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The Rich Rewards of Level-Based Play

The article below originally appeared on the Universal Tennis Rating website and is reprinted here with permission.

Youth tennis today is a staggeringly expensive chaos. Globally, hundreds of tennis tribes speak scores of different languages, with no shared way to determine who is actually good at the game–or how good–outside of a couple thousand men and women on the pro tours. Chasing points to beef up “rankings” teaches kids to game the system, seeking out weaker tournaments and opponents to crush. Developing a top junior player can now cost families more than $100,000 per year and mean “attending” an online high school, plus seeing teenagers move away from home. The junior tournament circuit has become an unfair, discouraging, and dysfunctional grind that disheartens thousands of young players. Their natural love for the sport is getting buried under a well-intended system that, unfortunately, just takes the fun out of the game.

In the United States, the status quo has been turning off young tennis players at an alarming rate. A telling statistic is the “churn rate”: in a given year, 38 percent of those who play one USTA-sanctioned tournament quit and don’t play any more. Why not? Maybe they got killed in the match and felt discouraged. Or won but had such a weak opponent that it was no fun. Many junior players who have played multiple events are burning out—and dropping out. Perhaps they tired of jumping through hoops to advance, or their parents became weary of spending buckets of cash and seeing their children miss school to enter tennis events.

What’s needed is a welcoming, supportive structure that keeps young athletes—and experienced adults—engaged with the game, rather than driving them out of it. There is a solution, but first we need to understand what isn’t working now.

Rankings and “Points per Round”

Worldwide, most all competitive tennis gets organized around rankingsystems, from juniors to Intercollegiate Tennis Association events to the professional tours. First of all, we must understand that rankings are notratings. Rankings merely place things in order—first, second, third—relative to each other. We can rank the top 10 ski slopes in Malaysia, but that doesn’t mean any of them are good places to ski. A rating system, on the other hand, is pegged to a verifiable scale. When Consumer Reportspublishes its ratings of 25 dishwashers, the numbers reflect measurements made by extensive testing of the machines. Rankings are simply a pecking order, while ratings reflect an actual metric, a single scale that has a meaning independent of the items rated.

Hence, being a highly ranked tennis player in some regions of the world may not translate into a whole lot of tennis skill: you might be tennis’s version of the best ski slope in Malaysia. Meanwhile, even the 41st-best ski trail in Switzerland could offer some excellent downhill.

Rankings of tennis players nearly always derive from a “points per round” (PPR) computation. PPR is the currency of competitive tennis. Whatever organization is doing the ranking—and there are many—decides to award certain numbers of points for reaching certain rounds of certain tournaments. In general, there’ll be more points for surviving to later rounds, and more points at stake in stronger tournaments. However, tournaments awarding the same numbers of points can still vary widely among themselves in strength.

Therefore, to maximize your cache of PPR and attain a high ranking, your incentive is to find weaker tournaments where you’ll face lesser competition and so have a better chance of reaching a later round. Making it to those weak tourneys, though, may require travel—sometimes lengthy, expensive travel—so chasing PPR can become a costly project. Nonetheless, it propels those who can afford it to higher rankings than their tennis skill might warrant. In theory, tennis ranking and bank account should not be correlated, but in practice, they often are.

Note, too, that chasing points runs contrary to the time-tested path for developing tennis talent: playing challenging matches and events that test your game and stretch its limits. The athletes at the top of the sport on the ATP and WTA tours are there for many reasons—and one important one is that they immerse themselves daily in this kind of challenging environment, whether in demanding practice sessions or tough matches.

Tournaments typically use PPR-based rankings to select their draws and perform seedings. Yet, since PPR is such a shaky index of actual tennis ability, such selections and seedings often tend to be inaccurate and unfair.

Separating Tennis Players by Age and Gender

The USTA’s junior tournament program divides young players into four major age categories, for boys and girls aged 12, 14, 16, and 18 years or younger. The intentions are good: have kids play other kids their own age, and we should get fairly even matches, since everyone will be at a similar level of physical development, and all have had a chance to play the game for about the same length of time, as they share similar “dates of manufacture.”

Sounds good, but unfortunately this breaks down in practice, as children develop physically and athletically at vastly different rates. Two 12-year-olds can have less in common as tennis players than do a 12- and a 16-year old. Consider the following anecdote.

