“I was 15, and played against a guy who was 55, who I thought was ancient,” says Sylvain Guichard, recalling a match in his native France. “He beat me, 6-3, 6-2—slicing and dicing, hitting drop shots and lobs. After the match, he bought me a drink at the club, as is customary. ‘When you beat me 6-0, 6-0, you will be a really good player,’ he told me. Pretty soon, I made a huge jump in my game and did beat him 6-0, 6-0, during the fall of the same year. It was kind of a lesson learned.” Guichard, now a USTA national men’s coach in Orlando, Florida, reflects that “It was a kind of lesson that is hard to create playing in junior tournaments.”
Competitive tennis is a sharply segregated world. First, there’s segregation by age: junior players get sorted into two-year bandwidths of 12s, 14s, 16s, and 18s that largely restrict their opponents to those with birth dates within 24 months of their own. (Try to imagine a 32-year-old playing only people aged 32 or 33.) Age segregation continues among adults, only expanded to five- or 10-year bandwidths with minimum rather than maximum ages (e.g., “45 and over”)—right up to tourneys for those aged “90 and over.”
Then there’s separation by gender. Aside from mixed doubles, tournaments divide entrants into men’s and women’s draws. (The exception is level-based events, typically organized around Universal Tennis Ratings
, aka UTRs.)
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Separation by social class does not apply de jure, but it’s vigorously alive as a de facto matter. The initiation fees, dues, and social connections required to join many tennis clubs immediately filter out all but the wealthy. At highly competitive levels, the staggering costs of travel for tournament play have the same stratifying effect.
Unfortunately, walling off whole classes of people from each other weakens the tennis community (like any community) as a whole. It reduces the stimulation, cross-fertilization, and development that grow out of contact among various groups. Furthermore, it prohibits many people from participating at all.
The reintegration of tennis has always been one of UTR’s overarching goals. This means bringing together players of all ages, sexes, and social backgrounds—and putting them on the tennis court with those of comparable skill. Arthur Ashe would have endorsed this vision. Level-based play
makes for even matches, regardless of what social categories players may occupy. It could trigger enormous growth in tennis, vastly widening its appeal and accelerating player development. Other bonuses include large financial savings and a major boost of fun on the court, and quality of life off it.
“Tennis in the United States is a game mostly for juniors or older people,” says Guichard. “We are missing a huge segment of the population. The main place for mothers and fathers of our junior players is USTA league play—mostly doubles and based on NTRP ratings. Players often make their own ratings, and many play up or down a level from where they actually belong. We try to get club members playing between ages 30 and 50. They want to play singles, but they don’t know who to play. There are very few tournaments appropriate for them. In the adult leagues, they’re not allowed to play with juniors under 18. Sometimes teams have to forfeit a match even though somebody could have brought their own son or daughter in to sub.”
Tennis is “leaking” good players and good people at all levels. Lots of talent gets squandered when varsity athletes graduate from college.
“From childhood on, we collectively spend about $500,000-plus to create a Division I college player. Then they graduate, and we turn them out onto the sidewalk. Every year, at least 200 or 300 really good college players graduate—where do they go?"
“From childhood on, we collectively spend about $500,000-plus to create a Division I college player,” says Harvard men’s coach Dave Fish. “Then they graduate, and we turn them out onto the sidewalk. Every year, at least 200 or 300 really good college players graduate—where do they go? Well, they start careers and discover that there’s no place to fit into the game. Twenty pounds and 10 years later, we see them sandbagging to stay on a team in a USTA 4.5 league, just so they can play at all.”
The great majority of excellent college players lack the talent and/or money to pursue a pro tennis career. But a chance to compete locally for prize money could keep them in the game. “They would be the people who help develop the young players,” Fish says. “They could mentor juniors by beating them on weekends.”
In France, 15- to 18-year-olds (like the young Guichard) routinely play older athletes in weekend events. But in the United States, both the NCAA and the USTA have rules that severely restrict play between juniors and college athletes. These rules arose from appropriate concerns about potential abuse of the recruiting process. The governing bodies didn’t want tennis colleges to bring promising recruits to campus to play with their varsity squads and shower them with perks and blandishments over a weekend. But there’ve also been unintended consequences: varsity college players effectively get disconnected from the system that fosters junior development. “Juniors don’t get a chance to improve against older, stronger peers,” Fish explains.
