UTR SERIES PART 3: THE CRITICISMS



UTR has been the official rating for all levels of tennis in Australia since January 1 of this year, to varying degrees of success.

As an ongoing hot topic here at the First Serve, we have taken a deep dive into the UTR system itself, looking at it from all angles. In part 2 of UTR Series last week, we talked about the positives, particularly from Tennis Australia’s point of view. This week, in part 3 of our UTR series, we focus on the criticisms of UTR over the first half of the year since it was adopted as a rating measurement for competitive tennis in Australia. When used as a sole ranking system Feedback here at the First Serve has been a mixed bag, but with a consistent theme: UTR is a great system when used in the right setting, for club and localised competition and the background of a rankings system.

The issue arises when UTR is used as the sole ranking system.


We’ve spoken with tennis people of all levels from suppliers, coaches, players and parents who all agree it's great at the younger and club level but not so much at the performance level.


As such, a multitude of issues have arisen at tournaments, ranging from:

  • Players not entering tournaments due to a lack of prestige or a ranking pathway

  • Junior players only talking about UTR and not focussing on improving their performance or having fun

  • Reports of players retiring mid-match to protect their UTRs

This is because the levers of UTR, in many instances, don’t seem to promote the core values of player development, competitive sport and incentivising players to play as much as possible.


When responding to these criticisms on our live radio show on May 9th, Lawrence Robertson, Director of Pathways and Game Development at Tennis Australia, pointed to 3 key areas the UTR focuses on:


1. Commit to compete (against players of different UTRs)

2. Compete regularly (+ 50 matches per year)

3. Win more than you lose (ideally between 65-75% of matches)

This seems to back the suggestion that a player’s UTR is fluid for 12 months worth of results. So if a player’s UTR changes due to their results, another player that has played against them in that 12-month time frame can expect their UTR to change - without having actually played them again.

While this may be the case, it doesn’t change the fact that, 6 months in, the attitude of a lot of junior players seems to be to play less, give up when they’re losing and only focus on an arbitrary number rather than on working hard to actively improve their game. And most importantly, having fun.

Numbers are down, particularly at regional tournaments

From a TA point of view, the metrics indicate that the total number of players competing is flat compared to 2019, and up from 2021. The opportunity for them to compete has actually gone up by 35-37%, according to Robertson.

While there are certainly more opportunities, it doesn’t change the fact that numbers are down at many tournaments, particularly in regional areas.

Tournaments held at Wodonga (-72%), Ballarat (-76%), Geelong (-49%), Yarrawonga (-50%), Warrnambool (-16%) and Mildura (-33%) all had reduced player entries from 2021 and 2019 (2020 being mostly COVID-hit)

A large reason for this is actually due to more opportunities for players, particularly in Metro areas, who are not travelling as much as they used to.

This is hurting once-great regional tournaments and regional clubs, particularly in key areas such as NSW, which are the fabric of our sport.

Unreliable Measurement

In the past, there was a rankings system which effectively served 6000 ranked players in Australia. Now, there are around 80,000 players with a rating profile, of all ages and abilities. Given this large-scale reach and relatively new implementation, a lot of the early criticism seems to come from the unreliable nature of the UTR system, particularly if a player’s rating is perceived as too low. This could have a snowball effect on aspiring junior players from competing against better-ranked players in their own backyard, or limiting them from being admitted to a top college overseas, particularly in the U.S.

While the UTR system has been utilised well overseas, in the USA particularly, Australia seems to be behind the eight ball right now.

Sarah Stone from Champion Tennis Academy in Melbourne, who’s had experience in the US college system, believes that “our UTRs are behind where they should be.”

“I coach some (UTR) 9’s who should be close to an 11.”

“It hurts girls because if you’re under a 10 UTR (on the girls' side), you’re gonna struggle to get into a top D1 school.”

“It’s hurting our current crop of players.”

One solution seems to be either to compete more regularly or to send players overseas to get that exposure at ITF events and the ability to train at colleges in America or academies in Europe. Still, it doesn’t change the view from the wider tennis community that Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world, particularly Europe, when it comes to developing our junior players. Response to TA’s Comments


We’ve taken the liberty of sharing some reader feedback to Laurence Robertson’s comments made in our expanded commentary regarding the 5 positives of UTR so far.

1. Players are travelling less and therefore the cost is lower. Regional tournaments are dying and regional clubs are taking it the hardest.


2. The placing of players in rating bands is increasing their enjoyment. Unless they miss out on tier 1 and feel like they are starting the event in the consolation draw.


3. The introduction of round-robin or monrad draws is guaranteeing more matches for players. Only if tournaments elect to use this format.


4. More juniors in the lower tiers are being recognised for wins as they are playing at their level. And top rated players have less opportunity as entries are fewer and weaker. Players are often playing against older players. Draws are often reduced to 6-8 players in order to comply with 2 UTR bandwidth groupings.


5. Entries and team numbers in junior leagues in a number of States is up – so players are playing different types of competition and not simply tournaments.

Can’t speak for other states but not in SA where inter-club league tennis has stayed the same and tournament entries has dropped off massively.

Solutions?

Our job is to probe and encourage an open, honest discussion. As such, it’s easy to criticise, but how can we solve these problems? While there are no easy fixes, a few ideas have been suggested regarding the main issues described above.


Problem: UTR as Sole Ranking System Solution: Combine a ranking system for performance-based events and a rating system (UTR) for competitive players at the local, club or league level. That way, there is a more obvious pathway through local, club, state, national and, ultimately, international level.

Problem: Numbers are down at regional tournaments


Solution: Re-introduce ranking tournaments to work side by side with graded events in regional areas. This would lure players into playing more prestigious tournaments for better prize money and more rankings points.


Problem: Top-rated players have less opportunity

Solution: One way around this could be to take a leaf out of France’s book. French tournaments often use staggered-entry draws that allow stronger players to enter a tournament in later rounds.

Problem: A player’s UTR is often not very accurate

Solution: This could be largely due to not playing enough competitive matches throughout the year. Another solution would be to send players over to America to play against higher-rated college players to help boost their UTRs.


While the debate rages on, we cannot deny the impact of the rating system on a global scale. TA is heavily invested and the UTR, it seems, is here to stay in Australia. Next week we conclude our 4 part UTR series with a piece on what the future of UTR looks like for the tennis landscape in Australia, as a pathway to international competition and eventually, going pro.