In any competitive endeavor, the ability to compete with others who are of equivalent or similar skill is imperative for success. You would expect to see neither a professional Major League Baseball (MLB) player in a little league game, nor a National Basketball Association (NBA) player hitting the hardwood with Baldwin High School … the difference in skill is too great to allow for fair play. Because the skill level is so different, the competition loses its value. The reason to play sports is to see whose skills are better. We go into the fray, time after time, with the expectation that the work we have put into our common arena is greater than that of our opponent. We expect that our desire to win is greater than our opponent’s. We enter into a competitive agreement that we shall abide by the rules that both parties have agreed to play under and let nothing else determine the outcome. When this unspoken competitive agreement is broken, the integrity of our collective endeavor is undervalued, disrespected and undermined. Although underrated players is not an all-pervasive problem in USTA league play, it is a thorn that has always and will always be there. It is constantly talked about from an emotional point of view, but the issue deserves to be looked at with a critical eye.
What is underrating?
Underrating a player means that a player has a rating that does not accurately reflect their skill level. More specifically, it means that a player is better than what their rating suggests.
How does underrating happen?
Before our current ratings system, players would go to a club to be rated by a teaching pro who observed them play for a little under a half-hour. After play ended, each player would be assigned a rating. This presents a number of problems. The opinions of one tennis pro might be different from another. While Pro A might rate someone a 3.5, Pro B might rate that same individual a 4.0, and Pro C might rate them a 3.0. Opinions as to what each level should look like are different. Using benchmarks confuses the problem even further. If someone
were to be agreed upon as a benchmark 3.5 player, anyone losing to them might be suggested to be a 3.0, anyone who beats this benchmark might be considered a 4.0. This doesn’t account for an off-day for the benchmark. What of all the variables? What happens if our benchmark has a bad day, got fired from work, lost their pet, or felt ill? This system has it’s flaws, but it functioned well or some time. In the opinion of one long standing captain, the old system was far more accurate than the new system of self-rating.
It could be suggested that our current system improves on the old, removing the human element at least by one degree. No longer does a player have to be observed in play to be rated. Each new player to USTA completes a series of questions and is then given a minimum rating allowed. Have you played tennis in high school? You are a minimum of 3.5. Have you played for a college/university? Congratulations, you are a 4.5. This system has its flaws as well. How can it account for someone who played for a college with a bad team or someone who played in college 20 years ago and cannot play at the 4.5 Level anymore? Again, the issue is with the multiple variables that can affect rating outcomes.
No system is perfect though, and so while our current system is not perfect, can it improve on the old? The current system is heavily reliant on the honor code. We expect that everyone answering the survey will be honest. We expect that new players will disclose everything and not answer questions in order to obtain a desired rating, as opposed to an appropriate rating. Underrating can happen here though when new players (or the person answering the questions) are dishonest.
Underrating is done for several reasons,
but the two most common are:
►To be more competitive in a league; and
►To avoid losing.
While the second is usually purely an issue of ego, the first is of much more interest and consequence. It may sound cynical to say that the teams that go to playoffs and sectionals most are the ones with the most underrated players, but there is some truth to it. By definition, the teams going to the playoffs and sectionals are the best in the league and thus represent the best the section has to offer in 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, etc. Because they are the best in their respective leagues, the players still in it at the end of the season, although they might not necessarily be underrated, are closer to being underrated than the rest of the league. This suggests then that the team with players closer to the tipping point of the next league up (more underrated than the others) is the team that will have the most success. This is not always the case, but mathematically, we would certainly place our bets on this line. This fact makes it extremely tempting for teams to underrate players on purpose in order to be more competitive, and here is where the slippery slope begins. It is one thing to have the best 4.0 players in a league all on one team; it is another to have 4.0 players on a team that should be 4.5 just so that you can win the league. This represents something dishonest and degrades the value of our sport and our competition. How can we account for players who never played high school tennis (no college tennis), but plays at a 4.5 Level? How can we account for the players who played in a foreign country and can answer the questionnaire with complete honesty and be given a minimum rating of 3.0? It is these players who can be seen as most valuable since they represent a way to gain an unfair advantage on your team that cannot under the current system be contested. They can answer the questionnaire with reasonable honesty and attain a rating not representative of their true skill level. This is only the best case scenario of dishonesty. The worst case scenario is one where someone answers the questions with complete disregard for honesty. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that as few as two to three underrated players can turn the course of a match in the favor of the less honest team. In mixed doubles and tri-level only, three courts are played. If you have two to three underrated players spread out, you increase your chances of winning significantly. In the regular summer season, the first singles and first doubles courts are more valuable than the other courts. With two to three underrated players on these courts, a match can swing heavily in favor of the less honest team.
