Adult tennis programs like those organized by the United States Tennis Association provide a fun and competitive outlet for adults 18 and over to compete at local, state, sectional and national levels. Some play purely for fun and fitness while others desire a competitive outlet with a chance to win a national title. There’s room for both and now’s the time for the USTA to make major changes to adult league tennis.
Joel Drucker has been writing professionally about tennis since the early 1980’s and penned two excellent pieces, The Poison Inside League Tennis and League Tennis – Possible Solutions, on Tennischannel.com earlier this week. Although I don’t agree with all of his suggestions, they were insightful and thought provoking. I caught up with Joel at his California home and drove further into this thoughts on how USTA could improve league play.
Recreational versus Competitive Teams
Can USTA leagues be recreational and competitive at the same time? “Sure they can,” said Drucker. “I’m a 4.5 and I believe most amateur players want both.”
It’s hard to disagree with his comment. After all, no one is getting paid to play in a USTA league and it’s a wonderful sport. When compared to others, tennis is relatively inexpensive and easy to access. Plus, the more people that play tennis the more the sport grows.
Tennis can be recreational and fun for competitive players like myself too. When I play at my club I want it to be lighthearted and fun. It makes making post-match refreshments more enjoyable. When I play in tournaments or in a USTA league, I hope I have fun, but I primarily play to compete and win. When both happen tennis is super fun!
Not everyone takes league tennis as seriously as I do and that’s okay.
In 2016 I played on 11 teams and by the end of 2017, that number could reach 14. Granted, that’s a lot of tennis and for me it’s as much lifestyle as sport. A number of my tennis friends play on least three to four teams a year but for others, one to two teams a year is plenty. And some of the better players at the club I belong to steer clear of USTA leagues altogether, choosing to play only with fellow members. That’s one reason USTA league play is down five percent since 2013.
How would a recreational and competitive leagues concept work?
Players have the option to sign up for either or both. A recreational league would be just that. You play a certain number of matches and when the season ends, that’s it. There’s no win/loss pressure and no advancement to state play.
The USTA wouldn’t require or provide a dynamic rating for rec only players and leagues could be either age or levels. Lower the cost to play these leagues to $15 and guarantee each player a minimum of three matches.
Another idea is to allow recreational play to be played “flex style.” Each team would schedule their own matches, taking the scheduling challenges away from team captains.
What about increasing player participation?
Drucker has two recommendations to improve player participation. One is to even out playing time. Captains would arrive with the names of players that day and randomly pair partners together. Another idea is before a player can play a third time, everyone on the team must be given a chance to play twice. This way everyone stays engaged.
Both of these ideas could work in recreational leagues, but guaranteeing playing time and randomly pairing teams doesn’t work for teams wanting to compete at higher levels. While getting everyone ample court time is an objective, captains of competitive teams need to balance player strengths and weaknesses and make adjustments when playing certain teams or players. And when you get to state or sectionals and are vying for a spot in the finals, you’ve got to put your best lineup on the court, even if some teammates took time off work and incurred the same expenses as everyone else.
One friend who has captained a number of successful teams recently told me after their teams win local league play; he ranks all of his players in ascending order. He schedules coffee or lunches with those he doesn’t plan to play much and gives them the option of whether they make the trip of not. Harsh, maybe, but it works well for teams that consistently win.
The structure for competitive leagues would remain virtually the same as we have today. Teams are formed with a maximum number of roster spots. Instead of $20 or $25, charge $30 or $35 to play on competitive teams. Teams that win their local or area level can advance to state, sectional and national competition.
I know people who are solid players at their level but could care less about traveling for state playoffs. Allow them to play in a league where bragging rights are confined to the workplace water cooler. For those of us willing to travel to state and beyond, establish a competitive league. The USTA would make even more money because some players will enjoy both.
Are there downsides to this idea? Absolutely.
Some areas don’t have enough courts available as is and it could pose a scheduling nightmare. This is a logistical issue that each area coordinator would need to address. However, there may be fewer “competitive” teams and they could have shorter seasons or advance directly to state play if no other team in the area signs up for competitive play.
