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The USTA Proposal

In my last article, I alluded to the changes that may or may not be coming to USTA Junior Competition in 2020. After the article was published, I received the following document from an anonymous reader:

[docupress-document url=’https://drive.google.com/file/d/151TphV1Q0daPN7oJqGnxUZ3TkQPpaCC4/view?usp=drive_web’/]
Background

As mentioned in my last article, participation in Junior Tennis has declined precipitously over the past decade, along with USTA membership in general. The new 2020 Nationwide Junior Competitive Structure (the 3rd set of changes in 6 years) is meant to stem that tide.

Some Good News

At first glance, the proposal looks fine, maybe even good. The new structure aligns Junior Competition across the 17 USTA Sections. This is something that has been long overdue. Apparently a study – commissioned by the USTA – performed by the University of Central Florida identified lack of consistency across Sections as one of the major reasons for the decline in Junior Tennis participation. This proposed structure has all Junior events across the country falling into one of seven levels. Levels 1 and 2 will be exclusively Nationally sanctioned events, Level 3 will be a combination of National and Sectional events while Levels 4 through 7 will be Sectionally sanctioned. All events will carry National points.

Some Not So Good News

However, when you start looking a little deeper into the above document, you will notice two ranking lists. This is where the problems start . . .

The selection process for the National Championship events (National Clays, Hardcourts, and Winter Nationals) has been amended in a way that prioritizes selection off Sectional Quota Lists. This is one of the main reasons the 2013/2014 changes failed, and it’s disappointing to see the USTA repeat the same mistake here. Sectional alignment seems like an ideal opportunity to de-emphasize the inefficient and inequitable quota selection process. An opportunity was missed. The USTA likes to trumpet the concept of earned advancement. Quotas are the exact opposite of that. While it’s important that all Sections have some representation at the National Championships, the selection process should strive to ensure the best players are competing at our country’s best events.

The New National Championship Selection Process

If I am reading the draft correctly, the USTA will publish two National Standing Lists (NSLs). The first list will be based on a player’s 6 best results across all tournaments played. Let’s call this the “real” NSL. The second list will be compiled using a player’s 3 best sectional results and the 3 best results from all other tournaments played. This list will then be sorted according to Section to produce Sectional Standing Lists from which Sectional Quota Players will be selected. Let’s call this second list the Sectional Quota List (SQL). It’s likely these two “national” selection lists will look quite different. Confused yet?

Consider Player A, who decides to play a predominantly National schedule and achieves a ranking of 100 on the “real” NSL which makes him, say, the 8th best player in his Section. Clearly, this is a player who deserves selection into our National Championships, either as a National or Quota player.

However, because Player A has not played any Sectional events, his ranking on the SQL drops to 170 and he is now the 17th best player in his Section, placing him just outside his Section’s quota.

Under the current selection process, where quota players are selected first followed by NSL players, Player A would be picked up in the second selection round and, most appropriately, be selected into the National Championship events.

Inexplicably, however, the new proposal reverses the order of selection with players selected off the NSL first then off the SQL. The effect of this is to render the NSL irrelevant to anyone ranked below 75. Under this selection order, few players ranked below 75-100 will be selected off the NSL. There will be really no incentive for a player to aspire to improve his ranking from 200 to 150 etc. Most players at the top of the NSL are likely to also be on their Section’s quota list, and they, in effect, will be selected two different ways. That will mean more quota spots and lower quota cutoffs. Like the 2013 structure, quotas will be the primary means of selection with all the inherent inequities associated with that system.

This proposal provides no clear pathway to National Championship selection. A player who, for whatever reason, wants to play a National rather than Sectional schedule will need to make the bet that he or she will achieve a top 100 ranking or risk being left behind.

Sanctioning Inequities

Another negative is the inequity created by sanctioning the same number of L3-L5 events in each Section. With the opportunity to compete in 2 closed L3 events and 4 closed L4 events, players in small sections will be significantly advantaged with a few players competing for the same points as players in the larger sections. This will further distort the two ranking lists (NSL and SQL).

Is There a Solution?

There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in USTA junior participation. Our top players have voted with their feet, and those that have the financial means are competing in the ITF Junior Circuit or have moved to entry-level professional events. The level of competition in USTA Junior events has declined precipitously, and we are now in a situation where USTA events, with the possible exception of National Hardcourts, do not provide the level of competition required for a player to develop to a level where he/she can compete at the top D1 college level.

Why not invest in the domestic ITF circuit and create some linkages between the ITF and USTA events so our top players can compete close to home and high level competition becomes more accessible for those who cannot afford to travel the world? The ITF World Tennis Tour (WTT) has made this situation more acute, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. The above USTA proposal does nothing to address this reality.

UTR is now the de-facto benchmark for college recruiting and, again, the proposal makes no attempt to recognize and incorporate that reality. UTR is here to stay. We know it has suppressed play and created a situation where no player wants to be the best player in a tournament, so why isn’t USTA addressing that concern with its newly-proposed structure?

In summary, kudos to USTA for aligning the junior tournament structure across Sections. That was the hard part, but a real opportunity was missed here to address the fundamental challenges facing junior tennis in the US. This new proposed structure makes no allowance for the existence of either UTR or the all important ITF Junior Circuit. These two entities are having the largest impact on Junior Competition in the US, and they are not even referenced in the proposal.

Although it looks like this proposal is going to pass at the June vote, I am hopeful USTA will take another look at the potential unintended consequences BEFORE it goes into effect in January 2020. I’d like to think USTA learned from the 2014 Junior Competition debacle and will do a better job anticipating the what-if’s this time. 

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