Thursday, April 28, 2011

The USTA NTRP rating system

I guess that as far as USTA’s NTRP rating system goes, it’s as good as any other, but it certainly leaves much to be desired.

I started to play USTA League tennis in 2005; at that time, I had to be verified by a coordinator and was rated at the 3.0 level.  I thought I was better, but there you go.  However, I didn’t play that season and instead opted to play K-Swiss (now Ultimate) Tennis singles.  I worked my way up from my self-rated 3.0 level to the 3.5- and even the 3.5 level before I regressed to the 3.5- level and had fallen to the 3.0 level by the time I stopped playing singles.  My opponents were increasingly 20+ years younger than me and – their fitness vs. mine – I was usually finished by the third set.  The levels were determined by my success (or lack thereof) in the league, which is the way it’s supposed to work.

A couple of years ago, I was going to let my USTA membership expire; the only reason that I continued paying annual dues was to get Tennis Magazine.  After moving to Marietta from Woodstock, I was so desperate to meet other tennis players in ‘this’ area that I put my name on bulletin boards at Cobb County tennis facilities and sent the local USTA coordinator my name to be on a list that tennis captains could peruse for new ‘talent’.  So I jumped at the chance to play on a 7.0 mixed doubles team that called even though they needed me because I’d stated that I was 3.0 to 3.5 player and they really needed a 3.0 man to play with their 4.0 ladies.  By this time my verified rating had long since expired; the only option available was to self-rate.  Over three seasons, my lady partners and I compiled a fairly impressive win-loss record and I was bumped to 3.5 at the end of 2010.  Though I had the option of appealing my rating, I knew that 3.5 more adequately reflected my abilities.

With some exceptions – I played against some other ‘3.0’ rated men that cleaned my clock, but they too were bumped – eventually, the USTA self-rating system seemed to work, at least locally.  However, disparities can crop up at sectionals and nationals, and this is the main problem due to the self-rating vs. the coordinator verified rating system that used to exist.  A state champion team from one region in the country can find themselves completely overmatched at sectionals because the ratings aren’t consistent everywhere.  Some of the differences in rules between regions are the culprit.  For example, some areas allow players to compete on two different level teams (7.0 and 8.0) simultaneously while others do not.

But my main reason for writing this particular article stems from an injustice that I uncovered locally.  I played my first mixed doubles match as a 3.5 player a couple of weeks ago; despite my reservations and fear that I wasn't really a 3.5 player by Atlanta standards, my partner and I won the match easily.  I came to believe that my opponents must not have been of the same level but, through USTA’s website, found that they were equally matched – both of them were also 3.5 level players.  While I believed the woman was probably rated fairly, I couldn’t believe the man was.  A little further research revealed that he was also a 3.0 rated player through the end of 2010, had played at that level since 2005, but was bumped to 3.5 even though his record of wins was not even 50%.  So why was he bumped?  I mean, we bageled he and his partner in the first set and should have won the second similarly if not for some sloppiness on our part (it can be hard to maintain one’s concentration when winning so easily).  I definitely think that he should appeal his rating.

In any case, USTA’s NTRP rating system has its flaws, but they’re not nearly as bad as ALTA’s, which can hardly be called a system at all when you think about it.  I’ll have to write more about that in a future article.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Spain's "unfair" objection rightly rejected

I had to laugh when I read that Rafael Nadal supported his country Spain’s protest of the United States’ choice of Indoor Hard Premiere for the surface of the Davis Cup tie between the countries this July in Austin.  Isn’t turnabout fair play?

Naturally, like all countries that host Davis Cup ties, the U.S. wants to give their home team every advantage possible to win the matches, and a fast surface favors the Americans over the Spaniards.  Of course, when Spain has hosted our team in the Davis Cup over the past several years, the matches have been played in bullrings on clay which, even though they’re indoors, were copiously watered down to make their surfaces as slow as possible to favor the grinding style of its teams.  Since then, Spain’s star, the number one player in the world Mr. Nadal, has lost only one (non-Davis Cup) match on the red dirt.  Now that the United States is the host, shouldn’t ‘we’ be able to pick Nadal’s least favorite surface, one that gives the impatient U.S. team’s players the best chance to win?

