The Universal Tennis Rating has long been a hot topic here at the First Serve and, indeed, across the entire tennis community in Australia.
Since being implemented as the official rating system for all competitive play in Australia last year by Tennis Australia, UTR has caused quite a divide amongst parents, coaches, players, and key stakeholders and organisations.
Originally launched in 2008 by Dave Howell in South Eastern Virginia, UTR started as the official rating system in Virginia and quickly spread to other states across the U.S., eventually making its way to Australia in 2022.
As such, comparisons of how UTR is used in Australia and the U.S. are often made, particularly because of Australia’s deep connection with the U.S. in terms of the college pathway.
Wanting to dig a little deeper, I spoke with David Hodge and Dash Connell, two key people working directly with young tennis players, in slightly different capacities.
David Hodge runs Aussie Athletes Agency an agency in Brisbane whose main responsibility is to help Australians get recruited to U.S. colleges.
Dash Connell, a former player at Texas A&M University, is the head coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas, a position he’s held since 2011, with a very successful record on the men’s and women’s sides.
Both David and Dash have been instrumental in their roles guiding young tennis players through their tennis pathways, from recruitment to senior college success.
In this First Serve exclusive, we cover a range of topics surrounding UTR as both David and Dash shed some light on their experiences working with aspiring young tennis players.
The Origin of UTR
“The history of it (UTR) is always interesting for me. A good friend of mine, Dave Fish, was instrumental in its creation,” David Hodge muses.
Former head coach at Harvard while David Hodge was a coach at Stanford, David Fish was instrumental in facilitating UTR’s adoption in the tennis world, serving as its director of development from 2018.
It was an algorithm Fish created sometime before 2007, according to Hodge, which was initially used “as a way to prioritise certain players over other players in his recruitment process.”
Like Mark Zuckerberg did initially with Facebook in 2004, Fish developed his algorithm specifically for Harvard students.
“His algorithm was designed to sort out the people within that demographic for his purposes. The demographic to be recruited at Harvard is not the general population. Predominantly they’re American, they’re highly academic with exceptional grades. There’s a fit there.”
“And then it became something that was being utilised more broadly.”
UTR becoming the major focus in the U.S.
Starting as a private company in 2008, UTR quickly gained traction in U.S. college tennis, as more partners came on board to monetise the business.
This is where Hodge started to question the validity and accuracy of UTR. If UTR was born out of a very specific demographic at Harvard, should the algorithm be evolving?
“As soon as you monetise something you’ve got to give value to those that purchase it. And it had to be adapted for the global market of tennis. I don’t know whether the algorithm changed or not. If it didn’t change, there’s obvious problems.”
Already sceptical about the rating system, Hodge could see the potential problems of adopting a universal rating system across varying demographics around the world.
“Does Australia use the same algorithm that Spain uses? Does the U.S.? Australia has the same population as greater Los Angeles, so why would we use the same algorithm?”
Hodge gives one reason why UTR expanded so rapidly in U.S. college tennis across the states.
“Because it came from the college space, UTR had an automatic level of trust for college coaches.”
Initially, however, UTR was not seen as the most important factor in collegiate recruiting.
“Coaches who were experienced in international recruitment were only using it as one piece of the pie, not as the whole thing.”
Dash Connell, head coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas, concurs with this assessment.
“For the first 5 or 6 years, UTR was more of a guide. In the last 2 and 3 years, it’s become a hard line, more often.”
According to Hodge, however, U.S. coaches still want great team players, great students and, most importantly, great people when recruiting. UTR is just one component among many.
This is in stark contrast to Australia, where UTR is used as the sole rating system for all competitive tennis.
UTR in the U.S. VS Australia
So just how different is the UTR in the U.S. compared to Australia?
While the UTR algorithm is a tightly kept secret by Universal Tennis, there are persistent rumours that a player’s UTR in Australia is not comparable to someone in the U.S.
For example, a 9 UTR in Australia is more likely to be a 10 UTR in the U.S.
“A lot of our players, when they go into the U.S., their UTR would bump 0.5-1.0 above what it was in Australia within the first 6 months. That’s either because their collegiate tennis coaches are with it or the algorithm works differently in the U.S.”