Who gets hurt by underrated players?
The answer is all of us; all of us and the sport collectively are injured in this bit of dishonesty, but none more than the lower levels of play (our 2.5, 3.0 and 3.5 players/leagues). Mathematically, as league skill level increases, there will be a lower number of people available. This is true for any sport. There are far fewer people who have the skill to play in the NBA than there are casual basketball players. In USTA, it is not uncommon for a higher level to play less courts for just this reason. Because the pyramid of skill works out this way, the players who are really affected are the lower levels. These players are your casual players, the men and women that do it for fun, they do it because they want to enjoy the game, because they have a passion for something they grew up with or they found along the paths of their lives. These people play because their friends are playing or because, after working their nine to five, they need to blow off some steam. Everyone has an expectation when they play tennis, but I doubt that anyone expects to play an opponent who is going to blow them away. Most people enter USTA league play at the lower levels and it is an introduction to competitive tennis play. If we are being honest in our responses to the new player questionnaire, anyone with competitive tennis play will not receive a rating less than 3.5, therefore, the new players entering in at (though not limited to) 2.5 and 3.0 are the ones who are most likely to encounter underrated players. Imagine for a second that someone who has never played competitive tennis has to play their first match against someone who has twice the amount of on-court experience as they have? They get demolished and demoralized in their match. Does that person want to return for a second match? It’s a considerably frustrating experience and one that we shouldn’t desire to occur. As tennis players, we represent our sport as well as ourselves. We should want to grow our sport and share what we found in our sport with others. Whatever our reasons for playing, it stands to reason that others might find tennis attractive for the same reason. This is just from a players perspective; from USTA’s perspective, we can deduce that they would desire more new players to take to the courts, but because underrated players effect our new players more than our journeymen ... it’s an issue that goes beyond just the individual.
What do we do?
When encountering an underrated player, most of us will react emotionally, venting our frustrations either at the alleged player or at our teammates. Some of us may go so far as to file a grievance; this will do little for us, unless the person’s name comes up in a search of their tennis history that directly contradicts their responses to the questionnaire. We will usually demonize that player and place a great deal of negative energy on them. At times, this anger is misplaced since it is not the player’s fault at all, but the fault of their captain. Many players have legitimately never played competitively. Their captains will sign them up and fill out the questionnaire for them knowing that although the questions have been answered accurately, the outcome will not represent their player’s skill. At best, we can hope that in a full season, their rating will be bumped to what is appropriate, but at worst, their captain will have them play down in order to sustain their underrate. Many players do not actually know their skill level, and a less than scrupulous captain will take full advantage of this. Should our anger then be placed on the captain? Our anger is still misplaced in focusing our energy on the captain. At best, we can give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the captain is just trying to make their team competitive within the rules of USTA. At worst, we can say that the captain is acting in a dishonest way to gain an advantage, but again still inside the rules of USTA.
What should we do?
In any environment, be it sport, work or otherwise, we have rules that are both spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten. The rules of any environment are in place so that chaos does not ensue; the rules are in place so that there is a common understanding of how we want our environment to run. In USTA, we have “The Code,” in government we have our Constitution. Our Constitution has amendments though, amendments that allow for a degree of flexibility so that if our rules are not working in the way we wanted them to work they can be changed. This flexibility is part of what makes our Constitution great. With our Constitution, we have the ability to say, “This is not working as intended; let’s change it!”
Although some would argue that the current system for rating new players is an improvement over our old system I am of the opinion that it allows for too much of what we did not intend and what we do not want. There are several scenarios where players can be underrated with complete impunity. Although it is dishonest, it is dishonesty within the rules which we have set, rules which we as a community have made. If the rules under which we play allow for dishonesty and we have a problem with it, our negative energies are misplaced on individuals. If the problem is significant enough that it warrants copious amounts of negative energy we should strongly consider a change in our rules. If it is not significant enough of a problem to warrant examination, then we should continue to play in our leagues, but we cannot in good conscious complain if we feel we played someone we should not have because they are underrated.
I am not the type of person that believes that a system can be fairly criticized without proposing an alternative to this system. This article has run on long enough and for those of you magnanimous enough to devote your time to my thoughts on a subject we all deal with I thank you sincerely and hope you will indulge me a bit further at a later time. Click here to find a parallel article on an alternate system of rating new players.
Miguel Cervantes III
Miguel Cervantes III teaches at Carefree Racquet Club and privately outdoors. Miguel specializes in teaching beginners, training juniors and coaching doubles. He may be reached by e-mail at UnderstandingTennis@gmail.com.