Spain’s protest was lodged to try to induce the International Tennis Federation to consider a technicality – that the specific surface wasn’t on a list of approved surfaces that the ITF puts out, even though the U.S. claims to have hosted 5 Davis Cup and 2 Fed Cup ties on it since 2007.  That Nadal felt it necessary to "weigh in" on the dispute diminishes his stature somewhat, if only to the smallest of degrees.  The swift resolution and decision by the ITF to reject Spain’s appeal – within two days – illustrated the frivolity of the objection.

One has to wonder why a country would lodge such a complaint, and why Nadal would risk tarnishing his reputation, given its record of using an advantageous surface for their own teams.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tennis team management

There are a variety of options for a tennis team captain to manage their players; each of them makes it easier to put together lineups etc. than e-mail or – Heaven forbid – the telephone.

I have some experience as both a player and a captain using several different on-line tools for tennis team management.  Three that I’m familiar with are TennisPoint, Netcord and NetLineup.  Each of these websites enables a tennis captain to compile a team, put together weekly lineups, send out e-mails, etc.  The cost for players to join is free; the captain has to pay $15 to $25 per season, or more per year.

When I looked into deciding which site was best for my purposes, I chose TennisPoint.  At the time, it seemed to have the best interface and the most “bang for the buck”.  Even though I knew that I’d only be using the system – as a captain – twice this year, I opted to pay for the annual, unlimited number of teams option.  Because I could assign other team captains on one account, my Senior mixed captain is using the same account to manage his team.

Each player registers for free and manages their own contact – e-mail & phone – information, freeing the captain from having to maintain these for all his players.  The captain can then build ‘his’ team by typing in their e-mail address; the system finds the registered player and, with one click, the captain can add them to their roster.  Sending practice reminders or other team e-mails is a simple process; the system maintains an e-mail distribution list for every team that a captain manages, or plays on.  There is an easy way to connect TennisPoint to ALTA’s website that enables one’s schedule to be imported vs. manually input, and full control of editing the schedule is possible after the import (e.g. to add playoff matches, etc.).  The lineup feature also enforces ALTA’s sandbag rules so that you can’t accidentally put together a lineup that would cause you to forfeit matches.  There is also a column for food assignments that makes this loathsome task simple; it even remembers your previous food assignments, making the next time that much easier.  One of my favorite features is the automatic statistical tracking of every player’s matches, which tell you how everyone does with which partners, at which line, etc.  If every captain of every team you play on uses TennisPoint, then you have only one place to go (as a player) to see how you’re doing, improving, playing with a particular partner, contributing to your teams, etc.

As a tennis captain, I highly recommend using one of these on-line tools to manage your team.  Tennis is already an inexpensive and less time consuming sport than golf, and these websites make tennis team management simpler and more efficient than ever for a nominal cost.

Monday, April 18, 2011

It's all about unforced errors

A wise former tennis coach, former ALTA teammate and sometime doubles partner of mine once said that the biggest difference between USTA 4.0 and 3.0 level players was not how hard they hit the ball, but how many unforced errors they made.  Absorbing this lesson can help you to transform your game to a higher level.

I watched some A-level ALTA players playing a practice singles match one weekend and noticed that neither guy was trying to overpower the other.  These were two of the best players in our neighborhood and I’d never played with/against them; I’d also never seen them play until this day.  I was expecting to see un-returnable serves, deft drop shots and booming overheads.  While I did see some of that, what I noticed even more so was that neither man put the ball into the net, or hit the ball long or wide very often.  More times than not, their long rallies ended with a put away by one of a short ball response from the other, sometimes fiercely hit but usually just angled off the court.  In other words, a winner, but not necessarily a screaming one ripped down the line, the kind of shot that many lesser players love to try to hit, but which often end up in the net (or sail long).

This past Saturday, I had another demonstration of the fact of this blog’s titled premise.  My partner and I played what, afterward, felt like an unsatisfactory win.  Perhaps the least satisfying 6-1, 6-2 beat down I’ve ever been a part of.  In thinking through the match, I couldn’t recall or picture in my mind a lot of shots I’d hit which were winners, perfectly placed in the open court passed the outstretched racquets of our opponents.  Normally, I love to relive these moments in my head, and discuss them with my partner while enjoying a beer after the match etc., but not this Saturday.  Instead, I remembered several situations in which our opponent dumped the ball into the net, even when they were on top of the net waiting for a sitter to end the point.  Winning the match easily wasn’t about “out hitting” our opponent, it was about having fewer unforced errors.

