Ratings vs. Rankings

There is a grassroots movement that is in the very beginning stages of changing the way tennis players in the United States find competitions and develop.  I heard of the universal rating system (www.universaltennis.com) from Mr. Dave Fish – Harvard Men’s Head Tennis Coach.  When we talked, he explained to me how different a ranking and a rating are, and the benefits of utilizing a rating system.  It would not be an exaggeration to say I was absolutely blown away by the positive impacts this would have for long-term player development, parents, coaches, tournament directors and beyond.


Let me begin by explaining the difference between a ranking and a rating because they sound very similar, but are actually very different.  A “Ranking” is an ordered list, and in tennis the typical 1,2,3…100+ system is used.  Players achieve a ranking by playing tournaments in which they earn ranking points that are totaled and those with the most points have the highest ranking.  The better you do in a tournament the more points you earn and the more points you earn the better your ranking.  This is the system the USTA junior and adult tennis currently uses and is how players get seeded in tournaments and qualify for district, sectional and national tournaments.  Players work their way up the rankings to qualify for bigger and more competitive tournaments with more ranking points at stake.  The junior USTA rankings are also categorized by two-year age ranges and gender.  For example in junior tennis there are categories based on age and gender like the Girls 12’s or Boys 18’s.

A “Rating” in tennis puts players in a particular category or level based on a competitive skill set without regard to birthdate or gender.  In the universal tennis rating system there are 16 levels with players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal holding a level 16 rating down to the very beginners at level 1.  Players move up the rating system by competing against and beating players who have higher ratings than they currently hold.  It is imperative to note that in a rating system like this, gender and age are not taken into consideration as it is currently done by the ranking system in USTA junior tennis.   You could have a 12 year old boy, 16 year old girl, and 35 year old man all at level 7 because their competitive skill set is the same.  The rating has everything to do with a player’s competitive ability and nothing else.

Now lets to take a step away from rankings versus ratings and look at how a tennis player’s competitive skill set develops long-term.  Players get better competing against one another.  Yes, lessons and clinics and practice all help but ultimately a player has to utilize practiced skills in what they will actually do when playing tennis which is compete in matches.  The specific kind of competition a player gets is incredibly important.  Currently a player can enter a Boys 14’s tournament with few ranking points, play against another player who has lots of ranking points, and lose 6-0, 6-0 in 20 minutes.  Matches like this happen all the time and the lower ranked player gets nothing out of it and neither does the higher ranked player.  The lower ranked player is now either out of the tournament or in the back draw finally getting to compete against player’s closer to his level and the higher rank player may have to go on a few more rounds until the matches become competitive to their skill level.  In this scenario players compete but it does not really maximize their development.  The secret to maximizing and accelerating a player’s development lies in a concept called the “competitive threshold.”  The competitive threshold simply means the match is competitive and it tests both players’ skill sets along with creating an environment with the correct amount of pressure to elicit peak performance.  To put it simple the more matches a player can engage in at the competitive threshold the faster development occurs.  This same concept happens in schools all the time, if a child is advanced in math teachers put him in an accelerated environment to keep him or her engaged and growing.  It would make no sense to keep a child in a math group with his peers just because he is the same age when he has demonstrated mastery of the content already because growth would cease.  We also would not keep a child who struggles with math in with their peers when her or she could not keep up because growth would cease as well.  Instead, good schools attempt to keep the child nearest their learning threshold in all subjects instead of prescribing a one lesson fits all approach.  This is the same concept as the competitive threshold in tennis, keep a child developing by continuously competing on the edge of where they currently stand.

The truth is in the statistics in regards to the competitive threshold in tennis.  Statistics show that 70% of ATP Grand Slam matches, 55% of WTA Grand Slam matches, and 70% of ITA Collegiate Tournaments reach the competitive threshold.  At the same time 45% of National level junior events, 35% of Sectional junior level events, and 27% of district level junior event reach the competitive threshold.  If we want our junior players to get better faster we need them playing at the competitive threshold more often and that can only happen if we focus less on age and gender and more on leveled play based on a universal rating scale.  The rational is simple, youth players develop at different rates due to a myriad of factors and limiting them to age and gender groups is like keeping an accelerated math student at the basic math level where they will never realize their full potential.

I am not advocating for the elimination of rankings either and I want to make that clear.  I think they are very beneficial up to say the top 50 or top 100 but past that it starts to get a little foggy in my opinion.  Is the 587th player in the Boy’s 16’s really better than the 588th player or would it be a coin toss as to who would win on any given day?  To me it seems like they are more at the same level than one actually being quantifiably better than the other.  There are some significant benefits to utilizing a rating system in terms of player development and by the time you are done reading about some of them whether you are a player, parent or coach I strongly believe you will wonder like me why we are not doing this already?!

