9 min read
Tennis is a competitive and difficult sport — especially at the junior levels. There’s no doubt about it. Children and their families often invest large chunks of time and money into development, training, equipment, traveling, and competition.
With such a large buy-in cost, it’s understandable that players and their parents would want to protect their hard-earned rankings and ratings. Factor in that many of these players count on these ratings to court college coaches and gain access to valuable athletic scholarships through the collegiate system, and you can start to see that a rating or ranking becomes an essential factor for many junior players and their parents.
Withdrawals happen in a tournament for a variety of reasons: a player could have injured themselves, there could be scheduling conflicts, or a young athlete with working caregivers might not be able to find transportation to the venue. But a new type of withdrawal is taking place in tournaments around the world—one that is fueled by an inaccurate understanding of how the UTR Rating really works: the withdrawal to protect a UTR Rating. Since UTR Rating is fast becoming the metric that competitive players care about the most, in many of these cases, a higher-rated player will pull out when they are scheduled to play a lower-rated opponent. Why? Out of fear that their UTR Rating will drop if they complete the match.
Patrick Beckage-Thomas has come across this type of behavior before. The 14-year-old Texan has been playing tennis for five years and is at the stage of his junior career where he’s looking to start playing more tournaments. He told Universal Tennis that higher-rated players withdrawing against lower-rated opponents is somewhat common. “It happens with people I know. My friend was really excited to play a guy he’s never beaten before, but the guy pulled out to protect his ranking.” When asked how he knew that was the reason for withdrawal, Beckage-Thomas responded: “The guy told me himself.”
Parents can also get involved in this process. Tomoko Barclay runs weekly matchplay event at the Vince Barclay Tennis Academy in the northside of Sydney, Australia. She said that parents want their children to do well and improve their rating, but that this causes some of them to pull their children out when they face lower-rated players.
"We’ve noticed this trend since we started creating events on the Universal Tennis platform. Sometimes kids will want to pull out when they are drawn against a lower-ranked player. The parents and the kids want to protect their ratings so badly, but it just results in a lot of kids missing out on the chance to compete.” - Tomoko Barclay
Misunderstanding the UTR Rating Algorithm
As disappointing as this behavior may be, these types of withdrawals highlight a misunderstanding of how the UTR Rating system really works. Playing against lower-rated opponents does not always hurt your rating. In many cases, it can help it. It all depends on the percentage of games you win and how much lower the opponent’s UTR Rating is than your own. A player’s UTR Rating is adjusted simply based upon their actual result compared to the UTR Rating algorithm’s expected result.
Think of it this way, let’s say Steffi is scheduled to play Andre in a tournament. Since Steffi is rated higher, the algorithm might expect her to win 66.6% of the games in the match. This might translate to an expected score of 6–3, 6–3, since that would mean she wins 12 games and Andre wins 6 (12 + 6 = 18. 12/18 = 66.6%). If Steffi competes well and wins 6–2, 6–2, then her UTR Rating will go up. Why? Because she won 75% of the games in the contest—not 66.6% as the algorithm predicted. Competing hard for every game is a pathway to improving your UTR Rating, regardless of whom you play.
Consistent withdrawals by a player when they are scheduled to play lower-rated opponents also exhibit a problematic mindset around the idea of competing. College coaches are aware of this type of behavior and consider it a factor in their recruiting. Since the Universal Tennis platform shows how many withdrawals a player has against their name, many withdrawals against lower-rated opponents rarely bodes well for aspiring collegiate players.
Dan Greenberg is the Head Coach of Men's Tennis at Williams College, a consistent Top 10 program and the 2013 NCAA Division III champion.
"The best way to improve is to test yourself against players better and worse than you, as they both present different challenges and pressures. If someone is avoiding matches to protect their rating, it shows an unwillingness to be uncomfortable and put themselves out there.” - Dan Greenberg
On the idea that parents and coaches are facilitating this trend, Greenberg added: “If the parents and/or coaches are promoting this behavior, they're doing the kids a big disservice when it comes to learning how to compete. All that said, I don't think this is a new phenomenon; it's akin to kids dropping out of the back draw of any tournament over the years, because they find it below them or don't want to lose to certain players, etc., all of which are red flags in the recruiting process."
