Rating the Universal Tennis Ratings

Whatever the merits or demerits of the UTR for the pro game, one cannot gainsay that this fast-growing, innovative rating system has become a godsend for amateur players around the world.

Setting a new global standard: Mark Leschly, the CEO of Universal Tennis LLC, the company behind the UTR, with former American tennis star Tracy Austin. “We want to give UTR to every player on the planet,” says Leschly.

UTR is ageless, genderless, and borderless. It truly democratises the game.

— All-time great Martina Navratilova

We need innovative technologies like UTR to support, sustain, and grow the game.

Mark Hurd, CEO of Oracle

You’ll likely never play Roger Federer or Serena Williams. But you can have something the two greatest players in tennis history have: a world ranking.

All you have to do is play a competitive match — whatever your playing level, age, gender, or geographical location. Then register with the Universal Tennis Rating system (www.My.UTR.com). It’s free, easy, and takes about a minute.

As a Super Senior tournament player in the United States, I started with a 5.5 rating. The graphics indicated: “You’re competitive with (American college) Division 3 women, sectional boys 14 singles, and sectional girls 16 singles.”

Of course, 5.5-level players — as well as players at every level — may prefer to practise with people of different ages who rate at, above, or below their level. Juniors should benefit the most from the UTR. As Jose Higueras, who has coached Federer, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, said, “UTR enables youngsters and adults at the same level to play, which is so important for their development and enjoyment.”

Dave Howell, a teaching pro and tournament director, created UTR in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2006. Today, around 715,000 players from more than 190 countries have become world-ranked players.

“We want to give UTR to every player on the planet,” enthused Mark Leschly, the ambitious CEO of Universal Tennis LLC, the company behind the UTR, on the Sports Illustrated/Tennis Channel podcast. “The wonderful thing is that it puts everyone on the same standard. You all know what level you’re at and you find (similar) players to play with.”

More than 40 national tennis federations submit tournament results to UTR. Whether you live in Mumbai, Melbourne, or Miami, for the first time you can find hundreds of suitable players near you. The UTR continuum ranges from 1.0 for a complete beginner to 16.5 for a pro with a perfect record. UTRs get calculated to the hundreds of a point.

More than 2,100 college tennis programmes in the US use UTR to judge potential and current team players from Slovenia to Seattle. Peter Smith, the head men’s tennis coach at the University of Southern California, which has won five NCAA team titles, says, “The first question I ask is, ‘What is your UTR?’ UTR is the new global standard in recruiting.”

The UTR has also spurred cross-gender college and United States Tennis Association (USTA) junior matches. Interestingly, thus far girls and women have won 55 to 60 percent of them, according to Leschly. At a recent English tournament an 11-year-old girl defeated a 72-year-old man in three sets in the opening round. Male chauvinists, beware!

“The more people compete, the more data based on results we get, the more refined and accurate the algorithm will become,” explains Leschly, a successful venture capitalist, former ATP-ranked player selected to the Danish Davis Cup team, former captain and No. 1 player at Harvard University, and member of the USTA Foundation Advisory Board and the USTA Player Development Council.

The accuracy of the UTR algorithm, however, depends on far more than merely increasing the incoming data. Hitherto, more than 6 million match results in its database have been evaluated using three criteria: competition, score and recent history.

Let’s evaluate the UTR criteria and compare them to criteria used in the ATP, WTA and USTA rankings systems.

  • What is extremely peculiar, even implausible, however, is that just .35 points separate No. 1 Serena Williams from No. 10 Maria Sharapova in the UTR rankings. Even more inexplicable is that in 2017 Serena played only two tournaments, winning the Australian Open, yet still ranked No. 1.

Competition:

This criterion refers to the strength of a player’s opponents. For the sport’s first 100 years, sectional and national rankings, in the US anyway, were determined by the magnitude and number of one’s good wins and the same for one’s bad losses as well as how one fared against opponents near them in the rankings — with the greatest weight given to results at the most prestigious tournaments. How many rounds one advanced, therefore, carried much less weight. This formula made eminent sense because if Player A defeated four opponents ranked Nos. 5, 10, 15 and 20, he clearly should be ranked higher than Player B who, in another tournament of equal importance, defeated five opponents ranked Nos. 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70. The same practice was applied on the loss side of every player’s record.

Almost all that changed with the advent of computer rankings created by the ATP in 1973 and the WTA in 1975. Since then, both pro tours have abandoned historical precedent. In its stead, they created a point system to produce rankings based on how many rounds a player reached and on the importance of the tournament. Accordingly, champions earned 250 points at the smallest tournaments all the way to 2,000 points at Grand Slam events. This points-per-round system has proved seriously flawed in several respects, most notoriously because it does not count all tournament results. Regrettably, the USTA’s national and sectional rankings also throw out some tournament results.

Starting in 1983, however, the ATP rightly awarded “bonus points,” initially for defeating top 75 players, and later for defeating top 200 players. Bonus points were based on the quality of a player’s wins, e.g., the most points (50) for wins over the No. 1 player, and a decreasing scale of points for wins over opponents ranked Nos. 2-5, 6-10, 11-20, 21-30, 31-50, 51-75, 76-100, 101-150, and 151-200.

Alas, the ATP discontinued this justified and necessary, albeit partial, corrective in 2000.

To its great credit, the UTR, like chess players’ ratings, factors in the quality of a player’s opponents with considerable weight given for defeating higher-ranked players and not losing to lower-ranked players. Ideally, the UTR’s formula will prove more precise than the ATP’s bonus points.