While keeping the ball in play and allowing one’s opponent to make the error isn’t sexy and can feel less satisfying in victory than having hit a plethora of winners in a match, it beats the alternative.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Off-season roster changes

“To add or not to add, that is the question”.  One of the responsibilities of being a captain is maintaining the roster, deciding whether to keep your team as it is or adding new players to (or deleting existing players from) your roster during the off-season.  These decisions should not be taken lightly.

In my three part “being a tennis team captain” series, I wrote about many of the issues associated with the thankless ‘job’ and its responsibilities.  One aspect that needs further exploration is the concept of team chemistry.  I briefly touched on a key component of this issue in part II:  “the captain needs to be clear about his intentions as he’s putting together the team and reinforce them in his messages – ‘let’s have fun’ vs. ‘let’s take 5!’ – throughout the season”; off-season roster changes can alter the message.

Between seasons, the captain has a choice – should ‘he’ try to improve his team’s competitiveness by adding new ‘higher-level’ players or not?  If the answer is yes, he should be aware and prepared for the possible consequences.  Adding just one new player means that he’ll have to alter at least one pairing, which may ripple through other pairings as well, whereas adding a pair –e.g. a mixed double ‘couple’ – may just affect the existing pairings’ playing time.  Either of these changes can be received negatively by the existing team members.

A team's chemistry can be an important element in its success, especially if (e.g.) one has a socially compatible mixed doubles team.  The captain has to consider how well any new additions will “fit in” to the existing team.  If the captain has cultivated a culture in which the shared attitude is very competitive, and the additional players enhance the team’s ability to win a bag tag, there will likely be less push back from the existing players than if the team culture is a social one – “have fun, do the best you can, it doesn’t matter if we win or lose, it’s the friendships that matter” – and the new additions are incompatible.

In my case, I wanted to strike a balance between the two.  We’re a very sociable, friendly team that also would like to win, if possible.  My approach during this off-season was to try to find players to add that were similar in makeup – age and socioeconomic backgrounds (e.g. neighbors) – that could improve our chances of winning more points.  One couple I added will likely force our team to play one ALTA level higher than we've been playing, which may cause us some difficulty if they aren’t able to help us win several lines during the summer, but I was concerned that we didn’t have enough players to help us win at our existing level anyway, especially given vacations, which is a challenge particularly unique to the summer season.  If we don’t do well, we should be in better shape going forward, and my belief is that I’d rather have a team that’s improving rather than stagnating or, worse, declining.

Wish us luck!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Perseverance is the key

A couple of things happened on Saturday that illustrated that perseverance can often be the difference between winning and losing, in my own match and one of my teammates’ matches.

When my partner and I were warming up against our opponents, it was clear that they were not at our level in terms of ability.  Yes, I’ve warmed up against players that, suddenly, once the match started, were much better than they were during warm-up.  But these guys couldn’t return the ball to us with any regularity, no rally rhythm could be established, and one didn’t even want to take volleys or hit an overhead beforehand.  Although I sensed that we’d blow right through these guys, I told my partner that we needed to play our game and not play down to their level.

Unfortunately both of us played miserably in the first set; I lost my serve in the first game and it took us until they were serving at 4-3 before we broke back to get even.  I then won my serve at love and we both thought the set would soon be over.  But we were unable to break at 5-4 or 6-5 and soon found ourselves in a tiebreaker; fortunately we won it 8-6!  Because we didn’t really get down on ourselves, and persevered, we pulled out the set.  The second set went the way the first should have; we cleared up our unforced errors, won it quickly 6-1 and the match was over.

Our line 5 guys were playing opponents that were fairly evenly matched, but on our home courts we had the advantage:  a comfortable, familiar environment with cheering fans.  Although our teammates lost their first set in a tiebreaker, they quickly moved ahead and won the second set; the third set proceeded in much the same way and our guys were serving for the match at 5-3, 40-15.  Unfortunately, the lesson of perseverance then played out against our team.  Including twice during the tiebreaker, our guys had six chances – match points – to close out the match against their opponents, who won 9-7 on only their second match point.  A lesson in perseverance – and never giving up – to be sure.