Looking at the Whole Picture
David Secker is the Assistant Coach of the North Carolina State University’s Women’s Tennis team. His program has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the Division I ITA rankings and his players finished the recent season with an 18–3 match record.
Secker offered his thoughts on why players might be engaging in this type of behavior.
"The behavior is an unintended consequence of UTR Rating," he said. "The premise of Universal Tennis is to provide more opportunities to play and by doing so in a level-based format it hopefully means more competitive match play. UTR Rating has also provided far greater access to information about players and their ratings, but as a result, some people have become very guarded about their rating to the point that they will avoid any risk. However, the fear of losing should never outweigh the fear of not competing.”
On a related note, Camila Tobar, the Graduate Assistant Coach of Tennis at Columbus State University in Georgia, said that at the end of the day, “UTR Rating is just a number next to the player’s name. I look at other things when measuring how good players are. We look for the whole picture.”
When asked about athletes who withdraw against lower-rated players, Tobar said: “If players are not playing because of UTR Rating differences, I find that to be silly. The only way to get into space where you’re competing well is to try and play as many matches as possible—and there’s only one way to do it. Besides, if players are withdrawing a lot against lower-rated athletes, it’s not hard to find out about it.”
"This is something I look for in recruiting, if a player has a habit of doing this it is 100% a red flag,” Texas A&M Women’s Tennis Assistant Coach Jordan Szabo said. “It shows that potentially a player doesn't like adversity or isn't a fighter. College coaches want to trust the players they put out on the court and players on the team want to trust their teammates. This action suggests you are not going to dig their heels in when things don't go your way."
Stephen Amritraj, who is the Chief Tennis Officer at Universal Tennis and also has years of experience molding the minds of competitive junior players as well as coaching the likes of Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson, and Rajeev Ram on the ATP Tour. He noted that withdrawing against lower-rated opponents sets a poor standard for a player’s mental development.
“Withdrawing in the middle of a tournament, unless for illness or injury, is a pretty egregious violation of the ethics and sportsmanship associated with the sport. For parents and coaches that enable and allow that kind of behavior, it will hurt your player/child in the long term by teaching them to not fulfill commitments." - Stephen Amritraj
Amritraj added that in his many conversations with college coaches, “a core theme of what they look for in a recruit is someone willing to battle and fight for themselves and the team. Too many withdrawals are obviously contradictory to that and that’s why UTR Rating, at the request of college coaches, flags withdrawals at the top of every profile.”
How UTR Rating Actually Works
A UTR Rating is calculated based upon a player’s 30 most recent matches in the last 12 months, meaning that the algorithm uses 30 data points to create a rating for a player. If a player is competing frequently, a couple losses to lower-rated players would only count for two out of those 30 data points. Besides, the occasional loss to a lower-rated player is an expected feature of tournament and competitive play. We can’t be on a perpetually linear path of increasing our UTR Ratings. A player’s journey towards fulfilling their potential is filled with disappointing losses and hard-fought wins. And learning to compete and consistently beat lower-rated players is part of this process.
Withdrawing out of fear sets a bad precedent for developing a competitive mindset as a junior player, college player, and beyond. The best course of action when you come up against a lower-rated player isn’t to withdraw for fear of protecting your UTR Rating, it’s to focus on competing well and hard.
A hyper-vigilant focus on a rating or ranking can also be detrimental to the enjoyment of our sport in the long term for an athlete. If a young athlete and their support structure become obsessed with protecting their rating, this often leaves little space for them to relish the emotions of competition — which includes the ups and the downs.
So what can players do when they encounter a lower-rated opponent in a match? Simple: compete. As the Universal Tennis Customer Success team says:
"Performing well in matches is the easiest way to improve your UTR Rating… It does not matter whether you play higher- or lower-rated opponents; you can improve your UTR Rating either way by winning more games than expected.”