Junior Tournaments & Rankings

I Dream of Genie

Since my home-base of Atlanta is the next stop on the USTA Listening Meeting Tour this coming Sunday, I figured I’d better brush up on my junior competition history.  Who better to contact than veteran junior tournament director, Robert Sasseville?  You’ll recognize his name as one of the folks who met with USTA in Chicago in the Fall to discuss pushing the pause button on the 2014 junior comp changes.  Robert has been around the junior tennis world for several decades and is always very gracious about sharing his knowledge and experience.  Here is what I learned from Robert (the info below is a reprint of a document that Robert composed and emailed to me last week) . . .

The year was 1862 and the American Civil War had just begun.  Abraham Lincoln was desperately trying to keep Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States as an independent nation.  France was concerned that the closed southern ports would cut off the supply of cotton to their booming textile industry.

In those days “King Cotton” was used in reference to the southern states.

Today, while cotton t-shirts are still a staple souvenir item at tournaments, synthetic moisture management fabrics have taken over the performance apparel industry.  Just look at any sports apparel catalog.  Aside from Under Armour’s Charged Cotton (moisture management cotton), it’s hard to find a cotton item other than t-shirts or an occasional sock.

However, unless it is determined that polyester is carcinogenic, the days of “Cotton is King” are gone.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

The world, as we know it, has changed radically in the past 30-40 years.

The completion of the Interstate Highway system, first envisioned by President Dwight Eisenhower as escape routes from major population centers in case of nuclear attack, made cross-country automobile travel possible, and actually desired.

Air travel, once available only to businessmen and people of means, has become affordable and a travel option available to everyday citizens.  The days of business suits and five-course in-flight meals have given way to tennis shoes, t-shirts, and pretzels.

Since 1975 the numbers of domestic flights have increased four-fold, while the average cost adjusted for inflation has dropped.

Air travel is the “new” mass transit.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Thirty years ago Nationally titled play was  limited to the 4 National Championships.  The Easter Bowl was a fifth event that had the prestige of a National Championship without the restrictions imposed on national events by USTA.

The reason that there were only 4 Nationally titled events (Indoors, Clay Courts, Hard Courts, and The Nationals) was that there were no limits on results that could be counted for National ranking.  Any USTA sanctioned tournament match, regardless of location, could be submitted as part of a player’s record.  There was a National circuit which included major open events like the Florida Open, Midwest Open, Texas Open, etc., but since all matches counted for National ranking, there was no need to designate them as “national”.

For many, many years “ranking” had been an examination and evaluation of a year’s tournament results.  It was a manual project that basically compared a player’s results with those of a like age group and then ordered the players based on the players’ overall records.

Then along came the computer and its obvious superiority for handling massive amounts of data and comparing results in a purely clinical setting, free of human biases.

Programs were written and protocols adopted by USTA and its various sections to move rankings away from the “year-end” ranking committee concept to the computer-generated ranking model.

One major problem arose:  as the USTA moved to computer-generated rankings, it became obvious that capturing all tournament results for inclusion in rankings was a Herculean task for the Junior Competition staff, so what could be done?

Junior Competition decided that there needed to be hierarchy of tournaments, and only results from events near the top of the food chain should be included in “National” rankings.

USTA National Levels were born.

As time passed the number of events that met National Level 3, 4, 5 criteria increased.  This prompted Junior Competition to limit each section, regardless of its size, to 4 level 4 events and 8 level 5 events.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Until the expansion of National Championship draws to 192 and the implementation of the Optimum Schedule with multiple pathways to be admitted to USTA National Championships, one’s National ranking was a point of pride, as well as a vehicle to get on a manufacturer’s “free list” for equipment, footwear, and maybe even apparel.  Player selection for National Championships was based solely on the ordered sectional endorsement lists.  Once the 100 quota spots were filled, the 28 remaining spots had to be filled by players in the order in which they appeared on each section’s list.   National ranking was of no consequence for selection purposes.

Then the Optimum Schedule was implemented in the late 1990’s.  Rankings were transformed from being an evaluation report to being the heart and soul of the selection process for National Championships.   Approximately a quarter of the competitors were selected based on National ranking.  While some of those remaining vacancies selected by National ranking had to be sectionally endorsed, the top 16-40 players plus the 24 National Open qualifiers did not require sectional endorsement.

National Ranking now had a value. 

For the top players, it was a way to bypass sectional play.  For “beyond quota” players in strong sections, it was a way to ensure that they would be selected as “remaining vacancies”.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Now that National play had a value, the demand for “national” events rose, and then one more concept appeared that increased the demand exponentially.

The introduction and implementation of a Points Per Round Ranking System opened the flood gates…..  And that’s exactly what was envisioned and desired by its creators.

The STAR ranking system had some quirks.  Although mistakenly, the fear of taking a “bad loss” encouraged players to avoid play once they felt that they had secured their ranking.  The PPR system was simple, but more than that, there would be no penalty for losing.  Only winning generated reward, so the system encouraged more match play.

And more match play they got.

PPR rankings took the place of STAR head-to-head rankings.  Since rankings were used for admittance, and subsequently seeding as well, it became important for players to acquire as many points as they could and the points chase began.

While there currently seems to be negative focus on the “chase”, the “chase” only bears fruit if the player “wins” once he gets on the court.

As George Orwell said at the end of Animal Farm, “… some animals are more equal than others.”  The USTA has now decided that some play is more desirable than other play,  that play at some locations is better than play at other locations, and that the USTA via wild cards and special events has the responsibility to declare which players are more equal than others.

While the Town Hall listening tour may, or may not, attract every tennis family in the U.S., those that it has attracted have made it abundantly clear . . .

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

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