The first benefit of the universal rating scale is that it gives players a clear measuring stick for how good they are in reference to everyone in the world.  With the universal rating scale a 14 year old boy can see how far he is away from Roger Federer ‘s level, he can see the level a college player at their dream university competes at, he can see what the competitive level is at his local high school.  He has a clear measuring stick now to gauge how hard he has to work to get to where he wants to go.  There is no more guessing how good everyone else is because now it is known.  You could compare the 14 year old boy’s district USTA ranking to Roger Federer’s ranking but it means nothing because you are comparing apples to oranges but when you put all the player’s in the world on the same scale you now can compare apples to apples.  This ability to gauge how good a player needs to become is absolutely critical to long-term development because it allows players to set clear quantifiable goals.  Additionally it shows even the best kids at their local club or USTA district or section where they stand against players in the age groups above them and even against the international players whom they will be competing against for college scholarship money in the future.

The second benefit of the universal rating scale is that it allows players to easily find the competition they need to continuously reach the competitive threshold.  Because age and gender are not taken into consideration in the universal rating system it allows players to find others at or above their competitive threshold easily and without traveling great geographic distances.  If a 16 year old girl is at a level 6 she can easily find players to compete against right in her own back yard.  She may find a 32-year old man who belongs to the club in which she trains, a 19 year old college girl home for the summer and a 12 year old boy all in her local area that she could compete with often and both parties playing the match would benefit because it would be at the competitive threshold of each player.  It does not just stop there because now clubs, high school coaches, and tournament directors could begin holding local leveled tournaments in which the competitive threshold would be met for all the players who entered.  Even the elite players who hold national rankings and travel great distances to play big name competitive events could find leveled tournaments right in their back yard.  They might find themselves playing in a tournament with college players and teaching pros of both genders but the beauty of it is that it is at everyone’s competitive threshold so everyone benefits.  No more getting on a plane to fly all the way across the country only to lose 6-0, 6-1 in the first round to a player of a much higher level.  Now players and parents can travel knowing the tournament they are entering is going to be competitive and beneficial.  Players and parents can even see exactly when it would be time to bump their 14 year old son or daughter up to the 16’s age group to keep them in their competitive threshold and challenged for continued growth instead of guessing when to make that decision.

The third benefit of the universal rating scale is the factor of motivation.  Currently there are some junior players who look to enter weaker tournaments with weaker competition because they can do better in the tournament which means they will get more ranking points versus playing in a tournament with tougher competition and perhaps not doing so well and ending up with less ranking points.  Players end up chasing the points instead of chasing the better competition, which is what ultimately raises their level of play.  The universal rating system actually encourages players to chase the competition because it is the only way they can raise their rating level.  Now instead of looking for the weakest tournament where they can win the most points players look for the strongest leveled tournament in hopes of improving their rating by beating better competition.

The fourth benefit of the universal rating system is its use by college coaches to evaluate players and for players to get the attention of a college or university who is not paying attention to them.  Imagine training hard and being able to strike a great ball only to find out that because you do not have the budget to be in the national spotlight it is difficult to get a college coach to look your way.  Now imagine contacting the coach at Notre Dame and showing him you are 17 years old and achieved a level 13 on the universal rating scale.  You just never had the money to travel to the USTA national events and instead worked on your game playing and defeating college players on the local futures circuit all summer long.  That coach is going to be getting in touch with you ASAP!  A player could also understand why Notre Dame would not be interested in recruiting them when the recruit competes at a level 10 and the average level of player on the university’s team is 12.7.  It gives everyone a way to compare everything from a baseline and put it into perspective.  I am not saying the rating system is the end all and be all because certainly other factors and intangibles come into play when recruiting players and selecting a college.  It does however give youth a clear goal to strive for.  For example, if a child’s dream is to play at Notre Dame they can look when they are 13 years old just how good they have to get to compete for the Fighting Irish instead of wondering.

There are many more benefits to using a universal rating system versus a ranking system.  Again I am not saying a ranking system is not beneficial.  What I am saying is that when you are looking at developing a junior player the key is to give them a clear picture and tangible goal of just how good they need to become.  The universal rating system allows players to continuously compete at or just above the competitive threshold whether it be playing a male, female, older, younger, or peer they key to development is as many matches a possible in that competitive threshold range.

You can actually get a free trail for the universal tennis rating system and see for yourself how it actually works.  Currently all matches from the ATP, WTA, ITA, National, and Sectional Junior Tournaments get entered into the database.  Universal Tennis is currently looking to expand into USTA District events as well as high school competition.  You can see for yourself just how good the top men, women, and collegiate players really are.  To access this free trial simply go to www.universaltennis.com click on the “Join Now” button on the left side and when you go to checkout simply type in the discount code “TRIAL” and you will receive one month’s free access to the system.

Like I said at the beginning of the post this is a cutting edge grassroots movement so please share with your friends, get people talking about how they can use it to benefit the development of juniors and even the level of adult play in their own clubs, and ultimately the sport of tennis in American overall will benefit.

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