USTA Should Publish Detailed Player Ratings Twice a Year
The USTA rates players from 1.5 to 7.0. The former is someone who has never picked up a racquet. The latter are world-class players like Roger Federer or Madison Keys. With 13 rated levels, the most populated levels range from 3.0 to 4.5.
I recommend the USTA publish detailed ratings twice each year – in June and December, for anyone playing in a competitive league. Drucker and I both think this is a good idea.
“I would love to see USTA publish detailed ratings twice a year. It would certainly be interesting.”
As it stands now, the USTA publishes new ratings for every player around December 1 each year. Depending on a player’s performance in league play, they can be moved up, down or remain the same. There is an option to appeal if you disagree with your new rating.
For example, I have 3.5 rating and play at what I consider a high 3.5, low 4.0 level. What the USTA doesn’t tell me is if I’m at the bottom, middle or top of the 3.5 range.
Dynamic ratings are determined by many factors but are kept under lock and key by the USTA. For a thorough FAQ on the topic, Kevin Schmidt at Schmidt Computer Ratings answers ratings questions in detail.
If you want to see the best estimate of your dynamic rating, Schmidt Computer Ratings is your best option. For a modest fee, Kevin will run a detailed reported showing how each match player impacted your rating. You can see which partners you played best with and how you fared in 18 over, 40 over, etc. If you’re serious about your game then this report is a must. Kevin would certainly lose a revenue stream if the USTA adopted this recommendation, but it would benefit competitive play.
Here is an example of an individual report.
Hold Team Captains/Co-Captains Accountable for Their Roster
One of the major sticking points in USTA adult tennis is how some players “sandbag,” or intentionally lose matches in order to remain at a certain level. Others self-rate, in an attempt to play down in order to win. If you’ve played USTA leagues for a year or more you know exactly what I’m talking about.
In June of 2015 I played a singles match in the finals of the Mississippi state tournament and lost 0-6, 0-6. My opponent placed the ball at will and in my opinion, his skill level was closer to a 4.5 than a 3.5.
Our team didn’t even appeal, but he was disqualified the following day, meaning all matches he won that season were reversed. Our team lost the match 2-3 and the DQ should have given us a 3-2 win, allowing us to advance to sectionals. The rules of USTA’s Southern Section allowed their team to advance. Other sections follow different guidelines. Without their “sandbagger,” they didn’t win a single match at sectionals. Changes to this rule should be made and all sections should adhere to identical guidelines.
Team captains should be familiar with the background and skill level of players on their roster and be held accountable if something is amiss, especially when it involves players that “self-rate.” If it’s determined a self-rated player intentionally misled the USTA to obtain a lower rating, then penalties should be levied against both the player and the captain. A one-year suspension for both would be a good start.
Interestingly, Drucker feels such penalties should be even more severe.
“I would publish the name and background of anyone caught violating USTA’s self-rating rule,” he explained. “I would post a picture of the guilty player, along with details of the violation. Similar to the “Most Wanted” posters on your post office bulletin board. At the end of the violation period the information would be removed. The player or captain has paid their dues and is free to resume USTA play.”
Wow. Talk about captains researching their rosters!
Until the USTA holds captains accountable for their rosters, the handful of “bad apples” who captain teams will continue to manipulate the process. Besides, it’s poor sportsmanship. After all, tennis, like golf, is considered a “gentlemanly sport.” Let’s keep it as such.
Other Suggestions to Improve USTA League Play
- USTA uses local league coordinators to schedule matches and facilitate league activity. They are paid a nominal fee and assume the role because they love the sport. I recommend coordinators be paid $20,000 annually and held accountable for their actions and decisions. They should be prohibited from making any decision conflicts with the state, sectional or national policy. They would also be prohibited from playing in competitive leagues. That would ensure they are fair to everyone.
- USTA teaching professionals (those certified by USTA as a teaching pro) automatically receive a 5.0 rating, regardless of their skill level or USTA match record if they choose to engage in competitive league play. I see too many teaching professionals that enter league play against the same people they accept money from for lessons and clinics. “Weekend warriors” cannot compete against teaching pros that make their living on a court. By no means should they be allowed to play in recreational leagues. Upper level or “pro only” tournaments and playoffs would be another idea.
What are your thoughts? Would these recommendations improve USTA adult league tennis?