Time for the rating game

With TCR, tennis finally has a method to evaluate its players. Answers to an ingenious quiz indicate who will give you a competitive match
August 04, 1974

What Hube Schneider and Jim Deloye, two former tennis captains at the University of Wisconsin, have created with the help of a few beers and a computer may not be the most momentous contribution to tennis since the first net was strung across a court, but it is up there with Day-Glo yellow balls and the two-handed backhand and is miles ahead of lace panties.

The two men call it the Tennis Compatibility Rating, and if it works it could end years of embarrassment and frustration for tennis players at resorts, tennis parties, country weekends, conventions, tennis camps and in casual pickup games.

The project was born one afternoon in 1971 at the Brook Club outside Milwaukee, where Schneider and Deloye were sitting in the lounge drinking beer and watching with amazement and dismay the series of mismatches being played. The two had just founded a tennis products development company and were looking for some products to develop—admittedly a bit cart-before-the-horse, but you have to start somewhere.

It was while watching a particularly inept match, in which each set took about as long as it takes a Milwaukeean to down a couple of beers on a hot day, that they had their brainstorm.

"Eureka!" shouted Deloye, or an exclamation to that effect. "That's our product. What are tennis players looking for more than anything else? A compatible game."

They concluded that they would offer the tennis world a rating system that was simple, reasonably accurate, cheap and easy to administer. They also agreed that it should be handled by clubs or by mail, thus eliminating costly and unwieldy tests under the eye of a pro. Perhaps they could draw up a list of shrewdly conceived questions that would best evaluate a player's background and ability, and then just as shrewdly they would establish a mathematical formula to weigh the importance of the answers, which would then be fed into a computer. They grabbed for table napkins and began to make up a list of questions.

The list grew in the coming weeks, added to by pros, friends and their own long experience in the game. Schneider was the University of Wisconsin's No. 1 tennis player in 1948-49 despite being wounded in one hip at Leyte. He had also won the state championship in 1943 and had been nationally ranked. He is now an executive with a Wisconsin packaging firm; his knowledge of printing and graphics was invaluable in getting up the brochures and questionnaire.

Deloye was captain of the Wisconsin tennis team in '51 and '52 and its No. 1 singles player, and he has held high rankings in several states. He is now a management executive with IBM and a computer expert, another obvious boon to the rating system.

"The concept is simple," says Deloye, "with the computer playing a major role. By analyzing 46 questions, all of which are rated and valued, a three-digit number is produced which relates to a player's ability. This number is printed on a wallet-size card, which the player can carry around with him. TCRs can thus be assured anywhere—and at any time—of a vigorous, interesting, compatible match."

They then tested over 1,000 players, instituted a pilot program at the Brook Club and conducted tests in other Midwest tennis centers.

"We lined up matches between people who didn't know each other, and the results were excellent," says Schneider. "We took players just on their TCR numbers and matched them up for a tournament, and again it worked out perfectly. The right players reached the finals. You can't beat that."

They have found TCR to be about 90% accurate. There are always a few players who just won't be pegged: the natural athlete, for example, who may never have had a lesson; the doubles specialist who never plays singles; the female player who may lack the speed and strength when playing a man with a comparable TCR.

The questions deal with points of strategy, attitude and such things as: "Where do you play tennis? Public courts? Your own court? Private tennis club? Private golf club?" Oddly enough, the man who owns his own court gets a somewhat lower rating. Schneider and Deloye feel he is likely to face opposition of his own choosing and to play too frequently with the same people.

Many of the questions are routine, dealing with playing experience, tournament experience and rankings, if any. The final rating is a number ranging from 100 to 999. If your number is 100, you had better stick to concentrated practice; at 999 you're ready for John Newcombe.

Schneider and Deloye enjoy playing each other and have respective ratings of 633 and 654. (Any two players with a difference of up to 150 points in their ratings are compatible.) They are both baseline players and both play the same game, steady and accurate. Their rallies continue for 15 or 20 strokes a side, before one of them will see an advantage and be able to take the point. In fact, they know each other's game so well one wonders what fun it can be to be that compatible.

Deloye and Schneider began marketing their questionnaire in May 1973 and 16,000 have now been distributed to selected clubs around the country, of which 4,000 have been filled out and returned. For information write U.S. Racquet Clubs, Inc., P.O. Box 3665, Milwaukee, 53217. The fee is $5; to USLTA members it is $3.50.

The questions must be answered honestly if they are to yield a meaningful rating, the danger being that a lot of people might unconsciously answer a question to get a higher number than they deserve rather than sticking to the facts and thereby arriving at an accurate rating.

The opposite applies in the case of Dan Doherty, a neighbor of mine who would happily climb the wire screening at the back of his court, if need be, to retrieve a lob. To the question, "Are you concerned when you lose?" he answered, "No." A patent lie. He must have meant he wouldn't cut his throat. Elation is too weak a word for what he feels when he wins, depression hardly describes his mood when he loses. The few times I've beaten him he's been miserable. Our ratings? Mine 247, his 187.

Compatibility rating seems on the road to success, but there are still a few bugs. "The hardest thing we have had to get across," says Schneider, "is the concept of 'compatibility.' It's an American institution that the highest number indicates the best player, and therefore the winner. This, of course, we know is not true, and is not the intent of the system—to establish a winner or a loser." Indeed, some of the questions need refinement because they are too difficult to answer without qualification. For example, Question No. 23: "Do you usually win the close ones?" Well, against some people you do, but against others you don't.

"We have no hard and fast rule that these questions will never change," says Deloye. "We're thinking now of taking out some of the humorous questions such as, 'What is your primary reason for playing tennis?' One of the multiple-choice answers is 'Spouse insists.' No one checks that one." They may also delete No. 43. "Do you agree with the expression, 'When in doubt, call it out'?" These aren't among the heavily weighted questions, in any case, and are mainly there to broaden the questionnaire. "But you can learn a lot about a player with some of those rankling questions," says Deloye.

The heavily weighted questions for the intermediate player who has had little tournament experience are Nos. 2 through 7, and 10 through 15, where you must tell what you think of yourself as a player, why you play, how much you play and your lesson background, and Question 19, in which you must, like it or not, state your age. Questions 16 through 18 address the physical condition of the player.

"As the questionnaire becomes more popularized, suggestions will be coming in from all over the place," says Deloye. "We plan to keep an open mind and continue to revise."

Meanwhile, Tennis America, of which Billie Jean King is president, has purchased the copyright, and will be taking over some of the Schneider-Deloye labors. "Maybe now," says Deloye, "we can have more time to play again."

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)