEGE COACHES: Please add your Comments below about whether this is an issue/concern for you during the recruiting process.

5) Provide medical staff and defibrillators at every site. And, really, this should be a mandatory policy regardless of this new rule.

I absolutely want to find a way to punish those players who pull out because they are gaming the UTR and TRN system but not at the risk of punishing those with legitimate withdrawals. Can we work with the rating organizations to solve this problem (that THEY’VE created)? Can USTA sit at the table with the programmers and coders at UTR and TRN to come up with a fix? We need to eliminate the problem at its source not just treat the symptom.

The problem is that UTR seems more committed to partnerships, marketing, and social media these days. Their algorithm seems to have taken a back seat to their Twitter feed causing frustration for people like me who have grown used to getting immediate and meaningful replies to any inquiries. TRN, on the other hand, has stepped up its game in recent months, so maybe they are the ones to lead the charge on this one. Either way, something needs to be done, but this new USTA rule in its current iteration is not the answer.

A huge THANK YOU! to the parents who brought this new rule to my attention!

Has your USTA section adopted a similar rule? How is it impacting junior players so far? Please share your thoughts in the Comments below.


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