Leveling the playing field

Friday, March 05, 2010 12:07 PM ET
By Bill Gray

Some 94,000 USTA League players—about 30 percent of those who competed last year in the association’s adult, senior and super senior age divisions based on their NTRP ratings—had their NTRP ratings changed for the 2010 League Championship year.
That almost doubles the number of players whose levels were changed in 2008.

At the end of each year, the National Tennis Rating Program computer weighs the results of all USTA League players (it considers their win-loss records and the quality of the opponents they’ve played, among other factors) to determine which players need to be promoted or moved down in regard to ratings. The USTA’s decision to promote more players than ever was based on its desire to retain the integrity of the NTRP guidelines after a study was conducted by the USTA National Oversight Group. That study, which included input from staff, volunteers, team captains and players, found a “growing disconnect” between what the NTRP guidelines state and what actual player levels are.

The study found that many players have skills and capabilities that go beyond the NTRP Guidelines for the various categories. For example, the guidelines state that 3.0-level players “lack control when trying for directional intent,” 3.5 players “lack a variety of shots,” and 4.0 players “only occasionally force errors when serving.”

To combat this discrepancy between guidelines and ratings, a higher percentage of players were promoted this year—particularly among players and teams that have dominated local leagues year after year—so that the levels of play will more accurately reflect the guideline’s skill descriptions.

“We’re trying to level the playing field and create a better local league experience for all players, not just the segment that only wants to play at the national championships,” says Dave Schobel, the USTA’s Director of Competitive Play.

In the past, some players have purposely “played down” below their skill level in order to more easily advance to regional, state and national championships. “When I started playing USTA League 25 years ago, I came in as a 4.0 and was really proud to get to 4.5,” says Julia Capara of Grosse Pointe, Mich. “Now it looks like 4.5s aspire to be 4.0s just so they can get to nationals.”

Those who “play down” have been a major cause of oversaturation at the 3.0, 3.5 and 4.0 levels that currently comprise about 271,000 of the 324,000 total USTA League players. The adjustments in ratings are intended to create more players at the 4.5 and 5.0 levels, so there will be more opportunity for local play in these divisions.

The most telltale sign that something was askew was a significant number repeat playoff winners, says Larry Jones, who created and runs the TennisLink computer system as the USTA’s NTRP coordinator. He says the odds of the same player reaching one of the 17 section championships should be something like 20-1 based on the size of their section, but certain players have made it that far for five consecutive years. “Something is up if someone can pull off an unlikely event like that several times in a row,” he says.

It is a very complicated formula. Someone told me all matches officially counts but realistically, if you play the mens/womens matches, the mixed can get to be be insignificant. You are given a rating after the 1st match. Every match after that is averaged in. So, if you play a lot of the mens/womens season, the mixed will be just a fraction of your rating. If you play a weak team and win but with a 7-5, it is counted against you since you are expected to win by a big margin. If you play a super strong team and lose by 5 – 7, that actually is in your favor. The computer knows what the scores should be based on the people playing. We know a person that got bumped up playing 3 matches and losing 2 out of the 3!!! That is because she played against strong people but meanwhile, her partners in those 3 matches did not get bump up. Go figure.

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