UTR SERIES PART 4: THE FUTURE OF COMPETITIVE PLAY



Throughout our 4-part UTR series, we have looked at the origin of the UTR, its impact since being adopted in Australia and the criticisms the rating measure has faced so far.


To quickly summarise, UTR was created in 2008 by U.S. tennis professional Dave Howell who, along with web developer Alex Cancado, introduced it to the rest of the world, paving the way for a more even, competitive tennis landscape globally, for all levels of tennis, irrespective of age and gender.


On January 1 this year, Tennis Australia adopted UTR as the official rating for tennis in Australia, replacing the Australian Rankings (AR) system. Since that time, while there have been some positives, the rating system has come under fire with a number of criticisms levelled at it by the wider tennis community.


In this, our final and 4th instalment of the UTR series, we focus on what the future of UTR looks like for the tennis landscape in Australia, as a pathway to international competition and, eventually, turning professional.


Turning Tournaments into Events


When TA released its Competitive Play Blueprint, which began in August 2020, the organisation outlined its intention, not only to change from a ranking to a rating system, but to change the way it classified competition into three types:


  1. Leagues

  2. Events

  3. Professional Events


The main change here is replacing the terminology of ‘tournaments’ with ‘events,’ as TA’s research seems to indicate that the term ‘tournaments’ has become associated with negative experiences, while ‘events,’ “provoke a competitive experience that goes beyond the match result.”


As the Australian Rankings system is phased out, all matches at any endorsed ‘event’ will count towards a player’s rating. These events are then classified by ratings, with ratings used for entry and seeding. Each event is often split up into ratings ‘bands’ to match players of similar UTRs.


The question then becomes, what does this competitive pathway look like?


Well, according to Robertson, it’s a simplified pathway but not much has really changed, even if TA has, “kind of moved the goal posts a little bit.”


“You play locally, then you might be good enough to play a larger regional event or championship, then you might be good enough to qualify for state championships, then state squad selections. The rating system is a fairer system, than what we saw previously.”


How TA is responding to the UTR issues


When it comes to the delivery of UTR, Tennis Australia is well aware of the criticisms from the wider tennis community.


Three of the main teething issues TA has acknowledged include a drop in numbers at regional events, the spate of player retirements at endorsed events to protect their UTRs and the somewhat limiting, 2-point rating band differentials at events.


“We’re looking at all of those issues and how might we tweak the delivery and some of the formats that can accommodate (those problems),” said Robertson.


This then leads to the question of why player entries are down and, more importantly, how do we fix it? Again, Robertson spoke about the possibility of tweaking the event calendar.


“We’ve got to go away and have a look at that. Is it how we’ve built the calendar? Is it how we incentivise players to play other events? I’m not glossing over it, we’re well aware of the issue.”


This is an ongoing conversation and Lawrence Robertson, Director of Pathways and Game Development at TA, has stated on The First Serve that TA is committed to working on solutions with key stakeholders in metro and regional areas, statewide.


One of these solutions, moving forwards, is through education.


Investing in the Education Piece


Tennis Australia and Tennis Victoria are aware there’s been a little bit of scepticism and confusion surrounding what UTR actually is, so have been investing heavily in the education piece.


Andy Reynolds, Competitive Play Lead from Tennis Victoria, spoke to this fact.


“That’s probably been the one little handbrake around what UTR is. Tennis Victoria is creating some educational pieces through social media, through interviews that will be available in the coming months for those stakeholders, those players, those coaches and those young parents who have no idea what UTR is.”


Reynolds also acknowledged that there has been some resistance to change, which, he says, is to be expected.


“There’s a certain element of not wanting to change. It’s pretty well known that a lot of these associations are a little bit old-school. UTR opportunity is something fresh and new and exciting for these associations to embrace. As such, it’s clear that TA and TV are doubling down on pushing out UTR in Australia.

“Change can be daunting but we’re looking to push the education piece out there. UTR is here to stay.”


UTR around the world


And so it is, and not just in Australia.


UTR has also been embraced by a number of countries and tennis associations, around the world.


Apart from the U.S, where UTR is now the official rating system for college tennis, Tennis Associations from the UK, Canada, Brazil and even Bulgaria are getting involved.


In total, more than 40 national tennis federations, globally, have committed to submitting tournament results to UTR. Even the pros on the ATP/WTA circuit now have a UTR rating, although, at that level, the UTR is kind of irrelevant (at this stage anyway). UTR has also grown its scope by securing partnerships with the Tennis Channel and Oracle, which powers the UTR website, as well as an ownership group that includes a number of influential individuals and companies. As such, UTR is rapidly expanding its reach and shows no signs of slowing down.

All in all, the goal of UTR is a good one: to “connect tennis players globally through level-based play, innovative events and a digital marketplace.”


Whatever your view, one thing is for certain: UTR is here to stay. For now, at least.