“Who do I play in the consolation?”
“A boy name Shultz”
“What is his UTR?”
“I am not going to risk it, I withdraw”.
I walked over to the tournament desk which I had been within earshot of to check the players UTR. He was a 10.4. I asked the tournament director if this was a common occurrence and he nodded his head, conceding that there were more retirements happening in tournaments.
I expressed surprise that the player was so blatantly honest about the reason for his withdrawal, not even feigning an injury or illness. “We are getting used to it” was the reply I received.
Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) is a rating system whose mission statement is,
“To connect tennis players globally through level-based play, innovative events and a digital marketplace”
UTR also says
“It promotes fair and competitive play across the tennis world. Players are rated based on actual results, not age, gender, nationality, or socioeconomic status”
I believe the UTR system has sound fundamentals. It allows for families that do not have the finances to travel to tournaments and accumulate ranking points (socioeconomic status). These players can obtain a rating that places them with their peers without the financial burden of extensive travel. For people of all ages and genders to compete with one another is a wonderful thing and does open up more opportunities for competitive matches.
From a junior development perspective, I believe it is beneficial to play against older and younger players and other genders. It promotes problem solving. The older player is often stronger and smarter, but not necessarily faster or fitter. Mentally it does create pressure and adversity, which is also a platform for growth and development.
If players, parents and coaches are always trying to protect themselves/their players from pressure and uncomfortable situations how do they expect them to perform in matches where those situations inevitably arise? To be successful means being able to perform in challenging environments and under some pressure. Not perfectly, but to still be able to compete effectively when things are not ideal is a fantastic skill to acquire in tennis and in life.
UTR provides more of these environments.
What are the issues with UTR?
Like any ranking or ratings system, there are going to be abnormalities, inconsistencies, and issues. For instance as of 27 June, 2022; The ATP mens rankings have Roger Federer as number 97 in the world and Rafael Nadal is number 3 despite having won both the Australian Open and Roland Garros this year. After winning Wimbledon it is reported that Novak Djokovic will drop to be number 7 in the world…
No ranking or rating system is perfect. I realize there are multiple profiles for the same player, that some matches seem to be counted and others are somehow missing. UTR takes your past 30 matches or the past 12 months of playing activity if you have not played 30 matches.
Like regular rankings there will always be players that are rated too low or too high, but that will always work itself out in time. Just like in tournaments that had ranking points, there will be some lopsided results in UTR events, this is not new.
As a former college tennis coach at Virginia Tech, I can empathize with the families and players that are trying to obtain a college scholarship in the USA. It is absolutely true that college coaches filter who they are recruiting based on UTR ratings. They are recruiting all over the world without actually seeing the player in a live situation, so from their perspective it is a great tool to get an idea of a player’s level.
We create the psychology around UTR!
This creates anxiousness and pressure on the player to obtain a good UTR, a natural and normal reaction and one that needs to be managed. Parents and coaches also feel that pressure. Parents are looking for the next best situation that is going to improve their child’s UTR, and coaches are anxious to find ways to increase their players UTR otherwise they might lose their student to another coach or academy.
Is it UTR’s fault?
UTR have created a rating system to rank everyone around the world in the same list, they are adding tournaments to create more playing opportunities, and are allowing for players who don’t have the financial means to travel to be accurately rated. I believe they are achieving that, and it is a good thing. Getting players of all ages and genders to play together is a step forward if we can see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Change is challenging in any environment and that is what we are all going through now. With the recent introduction of the World Tennis Number (WTN) through the ITF, UTR has some competition and the tennis world has another ratings system to contend with. It is not going away.
Our psychology is perceiving the threat of being rated against all ages and genders and rebelling against it. When we have a lower rating we think its unfair, and when we have a higher rating we are trying to protect it. As a college coach, and now as a private coach I am yet to come across a player or a parent who says,
“My UTR rating is just right, it accurately reflects my level”.
So many players feel they are rated too low, and those that are happy with their rating are nervous about keeping it, like the example I started this article with.
So how do I increase my UTR rating?
Ø Focus on improving your level instead of your number
The number one thing that all of us involved in tennis need to be focused on is getting better. We need to prioritize development and improvement. Interestingly, research reveals that learning is a non-linear process, which is what the players are doing through their development…. learning. Therefore, we should all expect a player’s ranking or rating to go up and down at times. A strong example is Bianca Andreescu, who progressed up to 130 in the world, then went backwards to outside 230 in the world, before making her jump and flying up into the top 100 and beyond. It is normal and part of the process for your ranking or rating to go up and down. Please do not panic when it does.
This process needs to be understood by stakeholders in tennis and normalized.
If we focus on improvement then we can best accept these fluctuations and reduce the anxiety that the players, coaches, and parents feel. When we focus on the ranking or rating, we lose sight of how we achieve it… and that is by improving our level.
Ø Find a good coach
A good coach will help you get better technically, tactically, physically and mentally. They will create environments and situations that enable you to learn and improve. Some of those situations will put you under pressure and be a little uncomfortable, an important ingredient for growth to occur. Be on the lookout for coaches who are actively looking to learn and improve themselves.
Tennis is a game to be played, not just a ball to be hit. It is essential for players to compete in tournaments, learn how to play the game, and gain those valuable experiences that competition exposes them to. It is highly recommended that players play approximately a third of tournaments at their level, a third where they are one of the higher seeds, and a third above their level where they are the underdog. Playing up and down has many benefits so be brave and expose yourself to ALL the competitive environments and it will pay off in the longer term. Players who avoid matches to protect ratings are slowing their own development process and hurting themselves in the longer term.
Let us use UTR as the way it is designed, for more playing opportunities in tournaments and for more local level-based play closer to home. We should remind each other of the correct developmental processes for those that are taking their tennis more seriously and do our best to normalize that progress is not a straight line upward. Those players that are willing to expose themselves to more competitive opportunities more often, under any circumstances, become unconditional competitors which is such a valuable trait to carry throughout their lives in any field. I encourage all stakeholders in tennis to remove themselves from being obsessed with the actual number, and to focus on and reinforce the effort to develop and compete. The ranking, UTR or WTN will then take care of itself and pretty accurately reflect your level over time.
Stephen Huss is an Aussie Wimbledon Champion winning the doubles back in 2005 with South Africa's Wesley Moodie and is currently part of the coaching team looking after rising aussie Jason Kubler.