Connell concurs with Hodge’s assessment.
“We had a guy from Australia called Karl Mosterd, who played for us. This guy came in and just walked on. He wasn’t even supposed to play, initially. And he was better when he got here than I thought. And he got better too, he worked hard.”
Connell believes it’s because Australians are often competing with players that have the same UTRs, which makes it tough to significantly improve your own rating.
“While UTR is trying to group everyone together, you still have to understand that while UTR is worldwide, you don’t compete worldwide. It becomes easier to look at a country and ask, ‘Is it the best player of all the players in that country and their UTR?’ And you get a feel for who that is.”
One major issue in Australia that’s cropped up over the last two years has been players pulling out of tournaments because they’re afraid their UTRs will suffer.
Connell says this is not unique to Australia.
“The same exact stories have been happening in Texas in the last 4 or 5 years. More and more kids are pulling out of tournaments because they’re worried their UTR will go down, even if they win.”
Connell also pointed out that pulling out of tournaments has other downsides that players should be aware of.
“You shouldn’t be able to trick a system. You can’t trick math. I tell them all the time. But coaches are smart. We can figure it out.”
The Future of UTR
So what does the future of UTR and competitive tennis look like in Australia?
While wanting to be optimistic, Hodge has his concerns.
“I desperately want UTR to work because it would make my job easier. It would make everyone’s goal-setting easier. It would create this mythical level-based play concept. And, most importantly, it would be good for the sport. The issues, though, are still there and I’m not sure they’re being addressed.”
In the U.S., however, the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) have abandoned UTR in favour of another rating system: The World Tennis Number.
“The last 5 or 6 years UTR was king. In some respects, it had too much power. We’re now at the point where UTR has lost some of its reliability,” Connell tells me.
Officially endorsed by the ITF (the International Tennis Federation), the WTN is a numeric rating system ranging from 1 to 40, the lower the number, the higher a player is ranked.
In only a short period of time, WTN has taken off in the U.S., according to Connell.
“It’s used in every single ITA tournament right now. They do their seeds based on the WTN. If you want to be seeded and want to do well, you have to have a good WTN number.”
Which Rating System is Better?
When it comes to which system will ultimately win out, at least in the U.S. collegiate system, both David and Dash believe WTN will rule supreme.
“My bet would be on the WTN because the ITF owns it,” Hodge asserts.
“What the ITF and WTN have over UTR is they oversee so many events. They can data mine a whole lot easier than UTR can.”
“I want my players to be aware of what’s more important for their collegiate career going forward. UTR doesn’t help me get seeded at an ITF tournament. As such, my job is geared more towards WTN.”
Another major reason Connell believes the WTN is a better rating system is the lack of a business model. This makes WTN, according to him, a more pure system which can only be positive for tennis.
“UTR is geared towards money. WTN seems more about the game of tennis,” Connell states.
“You can go find out your rating on WTN with no membership. Anyone can go look. With UTR, you can have a premiere membership.”
As for whether either rating system will make a positive impact on the competitive tennis pathway in the long run, Connell is cautiously optimistic, pointing to how these rating systems are bringing players together.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction. I know that both of these options are better than when I was growing up. When I was growing up, I didn’t know the guy that lived in the state next to me, Oklahoma. Now, you see more people crossing lines. I think that’s really healthy for the game in general.”
Hodge, however, is a little more sceptical.
“Whatever system you’re using, I hope it evolves.”
Connell also believes it’s an ongoing process, highlighting the difficulty of a perfect rating system for all competitive tennis.
“In 5 years will something else come out? I’m not sure you ever figure out the perfect system that makes everyone happy.”
I asked Connell one last question: should the WTN or UTR explain the algorithm behind its rating system?
He paused for a second, pondering his answer.
“I don’t think it’s bad for everyone to know. People are gonna try to beat the system no matter what. It might be healthy say: ‘this is the algorithm and this is how we’re doing it.’
Connell finished with one final thought that many in the tennis community have pondered.
“I’d love for them to explain why they DON’T wanna release the algorithm.