“The current system divides up the tennis community.”
“The current system divides up the tennis community,” declares Tim Mayotte, a former top-ten ATP player who now coaches high-performance juniors in the Boston area. “It’s also too expensive, which keeps a lot of people out of the game at higher levels. I can speak from my own experience, growing up and playing in a public park during the tennis boom of the 1970s. You’d play with whoever showed up, and a lot of times they were adults. Playing older people was a huge boon to me and a joy to the older folks. They took an interest in seeing the progress of the juniors. It means getting to know different styles of play. Today, the juniors are all hitting the ball the same way—and they struggle against unorthodox styles.”
Furthermore, “when kids play kids, the parents feel they want to be in the mix,” Mayotte explains. “They get too invested in the outcome. In junior tennis, the parents tend to be on top of everything. But when kids play adults, the parents get less involved. Having parents take that step back is helpful—the young people get to experience their own independence.”
Level-based play creates “connections between different groups that don’t happen otherwise, and it snowballs,” Mayotte adds. “You’re not isolated, playing the same two or three people in your club over and over.
"You go to a UTR-based event and have a great match, then you trade phone numbers and play that person again. Plus, you notice there are a lot of different ways to play this game.”
You go to a UTR-based event and have a great match, then you trade phone numbers and play that person again. Plus, you notice there are a lot of different ways to play this game.”
Keeping those 20-to-40 year-olds playing grows from “the environment and the community you create,” says Guichard. A focal point for connecting the generations is the tennis club, which has been a central element in making France the tennis powerhouse it has become. “I grew up going to clubs where families would come and often have lunch or dinner there,” Guichard recalls. “What I enjoyed most was the club environment. We completely forget that one of the biggest purposes of playing is the social aspect of tennis. You go to a club in France, and it’s fun.”
In France, where 5,000 tournaments get played every summer, tennis clubs in each town typically host these events, which welcome all players, from beginners to touring pros, and stretch out over a week, or even two or three. The French tournaments do this with a “staggered-entry” draw, which brings the more advanced athletes into the draw in later rounds. A professional might play her first match in the quarterfinals, avoiding the time-wasting bore of 6-0, 6-0 mismatches that inevitably happen in standard draws that make everyone play the first round, regardless of their ability. “I played in a tournament at my club that was won by Yannick Noah!” Guichard says. “There were 800 people in the tournament!”
The French classification system, which was the model for UTR, makes it easy to organize a staggered-entry draw, based on players’ classifications. “Your first match will be against someone who’s one or two classifications below you,” Guichard explains. Subsequent matches will be against opponents with classifications close to your own. Play goes on during the week, after hours, and on weekends. “It’s really fun,” he says. “Everybody comes out to watch and enjoys seeing the top players.
“Tennis is not as attractive to kids as it should be, because it isn’t a fun environment, with parents pushing their kids so hard to win,” he continues. “Why is golf so popular? Everyone wants to improve his or her handicap—basically, you play yourself, and you’re always playing for something. Golf is killing it because they have figured it out with the handicap system, which allows you to play with anybody. I can play with Tiger Woods!”
Superb athletes who are good enough for professional competition often find themselves, like the ex-college players, bereft of realistic opportunities in their 20s and 30s. “Besides the pro tours, tennis after college doesn’t offer too many options,” says former ATP player Bryan Koniecko, now head women’s coach at the University of Central Florida. “We need more prize-money events for these players—that will always motivate.”
The prize money that does exist usually gets distributed in a radically top-heavy way. Consider the case of California professional Oren Motevassel, a native of Israel who had a late-blooming ATP career for various reasons, including compulsory military service for Israel. “I started really late, at 14, with no coach,” he says. “Turned pro at 20. I played five years and got up to #161 . At 35, it felt like I had just gotten started. There are hundreds of other players like me, late bloomers who didn’t achieve their fullest potential. There should be a way for people who didn’t make it big on the pro tour to have a second chance, at least on the senior tour.”