In 1983, a talented 17-year-old Southern California boy reached the quarterfinals of an 18-and-under tennis tournament in Los Angeles. He was startled when a curly-haired 12-year-old walked out to play him. It was a kid named Pete Sampras. Sampras turned out to be a human backboard who got everything back, and defeated his much older, much bigger adversary. The next year, at the same tournament, a 13-year-old Sampras again beat the same player (who later played varsity tennis in the Ivy League). Clearly, the two lads’ tennis skills were unrelated to their chronological ages.

An extreme case? Yes. But it begs the question: is separating players by age really the best way to organize a youth tennis tournament? Research has shown that it does little, if anything, to produce competitive matches. What the age-graded system does do is make it difficult for kids to find good matches, since it rules out all of humanity except those within two years of one’s own age, in most cases. Imagine the problems an adult player would face if she decided to play only women between 35 and 37.

Gender barriers do something similar: they make it harder to find a good match. At the pro level and in college tennis, males clearly have larger, more powerful bodies: they hit harder and move faster. But in most of junior and adult tennis, size and strength are only two factors. There are so many variables that affect someone’s level of play, and his or her sex is only one of them. Most any adult man can bring to mind at least one woman who is his equal or better on the court (if stumped, think Serena Williams). And talented girls who live in areas that are not tennis hotbeds can have a real problem finding good competition when restricted to girls of their own age.

Tennis pro Calin Mateas of the Weymouth Club in Weymouth, Massachusetts, is the father of an excellent junior girl, Maria Mateas(UTR 11.72), who at 16 years of age ranks among the top 50 18-and-under females in the world. “It’s very tough to find people for Maria to train with, especially girls,” he says. “Maria trains with boys. USTA New England has helped me in trying to find girls for her to hit with. That’s good, but sometimes they live far away. It can be easier to drive a short ways and play with college boys. But NCAA rules forbid college players to play against high-school players in an organized practice. So you have to arrange something outside of official practices.”

In March, Maria traveled with her father to Porto Alegre, Brazil, where she was the #5 seed at the Juvenil de Tenis de Porto Alegre, an International Tennis Federation (ITF) Grade A event. Although the trip cost more than $2,500, playing there was important to maintaining Maria’s high ITF ranking. “You have got to play these tournaments to stay in the top 50 in the world,” her father explains. “That ranking is what assures you entry to the junior Grand Slams.” Maria reached the quarterfinals in Brazil before losing to the #2 seed, Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine. A worthwhile tournament, but aside from the expense, such travel makes regular high school impossible; Maria studies at the online Laurel Springs School.

Benefits of Level-Based Play

1. Greatly reduced travel costs. Level-based play dramatically lowers the cost of playing high-octane tennis. Strong players—in fact, any players—can find a challenging match in their own city or local region by entering the UTR system. Doing so slashes the travel budget—airfare, hotels, meals, ground transportation—for tournaments staged at a distance from home. Instead, athletes can thrive at local events organized around similar UTRs, like the UTR Boston Open in Boston. Between tournaments, they can easily set up challenging matches that stretch their games.

Consider again the case of Maria Mateas. In the Boston area, where the Mateas family lives, there are plenty of players who could give her a strong match: they just aren’t girls aged 15 or 16. (Or, for that matter, 17 or 18.) But at the second annual UTR Boston Open last fall, Maria defeated a secondary-school boy, Ryan Nguy (10.41), before losing to Brian Yeung(13.09), a Harvard junior and varsity player.

Maria Mateas
Maria Mateas of the United States plays a forehand in her first round match against Petra Hule of Australia during the Australian Open 2016 Junior Championships at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Credit: Jack Thomas/Getty Images)

If age and sex barriers were removed, she could practice daily with tennis peers and compete frequently in metropolitan Boston, driving 20 miles and spending a few dollars instead of flying 5,000 miles and spending thousands. The UTR system could easily pair her with many suitable partners, with the match scores feeding Maria’s UTR.

2. Accelerating the “tennis maturation” of young players’ games. The development of a junior like Maria Mateas would likely accelerate due to the variety of opponents that level-based play opens up. She would face not only young athletes of both sexes but older women and men with years of court experience and tennis savvy. Level-based play re-integrates the tennis world, bringing seasoned adults back onto the court with rising juniors of any age or gender.

