You have seen the commercials promoting membership in the United States Tennis Association with the tagline “Join a team and have the opportunity to play for a national title.”
As a USTA captain on Long Island, I have come close to going to the nationals a few times with trips to the sectionals in 2001, 2002 and 2003 where we lost. Each year, after the season, we lost some players who were bumped up to the next level, but we were able to recruit replacements and continued to be successful.
That all ended for us in 2004 and, unfortunately, we have not been able to get to the sectionals again. With an average of three teams per year at varying levels for the four years from 2004 to 2008, that represents 12 opportunities where we fell short.
Did the fact that 2004 represented the first year for the new self-rating system have anything to do with our failures to advance to the sectionals after 2003? You be the judge.
Prior to self-rating, individuals would go to a tennis facility and play for 30 to 60 min. under the supervision of a trained “rater” who would evaluate everyone’s skills and set their individual ratings. I am sure there were people who tried to sandbag their play to obtain a lower rating, but the highly-skilled raters saw through that most of the time and did an excellent job evaluating the talent. Could an individual slip in to a lower rating? Sure, every once in a while someone probably got by. But they were few and far between.
The advent of self-rating has now accomplished what any new system eventually accomplishes; it presented an opportunity for the creative captains to find the loopholes and exploit the system. Boy have they been successful!
In order the level the playing field so everyone has an opportunity to “play for a national title,” I have decided to share with you some tips for building your teams. These have been gleaned from observation of the most creative captains since self-rating has been in effect.
While I cannot guarantee you a sectional or national title if you follow these tips, I will guarantee that you will field a team that will dominate any other team with legitimately rated players at the level you compete at. The process will take approximately two seasons to be fully implemented, but if you can be patient for these two years, you will reap long-term rewards year after year by following these tips:
1. Visit the various tennis facilities in your area and look at the in-house league results for the highest level leagues that are offered.
These are usually at the 4.0 and 4.5 level. Identify a few of the top players and make the USTA pitch—that they can join your team and have a chance to play for a national title. You will have them self-rate at a lower level—say 3.5 and that will position them to play their first season.
2. New self-rated players are given a lower threshold for disqualification based on their playing results, so in their first season with your team you need to play them sparingly and at third court doubles.
They will clearly be able to dominate the competition, but you do not want that. You want them to maybe play three or four matches that first season. Have them win a couple and lose one by reasonably close scores. Even throw in a 10-point super tie-break or two to make it look even more competitive.
3. At the end of their first season, these players will receive the coveted “computer rating.”
Once they have the coveted computer rating, they can be unleashed the following season to play high value courts because their threshold for disqualification is now much higher. They will probably get bumped up after the season, but that is fine since you had them available to get you as far as possible that second season. When they are in a match where they can be totally dominant, have them give away a few games to keep the scores close as that might even help keep them from being bumped up after the second season.
As another source for recruiting, find recent or not so recent, former college players. When they self-rate, they can answer “no” to the question about whether they played college tennis. As long as that lie is not discovered in their first season, they are home free. You can then follow steps two and three above so they will not draw any attention to themselves in their first season, obtain the coveted computer rating and be ready to play for real in season number two.
An interesting loophole, where you are not penalized for lying during the self-rating process once you complete your first year and get the computer rating, allows this to happen. I know it sounds unbelievable, and it is, but if you can make it through that first season under the system’s radar, you can play with impunity the following season.
There are others methods being employed to get around the system and there will continue to be creative captains that can exploit the system with ever more cleaver ideas.
By adding four or five players each season in this manner, you will essentially create your own “farm” system to feed your roster and replace players that get bumped up. With 18 or 24 roster spots available on each team, depending on the region you play in, there is plenty of room to add new players each season who will only need to play the three or four matches necessary to obtain their coveted computer rating.
For the majority of USTA captains, who, like myself, would never stoop to these antics, I have some better ideas. If only 20 percent of the captains cheat using the methods outlined above, or others that are similar, the other 80 percent will never have a real opportunity to play for a national title and that is a shame.
I have taken all of this up with both the Eastern Section and the National USTA groups with zero success. I accept the fact that the new computer system and the self-rating process are here to stay, but I have suggested some checks and balances to insure fairness within the framework of that system. In a nutshell here is what needs to be done:
1. Increase the fee to join a team and accumulate a fund of a few thousand dollars from the thousands of players who join teams each season.
2. Provide each captain, at each level, with three challenges that they can use to challenge the validity of a player’s rating when their own players feel someone is above level.
3. The challenge is communicated to the captain of the player being challenged, as well as the league coordinator.
4. The captain whose player is being challenged is then committed to letting the league coordinator know when the challenged player is playing again in a USTA match.
5. The league coordinator then makes arrangements to get a teaching pro to attend that match to observe the player for the duration of the match. The teaching pro needs to be from a club not involved in the match being watched. The teaching pro is paid their regular rate from the pool of funds collected when players join a team.
6. The player who is challenged cannot play another match until evaluated by a teaching pro as part of the challenge process. When being evaluated, the player needs to be playing on the same court (i.e., first singles, second singles, etc.) as when the challenge was issued.
7. If the teaching pro decides that the player is above level, he disqualifies the player, and all of that player’s results for that particular season are reversed. In addition, since the challenge was upheld, the original captain who made the challenge still has the original three challenges left.
8. If the teaching pro decides that the player in on level, the player can continue to play and the original captain that made the challenge now loses one of the three challenges.
9. A way to minimize the number of challenges actually carried out with a pro at the match is to only permit challenges of players who are in the system three years or less. So a player in the system for four years of more cannot be challenged.
Of course, like the self-rating system currently being abused, there are potential issues with the process outlined above. The player being challenged can attempt to tank the match or otherwise hold back. This might work, but an experienced teaching pro will see through most of these attempts, just as an experienced rater under the old system could.
What it will do, however, is create an environment where captains will think twice before recruiting high level players for lower rated divisions. I have always been amazed that people would want to play at levels well below their true rating, but the lure of a national championship, I guess, is too strong for some to pass up.
Over a two- to three-year period, the checks and balances will improve competitiveness, help facilitate fairness, and give everyone a real opportunity to play for a national championship.
Then, the reality will finally match the marketing hype.