Motevassel played 15 years on the pro tour and earned $128,000 in prize money; he had to earn money playing European team tennis and various money tournaments. “All the money goes to the top,” he explains. “There’s a $3 million prize if you win the US Open, but in a local open tournament or a big national senior tournament, the winner sometimes will take home only $300. The tour is so expensive, it’s almost impossible to make it unless you have a sponsor.” In 2006, Motevassel won the ITF World Championship for men 35 and over, and was ranked world #1 in men’s 35s singles. His championship prize was $800. “After you pay airfare, hotel, meals, rental car, and lost days of work,” he says, “if you win a Futures with a $1,000 prize, you actually lose $3000.”
What can reintegrate the tennis landscape in the United States is level-based play, organized with the UTR system. UTR is such an accurate, reliable metric for tennis skill that any two players with ratings less than 1.0 apart are likely to have a competitive match (6-3, 6-4 or closer). And athletes with UTRs more than 1.0 below their opponents win only 3 percent of the time—a bona fide upset, in UTR’s lexicon.
In addition, the United States can extract some useful lessons from France. With a population only one-sixth that of the United States, France, on a per-capita basis, ranks among the world’s leading nations in producing high-performance tennis players, decade after decade. The main reason is its classification system, the progenitor of UTR.
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Though the United States is geographically far larger, that need not present an obstacle. Visualize, for example, 50 local “metro tennis co-ops” springing up around America. Such co-ops, a concept advanced by Dave Fish, would be tennis ecosystems designed to foster competition among junior and high school players, college varsity athletes, post-collegians, and even post-pro-tour players like Mayotte and Motevassel. Tearing down age, sex, and economic barriers by welcoming all into a co-op could keep competition local, saving vast sums now spent on travel to “chase points” for rankings.
Using UTR to measure progress in tennis can make the expensive hobby of chasing points obsolete. With UTR, players build their ratings simply by facing tough, appropriate adversaries in their own backyards. Guichard, who lives in Orlando, Florida, has an 11-year-old son who is proficient at tennis. “He shouldn’t have to play outside of south Florida until he is a really, really good player,” Guichard opines.
“The system we have is very wasteful,” says Mayotte. “We had a British woman training with us this summer who flew to three ITF events and didn’t get very far in any of them. It cost her so much money, plus the loss of training time. We had a couple of kids who flew out to California to play and took the red-eye back. They’d have been better off playing the #3 guy on the Tufts varsity. UTR can put in place incentives to run local money tournaments, just as the French do. Players can stay local.” Prize money will attract high-level competitors (like former touring pros), which will, in turn, bring strong college and junior players into the mix.
“Is it easier to transport 32 players elsewhere in the United States to play against their own age group, or to bring in two great players who compete for prize money, and allow the local entrants to stay home?” Fish asks.
“If 30 players can stay home and as a group contribute $3,000 or $4,000 to the expenses, you’ve spent a fraction of the amount to build an event, and 30 of the 32 in the draw get to play very cheaply."
“If 30 players can stay home and as a group contribute $3,000 or $4,000 to the expenses, you’ve spent a fraction of the amount to build an event, and 30 of the 32 in the draw get to play very cheaply. It’s like drip irrigation: put nutrients directly on the young plant, right where it is growing, instead of digging it up and transplanting it into a greenhouse in Florida.”
Strong local tournaments, organized under the metro tennis co-op model, can also revive the possibility of making a living at tennis for highly skilled adult athletes like Motevassel. In France, a professional player can earn the equivalent of $40,000 to $60,000 a year from tournament winnings without leaving his home country. In other words, he can make a living. “I know of a 50-year-old former pro in France who plays 50 matches per year in money events,” says Fish.
Even a large, sprawling nation like the United States of America can reintegrate its tennis community. The crucial tools are level-based play organized via Universal Tennis Ratings, local tennis co-ops that foster play across social and demographic categories, and the revival of local tournaments. Tennis clubs can become magnets where families and single adults, kids and seniors, collegians and recreational hackers come together both to compete and socialize. Varying ages, sexes, races, and social backgrounds only add spice to the mix. We all have one thing in common: a love for this game played with racquets. And that’s enough to connect all comers.
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