Whether you're playing poorly and/or  your opponent is on the verge of beating you, remember that as long as you're still in the match, "it ain't over 'til it's over".  Hang in there and you might just win.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Spring break friendly tennis

Spring break is a fact of life.  Whether you’re a teacher, whether you’re a parent who has children in school or not, as a tennis captain or even a player, you and your team can be affected by spring break.

Of course, spring break is a terrific time for families to be together, on vacation or at home, and family time spent together is not only precious, but it’s a depreciating asset; the memories can last a lifetime and the opportunities will come and go before you know it, and then be gone forever.  Tennis players that do, and those that don’t have kids need to realize and appreciate these realities.

The USTA does recognize spring break, at least here in Atlanta; league tennis is suspended during this time so that players can feel guilt-free about taking time away from their teams to be with their families and captains can stress less about not having their best available in the lineup for two weeks in a row.  Unfortunately, ALTA doesn’t pay attention to spring break (or the July 4 holiday etc.), which oftentimes makes captains have to scramble to try to schedule matches early – something women frequently do to accommodate one another, but men do not – or to field a complete lineup without forfeiting any points.

Since ALTA is unlikely to change their policies – I’ve seen this topic raised in Net News magazines several times over the years – it’s up to men’s league captains to work together in the spirit of accommodation in order to make the entire spring season’s matchups be as equitable as possible.  Will this ever happen?  Probably not.  I have made the request to play these matches early on more than one occasion – at the beginning of the season, before any matches have been played – when my opponent would not be able to make a value judgment based upon how his team did the first couple of weeks to decide whether to help out.  I was turned down flat both times.

While I’m tempted to say “C’mon ALTA”, instead I’ll plead “C’mon captains, be good sportsmen!”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Djokovic is not intimidated by Nadal

Or I should say Djokovic is no longer intimidated by anyone, not by the “big guns” or the unflappability of Rafael Nadal and certainly not by Roger Federer either.  In fact, Novak Djokovic isn’t afraid to play anyone anymore, which has allowed him to win 26 straight matches since losing the 2010 season ending championship to Federer last November.

It was during the semi-finals of the 2010 US Open that Djokovic decided to “go for it” when his was match point down to Federer, who had owned him previously in such matches, ripping that memorable crosscourt forehand winner from one corner of the court to the other.  The confidence that flowed from that decision, executing that shot and winning that match helped the Serbian lift his tiny country to its first Davis Cup victory last December, and has since led Djokovic to 24 straight wins (and four titles) in 2011, including the year’s first Grand Slam (Novak’s second Australian Open title) and now back-to-back titles – and wins over Nadal – at Indian Wells in the BNP Pariabas Open and in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open, which both claim the unofficial title of the “Fifth Slam”, a feat that was last accomplished by Federer five years ago.

Over the years, dozens of players have wilted in the spotlight of a Grand Slam or Masters 1000 Series final, including “the Joker”, the moniker that Novak Djokovic ‘earned’ when he was more famous for his post match impressions of fellow players Nadal, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova than for his all-court playing abilities.  The primary recipients of these meltdowns had been Federer and Nadal, whose games and (particularly in Nadal’s case, physical) presences on the other side of the court were enough to intimidate anyone into submission.  But now it’s Djokovic who seems to intimidate (witness Novak’s straight set wins against Federer and Andy Murray on this year’s biggest stages) with his relentless court coverage that makes it impossible for his opponents to feel comfortable that their best shots will be winners.  Even the indefatigable Nadal seems to have been frustrated, and forced to have to go for too much at the end of these last two finals against Novak.

After he won the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic suffered from a variety of issues:  from “the heat” and breathing problems (and other physical ailments) which led to retirements in some high profile matches, changing and adjusting to a new racquet, and last year’s serving problems.  All of these issues appear to have disappeared, to the detriment of his opponents whom he has thus far blanked in 2011.  It remains to be seen whether Djokovic’s success (and how long his streak on the hard courts) will last as the clay court season begins.  But one thing’s for sure – Novak Djokovic is no longer intimidated by anyone!