Score:

Prior to the UTR, no ranking system in history factored in the amount of games a player won in matches. Does it matter whether Player A decisively beats Player B 6-2, 6-2 or barely prevails 6-4, 4-6, 6-4? Not at all, because a win is a win and a loss is a loss. The same holds true in basketball, soccer, baseball, football, hockey and the vast majority of head-to-head team and individual sports. UTR wrongly rewards players for close, competitive losses.

Furthermore, if one were to pick a unit of scoring to try to determine the relative merits of tennis players — which one should not do — it would be sets and not games. That is because the player who wins more sets always wins the match; whereas the player who wins more games occasionally does not win the match, as this 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 score shows.

The number of games won is also an imperfect indicator of a player’s superiority for other reasons. For example, playing styles and court surfaces often determine the closeness of matches. In the last half of the 20th century, when serving and volleying predominated in men’s tennis, especially on fast grass courts, players frequently held serve. That often resulted in close sets, ranging from 7-5 to 10-8 or even longer before the tiebreaker (at 6 games all) was adopted in 1970.

Today, huge servers like 6’11” Ivo Karlovic and 6’10” John Isner seldom lose their serves, but they also seldom break serve. One could therefore plausibly argue tiebreakers, which often determine victory or defeat in matches, should count in the rankings. But, even that would be a mistake because, once again, only match wins and losses matter.

Furthermore, one cannot discount the importance of intangibles such as competitiveness, poise and courage, and physical qualities such as stamina and durability. Players with these attributes win close matches much more often than other players. They typically give up plenty of games, but they also typically prevail.

Since playing styles, surfaces and human traits vary so widely, UTR errs by using games as a criterion.

  • More than 40 national tennis federations submit tournament results to UTR. Whether you live in Mumbai, Melbourne, or Miami, for the first time you can find hundreds of suitable players near you. The UTR continuum ranges from 1.0 for a complete beginner to 16.5 for a pro with a perfect record. UTRs get calculated to the hundreds of a point.

Recent history:

UTR defines this criterion as a player’s last 30 matches in the past 12 months. The apparent goal is to indicate a player’s current form based on, in some cases, relatively recent results.

Using only the last 30 matches, however, presents several problems. A light playing schedule — due to injury, illness or pregnancy — would mean those 30 matches could easily be played in a two-year or even a three-year period. That would preclude any true measurement of how well a player is performing right now.

Even if the 30 matches take place during 12 or only 6 months, several variables can make a player’s results fluctuate. A key variable is the court surface. For example, from 2012 to 2017, Nadal won four French Open titles and eight Masters 1000 titles on clay. But once the European clay court circuit ended in early June, he floundered on grass, never even reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Personal problems, injuries and illnesses can also make one’s results change suddenly and markedly. When recovered, these rejuvenated players can dramatically regain their form, as Federer showed when he captured the 2017 Australian Open after a six-month layoff.

For these reasons, tennis rankings were never historically meant to be predictive, except only in the most general sense that a No. 1 player would be favoured over a No. 100 player. Accurate rankings have always served as a fair assessment of past results. Seedings, which are based on rankings for the most part, are similarly not predictive, but are meant only to reward superior past results and to separate the top players from each other in the draw so that they don’t face each other until the late rounds.

Unfortunately, Tennis Channel doesn’t seem to care about either past ranking precedent or the limitations of all three ranking systems. In fact, TC analysts and former world No. 1s Lindsay Davenport and Courier revel in comparing UTR with WTA and ATP rankings and then explaining — and trying to justify — why they are different.

One cannot imagine NBA analysts saying the NBA standings are debatable and basketball fans should consider, or even accept, other standings. Then again, the tennis world in general, and tennis rankings in particular, have long been enlivened or marred (pick one) by conflict and controversy.

So let’s look at the fledgling UTR rankings and see how they contrasted with the WTA and ATP rankings on Jan. 3, 2018.

The glaring discrepancies between some UTR rankings and the flawed WTA and ATP rankings can be explained partly by the Competition criterion. Timea Bacsinszky’s No. 39 WTA ranking is misleadingly low because she competed in only 9 tournaments last year, 7 less than what she would normally have counted in her ranking had she not been sidelined for five months. Bacsinszky did reach the 2017 French Open semifinals, but her shockingly high No. 4 UTR ranking apparently resulted largely from her big wins over Garbine Muguruza and Venus Williams.

What is extremely peculiar, even implausible, however, is that just .35 points separate No. 1 Serena Williams from No. 10 Maria Sharapova in the UTR rankings. Even more inexplicable is that in 2017 Serena played only two tournaments, winning the Australian Open, yet still ranked No. 1.

The UTR men’s rankings show the same bizarre closeness between No. 1 Nadal’s 16.28 rating and No. 10 John Isner’s 15.80. You may also wonder why unheralded Filip Krajinovic skewed higher than expected to No. 9. Leschly mistakenly maintains that the 26-year-old Serb deserves it because he won five low-level ATP Challenger events and reached the talent-rich Paris Masters final. Whatever the merits or demerits of the UTR for the pro game, one cannot gainsay that this fast-growing, innovative rating system has become a godsend for amateur players around the world.

“Tennis has been a traditional sport. It hasn’t taken advantage of technology the way other sports have to make the (player and fan) experience better,” Leschly said. “We want to create a digital engagement platform with social networking where you can match people up, rate coaches and find products and services. Tennis is a lifetime sport. If you can bring someone in at 8, they’ll play until they’re 80. We want to change the sport to make it easier for them.”

So whether you’re a diehard competitor or a happy hacker, give UTR a try. You’ll enjoy tennis more than ever.