Tennis Without Borders

Tennis Without Borders

“UTR is going to really change tennis,” says Dave Miley, international consultant for UTR. Miley came to UTR from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), where he spent 17 years in charge of the ITF’s largest department that included ITF junior, senior, and wheelchair circuits and rankings. He also developed the very successful global ITF Tennis Play and Stay Campaign, which has had a big impact on tennis participation since its launch in 2007. At UTR, Miley, whose career has taken him to 140 nations, is working to get national tennis federations to submit their results from 12s, 14s, 16s, 18s, and open tournaments to UTR. His goal is to enroll 100 or more federations. He is well on his way with more than 40 nations, including two Grand Slam nations, now committed to submitting results to UTR. “If you have tournament planning software, it’s nearly as easy as pushing a button,” he says, “and the players’ rankings will update automatically.” Miley intends to persuade more federations to deliver “performance player” results to UTR. Currently, for example, the UTR database doesn’t include results from the high-level Bundesliga leagues in Germany, nor from numerous money tournaments in countries like Spain and France. “There are lots of good players in these and other national events who aren’t participating in the ATP or WTA tours,” Miley says. “Once we get the results from more nations, we can have a true worldwide ranking of performance players.”

“There are lots of good players in these and other national events who aren’t participating in the ATP or WTA tours. Once we get the results from more nations, we can have a true worldwide ranking of performance players.”

Tennis’s problem now, he explains, is that “all the ranking systems function independently. There’s the ITF, the U.S. collegiate system, the ATP, the WTA, the junior ITF circuit, and many more.” Miley estimates that 5,000 players in the world are actually better than many of those inside the top 700 on either the ATP or WTA ranking lists. (Currently, 1,984 players have at least one ATP point, and 1,222 have one or more WTA points.) But for various reasons, including work and finance, these 5,000 players don’t travel enough to accumulate sufficient ATP/ WTA points to get ranked at that level. “The reality is that ATP and WTA rankings below #300 are not true world rankings,” Miley says. “They amount to rankings of the players who travel and spend a lot of money to play on the lower-level professional tours.” Another hypothetical anomaly illustrates the hazards of different ranking systems operating independently. If a junior from the ITF’s top 20 were one day to get a wild card and beat Rafael Nadal in an ATP event, that stunning upset would not even raise his ITF junior ranking, since it did not occur in an ITF tournament.

“To be highly ranked on the ITF junior circuit, you have to focus mostly on ITF junior events,” Miley explains. Of course, the best junior players play on both ITF and pro circuits to keep both rankings alive, so that when they finish juniors, they won't be starting from scratch on the pro tour. Doing this forces them to travel even more. “When a top junior plays 15 ITF tournaments and 10 weeks of ATP Futures events, the ATP will count only ATP results and the ITF will count only the junior results,” Miley notes. “In Spain, many prize-money events attract players around ATP 300 and below. But again, these results involving high-level players do not count at the ATP tour level. The same is true for the German Bundesliga (German professional leagues) which attract highly ranked ATP and WTA players; again, these matches have zero impact on international rankings.” Consider a hypothetical 16-year-old junior in Belgium, a good student who has 15 weeks of school vacation annually. He cannot travel 25 weeks. Suppose that, instead, he plays 10 ITF junior events during his holidays and also plays eight national events and six men’s Futures in Belgium, which do not interfere with his education. The player avoids lengthy trips away during school time, and all of those results will count towards his UTR, which reflects his play at all events.

“The experience of the tournament is also important. In UTR Powered Events, you can organize a tournament based on levels of ability, rather than age groups.”

“Tennis is a very unusual sport,” Miley says. “In no other sport will a 13-year-old be traveling 25 weeks a year outside his home country to compete. Twenty to 25 weeks of international travel a year is not unusual for a highly ranked ITF junior player. This often can negatively impact the athlete’s formal education. But you have to do it if you want to chase points in this international ranking system that is linked to a global circuit. Some good players choose not to travel so much, so their rankings don’t reflect their tennis ability. They are still world-class players!” “The current junior and entry level professional ranking systems unintentionally favor a group of people whose family or federation willing and able to pay their expenses,” says Dave Fish, head men’s tennis coach at Harvard. “Lost in the discussion are many players who have the tennis skill, but lack the desire to travel, the financial backing to do it, or simply have other priorities, like school work. But if we were to create a tennis ecosystem like those in France or Italy, those players, who are still good enough to compete at a very high level, could keep up their skills at local events. And in a short time, they could also have a transformative effect on the development of 100,000 talented young players worldwide who lack the financial resources or the ability to travel. They could become elite players given a more productive and affordable ecosystem. Suppose there were frequent UTR open tournaments available locally? That could open up opportunities for juniors, college athletes, post-collegiate, and professional players to develop their games—opportunities that don’t exist now.”

When the points go away—for example, when ITF junior or ATP or WTA players stop playing at the touring level—many simply stop playing tennis. There is no incentive to keep playing at a national level, and a lack of motivation to keep playing. “A global rating like UTR is very motivating for all levels of players,” says Miley. “Players want to improve their rating which is, in effect, a kind of status symbol.” “The experience of the tournament is also important,” he adds. “In events powered by UTR, you can organize a tournament based on levels of ability, rather than age groups. It becomes more user-friendly this way, with players guaranteed a certain number of matches with those at a level similar to themselves. It’s not just, ‘lose and go home.’ ” Miley believes that user-friendly play and competition should drive tennis. “The competitive product needs to be adapted to the needs and lifestyles of the tennis customer,” he says. “Our experience is that events powered by UTR are definitely more satisfying to the customer than the old-style single-elimination events.” And, as the ancient maxim reminds us, the customer is never wrong!

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