Craig Lambert
Tuesday October 6th, 2015

Craig Lambert, a former staff writer and editor at Harvard Magazine, is the author of Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day.

Unorthodox pairings were the theme at the second annual, $3,000-purse UTR Boston Open at Harvard University in mid-September. In one match, Marcus Fugate of Rochester, N.Y., a 28-year-old pro once ranked No. 587, split sets with Harvard sophomore Kelvin Lam before prevailing in a 10-point tiebreaker. In the qualifying draw, Charlie Maher, a 53-year-old tennis pro and former New England No. 1 player, vanquished Austin Bendetson, a 22-year-old from Andover, Mass. And Maria Mateas, a 16-year-old from Braintree, Mass., defeated boys’ player Ryan Nguy, a sophomore at Philips Andover Academy.

But hold on: in competitive tennis, pros play other pros. College players square off against other collegians, right? In money tournaments, 53-year-olds don’t take on men three decades their junior. And most definitely, boys play boys and girls play girls.

Not here. Universal Tennis Rating (UTR)—the innovative system for grading players of all ages, sexes, and skill levels—upends those precepts. UTR cares only about the scoreboard.

Someday, every tennis player may have a UTR, just as every golfer carries a handicap that’s applicable on any course, with any competition. The ratings range from 1 for beginners to 16+ and there’s only one scale for both male and female athletes: Roger Federer (16.26) and Novak Djokovic (16.27) both surpass the top of scale while Serena Williams holds a 13.34 rating, for example.

UTRs also resemble the chess players’ ratings—they are derived from match results and similarly, take into account the strength of one’s opponent. (In golf, the opponent is the course, which has its own difficulty rating.) Chess outcomes are simply win, lose, or draw, while in tennis, a match score can range from, say, 6–0, 6–0 to 7–6, 6–7, 7–6, and all variants in between. But the basic computations are analogous. UTRs get calculated to the hundredths of a point.

“Within 1.0 point of your own rating, you should be competitive,” says former Harvard player Rick Devereux and tournament director for the UTR Boston Open, which accepted players rated 9.5 and higher. “Research on thousands of matches confirms this overwhelmingly.”

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Under the auspices of Dave Fish, head coach of the Harvard men’s varsity and a leading UTR advocate, the system has received space in the Harvard Innovation Lab, which fosters innovation and entrepreneurship.

“The UTR system is unique,” says Fugate, a 14.36-rated player who won this year’s UTR tourney. “What I like about it is that it encompasses all of the different ranking/rating systems out there. I’ve spoken with many tournament directors at the tournaments that I play, and they occasionally tell me how cumbersome it can be to track down the players, one by one, using three or four different websites in order to seed them correctly. The UTR system seems much more efficient. It worked well at the Boston Open: the top four seeds made the semifinals, the top two were in the finals, and the number-one seed won the tournament. Of all the tournaments I’ve played, I can only remember this happening a handful of times.”

Harshana Godamanna, the top male player from Sri Lanka and a member of its Davis Cup team, who is assistant director of tennis at the Sportsman’s Tennis and Enrichment Center in Dorchester, Mass., says “it’s very difficult” to find tournaments to play in the Boston area. But the UTR Boston Open (which he won last year, and was runner-up to Fugate in a close final this year) offers “a bigger draw and better competition,” he says. “We need a good rating system. UTR is more accurate, and hopefully it will be used everywhere before long.”

Eric Butorac, ATP Player Council president and doubles specialist with a UTR of 13.60, attended this year’s UTR Boston Open. “The UTR system is great for tennis in so many ways,” Butorac says. “At a UTR event, you are guaranteed to play against players who are close to your ability level. I have played a lot in France, where they have a similar system, and it works so efficiently. I hope the whole world gets on board with UTR, as it could drastically change worldwide tennis for the better.”

UTR’s founder, Virginia tennis pro Dave Howell, says the system “can keep players in a great game by giving them a good game.”

It’s starting to happen: in the last four years, college tennis has embraced UTR. “In colleges, it’s hot,” says Fish, interviewed here on the UTR Boston Open. “In junior tennis, it’s still a new idea.” The current system in the United States ranks players based on a “points per round” (PPR) model that ranks the strength, not of players, but of tournaments, and awards points to a player based not on who they played or the score, but on what round he or she reached in the draw—more points, of course, for later rounds. The USTA, ITF and much of college tennis employ the PPR method. “It’s very easy to administer and to explain,” says Fish, “but it’s intrinsically inaccurate.”

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Problems arise, for example, from the uneven distribution of tennis players—and talent—around the country. The USTA divides the nation into 17 sections and tries to be fair by giving equal weight to success in each one. Hence the top-ranked junior boy in, say, one of the weaker sections of the country is put on a par with the top-ranked boy of comparable age in Southern California. Yet it is generally much harder to win a tournament in Southern California because tennis talent is so concentrated there. Tournaments of comparable levels in different regions are not necessarily of comparable strength, competitively speaking. The PPR system doesn’t account for that, which builds distortion into sectional rankings and into PPR calculations in general.     

Furthermore, the PPR method spins off some paradoxical incentives. For example, ambitious junior players may chase PPR by seeking out tournaments with weaker draws, where they’ll have a better chance of surviving into later rounds—and also travel long distances to enter them. Even players seeking strong competition rather than PPR face obstacles in the current system. As Angela Mateas, the mother of Maria (UTR 11.04), who played boys at the UTR Boston Open, notes, “you get to a point where you are 14 or 16 years old and you don’t have anyone to practice with.” Hopscotching the nation to find good matches also involves lots of expensive travel.

An event like the recent UTR Boston Open solves this problem: why not have a talented, ambitious high-school athlete practice and compete with local college players, or even adults with similar UTRs? Suddenly you have competitive tennis, and travel is a crosstown drive instead of a cross-country flight—plus hotel, car rental, and meals. The savings in both money and time are enormous, and greatly expand opportunities for young athletes who don’t come from wealthy families. In this way, UTR could vastly expand the pool of skillful young players by erasing monetary barriers. Tournaments like the UTR Boston Open are laboratories that demonstrate “a new operating system for tennis worldwide," Fish says, “facilitating level-based play by giving everyone something to enjoy, at a price their wallet can also enjoy.”

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