In his paper, “The Need for a USTA/ITA Player Rating System,” Harvard men’s coach Dave Fish notes that 13- and 14-year-olds do not learn the subtleties of the game as quickly from peers with similar styles as they would, for instance, from playing the club champion who looks like a hack but never misses. Contrast this with a comment from a collegiate player who had grown up in the French rating system: “As a 12-year-old, I was good enough in French tournaments to play with adults and older juniors. They sliced me; drop-shotted me, hooked me, pushed me around, and always tried to intimidate me. By the time I was 15, I had seen it all and knew how to play tennis.” —Damien Lacombe, former Virginia Commonwealth University player.

3. Keeping families and communities together. Level-based play via UTR also lets junior players live at home with parents, siblings, and friends—and go to school in their local communities. The current practice of uprooting young athletes to cultivate their tennis games is not necessarily efficient or effective. Worse, it disrupts family and social bonds that are crucial to a teenager’s coming of age. Class time (if any) and schoolwork become secondary to tennis training—if they aren’t derailed completely. Moving away from home also disconnects young athletes from their local teaching professionals, who have often successfully mentored them for years. Meanwhile, it’s expensive, physically draining, and time-consuming.

4. Democratizing tennis. The enormous financial savings of level-based play could revolutionize the future of the game. With few exceptions, turning promising kids into high-level players has become a pursuit limited to wealthy families. Imagine the vast impact of using UTR to create easy access to competitive matches for thousands, even millions, of young people currently shut out of this world because their families have only modest means.

Athletic talent is actually quite a democratic thing—it’s evenly distributed across all strata of society, from the underclass to the wealthiest. Reduce the cost of competing to 5 or 10 percent of current levels, and watch what happens. In a diverse country like the United States, armies of young players from Latino, African American, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and all manner of European and global immigrant cultures would join middle-class, working-class, and impoverished Anglo girls and boys on the tennis courts. In one generation, tennis participation would explode, from recreational games all the way to the pro tours. This isn’t mere speculation, but an evidence-based forecast based on what has happened elsewhere. In France, for example, where level-based play prevails, the number of players and the development of excellent athletes has, on a per-capita basis, far outstripped the United States. The prevailing system in France is producing 12 times as many junior tennis players per capita as the age-based American system. The French are simply getting a much bigger bang for their buck (or Euro) than the Americans are.

5. Incentives that build tenacity. Won-lost records are a crude and often misleading way to evaluate players.There is a vast difference, for example, between winning a best-of-three match 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, versus 6-0, 6-0. Yes, on rare occasions, a 6-0 set can actually be a closely fought battle of six deuce games. But in general, three tiebreakers indicates a far closer match, and the player who loses it deserves more credit than the one who surrendered 12 straight games. The UTR system provides a more sensitive barometer, because the losing player gets credit for every game won, rather than simply a “loss.” Thus, if you are down, say, 6-1, 4-1, you still have ample incentive to keep fighting for every game, as each addition to your games-won column will enhance your rating. The UTR system cultivates tenacity by rewarding it.

6. Removing incentives to manipulate the system. Building a UTR from match scores against specific, rated opponents gives a more precise, accurate, and honest index of tennis skill than accumulations of PPR. UTR rewards good play rather than the notorious practice of “gaming the system” to artificially inflate one’s ranking. Such gaming undermines player development by encouraging practices—like seeking out weaker draws—that actually impede improvement at tennis. Furthermore, such incentives reinforce undesirable personality traits like manipulative behavior. Chasing points by finding “soft” tournaments and feeble opponents siphons off time, energy, and even money from building one’s tennis game. This, too, hinders improvement. Chasing points often becomes an exorbitantly expensive practice that means traveling a lot and playing more tournaments, rather than playing better ball.

These are a few benefits of level-based play. There are many more. Finding ways to foster level-based play globally could revolutionize the game of tennis—dramatically, and in very positive ways. The simple, accessible tool of UTR is a lever that can do so—expanding participation, cultivating skilled players more quickly and easily, and bringing more fun to the court for all. Level-based play works. The data are in on this, and you don’t even have to take our word. Just ask the French.

Feature photo: The USTA Northern California Generation Gap Tournamentprovides a unique opportunity that is so rare in competitive play — junior and adults uniting and playing with and against each other on a leveled-playing field. (Credit: USTA NorCal)



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