UTR SERIES PART 1: ORIGIN OF UTR




4-part series:

  1. Origin of UTR

  2. UTR in Australia

  3. Criticisms

  4. Future of Competitive Play


Since Tennis Australia announced on January 1st this year that the UTR system would become the official rating for tennis in Australia, replacing the old Australian Rankings points, UTR has been an ongoing hot topic here at the First Serve.


While the concept is a positive one, the UTR has had some teething issues and has been heavily debated by many within the tennis community, particularly by parents, coaches, and players.


In this four-part series, we’ve taken a deep dive into the origins of the UTR, the reasons for its adoption in Australia, the criticisms it has faced as a rating system and the future of UTR as a measure of competitive play.


This week, we delve into the origin of the UTR. Where did it all begin?


The Origin of the UTR


UTR stands for Universal Tennis Rating and was launched in 2008 in the U.S. by Dave Howell, a tennis professional who had worked with many college and pro players.


Along with Alex Cancado, a website developer, who helped develop an algorithm for the UTR system, they successfully tested and promoted the rating system in southeastern Virginia.


Howell’s idea for the UTR came about largely by looking at U.S. high school scores in 2005-06. The results he was seeing weren’t overly competitive.


“That’s where I got the idea as to how to put players into levels by looking at scores,” Howell said in 2019.


The UTR was largely modelled on the French national rating system, which was seen by Howell as one of the more successful rating systems out there, having mentored junior U.S. players that had played at French events.


The French system is based on head-to-head won/lost results which enable French tournament directors to facilitate "level-based play".


This ensures players are matched against players of a similar skill level, often without regard for age or gender. For players with a higher UTR, they could enter tournaments in the later rounds, thus rewarding them for achieving a high UTR with a shorter path to the final against the stronger, more equally matched, players.


Competitive Threshold


But why the need to develop a Universal Tennis Rating? Howell was seeing a disparity in results between the U.S. and French junior events. The French national rating system was yielding far more competitive matches than the U.S. events.


A "competitive" match, as defined by Howell, is one in which the losing player wins more than half the minimum number of games needed to win the match.


This means, for a best-of-3 set format, winning 7 games, given that the winner must take at least 12 games to win the match. Hence, a result of 6-3, 6-4 or closer reaches the "competitive threshold," as defined by UTR.


An algorithm was then developed by Howell and his team, with ratings calculated based on head-to-head results with specific opponents, taking their UTR into account. The number of games won in a match, not only the won/lost result, was also factored into the algorithm. A slight variation on the French system.


The results spoke for themselves: 50-60% of junior tournaments in Virginia were now competitive, in line with those seen on the professional tour.


Ranking Vs Ratings


Let’s take a step back.


Although tennis is a global sport, it does not have a common international rating system. In fact, up until recently, tennis had a ‘ranking’ as opposed to a ‘ratings’ system. For example, the USTA administers the PPR or points-per-round system for US juniors events in the States.


With roughly 2700 different tennis ranking and rating systems around the world, this doesn’t allow any regional crossover, limiting players to only entering tournaments in their own country or region.


Rankings are also limiting in that they are simply an ordinal number that reflects a player's relative position, not their playing skill as measured by a standard yardstick.


UTR, in contrast, rates each tennis player on a single, standard metric. That metric, as stated by Tennis Australia, is “a number that provides a real and accurate measurement of skill level. A player’s UTR Rating is a number between 1.00 and 16.50.”

This number is calculated based on a weighted average of a player’s last 30 eligible matches played within the previous 12 months. As mentioned, the two main variables are the number of games won and the opposition player’s UTR rating.

The concept proved successful and it didn’t take long for the rest of the U.S., and indeed the world, to start adopting the UTR system.

UTR Currently

Since it was developed in 2008, the UTR system has become so widely used and wildly successful that it is hard to avoid.

UTR is now the official rating system for college tennis in the US. Tennis Associations from the UK, Canada, Brazil, Bulgaria and, of course, Australia have committed to submitting tournament results to UTR.

Even the pros on the ATP/WTA circuit have a UTR rating.

Securing partnerships with Tennis Channel and Oracle powering the website, the UTR train seems unstoppable.

The goal of UTR has always been a positive one: to break down the barriers of world tennis in order to “connect tennis players globally through level-based play, innovative events and a digital marketplace.”

Or in Howell’s words, “to unify the tennis world, regardless of age and gender.”


Next week, Part 2 focuses on the adoption of the UTR in Australia and what it means for players in the competitive event space.