UTR has been a hot topic here at the First Serve since its official implementation by Tennis Australia in January 2022.
While many agree it is a fair rating system at heart, there have been many criticisms levelled at UTR as a universal rating system for all competitive play in Australia.
With all the debate surrounding UTR, positive and negative, there’s a new app on the market designed to address one aspect of UTR that no one really understands: the algorithm.
It’s called the Tennis Neutral app, which was thought up by a man named Ric Curnow.
The Tennis Neutral app shows you the ratio of games you need to win to return a neutral UTR result (I.E. no change to your UTR).
You can then use a ‘score calculator’ to work out if you achieved a positive or negative UTR outcome based on a recent match result. The one thing the app doesn’t do, however, is tell you exactly how much your UTR will go up or down.
When asked about the concept Ric explained, “There’s gotta be a neutral point (for UTR). I said to the guys at Tennis Australia that you’ve gotta let people know. Every other ELO is transparent about how it’s calculated whereas UTR isn’t.”
For those not familiar, UTR is a modified ELO system. Arpad Elo was a Hungarian-American physics professor and chess player who worked out a rating system for the U.S. Chess Association in the ‘60s.
In the case of chess, the system is transparent in how it works. The UTR system, however, is not. It remains shrouded in mystery, its algorithm kept in secret by Universal Tennis.
While UTR was developed back in 2008 for the U.S. College system, there is far less emphasis on it in America, or anywhere else, than in Australia, Ric explains.
“It’s only here (Australia) that UTR has been made so important. You have kids who have to have a UTR for every tournament they play. Knowing whether the outcome of a match is positive suddenly becomes critically important.”
While many people in the wider tennis community believe the UTR system is riddled with flaws, Ric simplified it to two main issues.
“There are two fundamental flaws of UTR. One, it’s about winning games, not the match. The second fundamental flaw is that it values all matches equally.”
The first point Ric makes is that UTR favours the percentage of games won over the match result itself. His second point illustrates the fact that you could win a match in the final of a big State or National tournament, or a match in intra-club comps like Pennant in Victoria, and the stakes are the same, from a UTR perspective.
As a result, the tournament system in Australia seems to have collapsed, with entry numbers at major country tournaments way down from previous years.
Ric is hoping that the Tennis Neutral app can be a small aid for players that are feeling stressed about UTR, but re-iterates it’s not a ‘solution’ to the problems associated with the rating system.
“The primary motivation was to help kids who were playing down (someone with a lower UTR). And the other motivation was to bring some transparency to the whole thing.”
He also indicated the Tennis Neutral app could be used by coaches to monitor the performances of young players, stressing that the app was not intended as a swipe at Tennis Australia or UTR specifically.
“The app is not an opinion on UTR or the way it’s been implemented. It’s just there for people to use in whatever way they want.”
So how did Ric work out the algorithm for the Tennis Neutral app?
“I stuck a bunch of results into Excel and got a line of best fit. I then found a paper in a Mathematics journal in the U.S. by two well-known Mathematicians who were also both excellent tennis players and they used UTR to develop a handicap system so that they’d know how much of a headstart to give players so they had an equal chance of winning a match. So I got in touch with them and they came back with an algorithm that was close to mine.”
While this all sounds very complex, Ric acknowledges his app was a team effort.
A team of student volunteers from the Australian National University derived the algorithm and came up with a prototype, based on earlier works by two professors at the University of Toronto and Dartmouth College and research from the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports that Ric referred to. UI developer, Robert Bleeker, then developed the app itself.
Before I spoke to Ric, I knew he was an experienced journalist but he didn’t appear to have a tennis background. When asked why he decided to come up with the concept for the Tennis Neutral app, his explanation was personal.
“I’m a parent. My son was a very good player at one stage and he’s no longer playing.”
Ric went on to recall a particular incident involving his son, that stuck in his mind ever since.
Ric’s son was playing in a tournament against the number 2 seed and found himself 6-1, 5-4 up with a chance to win the match. The seed fought his way back and won the match in a 3rd set match tie-break, facing multiple match points along the way. Despite winning, the seed’s reaction afterwards shocked Ric.
“This kid should’ve been so happy. He’d dug himself out of a massive hole, got his shit together and won the match. He should’ve been so proud of himself. Instead, at the end of the match, he smashed his racquet into the court, stormed off and said, ‘this is gonna fuck my UTR’. It’s just the wrong attitude to have.”
Presumably, Ric’s son had a much lower UTR than the seed, hence this overreaction.
Ric’s account isn’t unique.
Many tournament directors, coaches and parents have been reporting of kids pulling out of matches because they don’t want to risk their UTRs, particularly against lower-rated players.
With the Tennis Neutral app already out there, Ric says the initial feedback has been positive.
“My experience with kids who have used the app is that they stop worrying about UTR because it’s not this unknown thing that’s hanging around and it just relieves that stress.”
Ric also explains that while you have to pay for the app, the money isn’t going to him. Originally considering giving it away for free, he was convinced to charge $10 for the app, with the proceeds going to the Nick Krygios Foundation
“I didn’t want people to question my motives so I thought, let’s just give it to charity. I contacted Christos (Nick Krygios’ brother) and he went ‘yep, just let me clear it with Craig Tiley from Tennis Australia first’.”
While the UTR debate rages on, the Tennis Neutral app is out there for anyone to use. And for $10, the money goes to a good cause.