Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It is time for USTA Nationals, and all the sandbagging accusations that come with it. Here is a solution.

It is October, and for those that follow USTA League you know that Nationals are taking place for the 18 & over and 40 & over men's and women's leagues.

A few of the levels have finished, and as is usually the case, particularly at the lower levels, the observations and accusations about players that appear to have skills well above the level they are playing at and are sandbagging are flying.

The scenario is this.  Players that haven't played USTA League before self-rate according to documented guidelines.  Unscrupulous captains and players may deliberately rate a level or two too low in order to have a competitive advantage.  There are provisions in place to automatically bump a player up a level if their results indicate they self-rated too low, but at the lower levels, there is a large buffer to allow a player to improve without getting disqualified at a given level.

The result is that you find several to many of these players at Nationals, someone that looks like a 3.5 or even perhaps a 4.0, playing at 3.0 for example.  One could argue that to get to Nationals and do well, you actually need to have several of these players on your roster and there is some truth to that.  If you are the best from your area, district, and section, you probably are playing at the very top of it not above the level in question.

Now, one might argue, and many have, that an easy solution to this is to not allow self-rated players to play in the playoffs or at least not allow them to play at Nationals or Sectionals.  There is some merit to this, but it would only be a partial solution as it only delays the problem and doesn't address a segment of the players at Nationals.

Go back to the scenario above.  If our player is really a 3.0 and self-rates at 2.5, they likely get bumped up to 3.0 at year end and have a 3.0C rating.  Now, in playing a year, they probably improved some and are able to play at a 3.5 level.  But they are a 3.0C so they sign up for a 3.0 league the next year, and with a little coordination join a team that has a few other players in their same situation.  They dominate their local league, start getting excited about the possibility of going to Nationals and get some lessons and their games improve to a near 4.0 level.

This team now shows up at Nationals and looks like a bunch of sandbaggers, just like the self-rated player would look, but they have followed all the rules and are C-rated players so can't be DQ'd and the proposed rule not allowing self-rates to go to Nationals doesn't affect them.

Second, players playing well above their level didn't necessarily self-rate too low.  Some players simply decide to improve their game and the yearly cycle of re-leveling players allows for someone to improve enough to be well above their level.

This second issue is just an unavoidable part of having tiers/levels of play and these players shouldn't be punished.  There will always be players at the top of the tier and even above it that are on their way to being bumped up.  The very nature of Nationals dictates that you have to have these players to get there, so we shouldn't expect 3.0 Nationals to look like a regular season 3.0 match in our local league play.  By definition almost, it is going to look like 3.5 players.

Now what I'd propose would help address the first issue of self-rated players self-rating too low would be two things.

First, while I can see the argument for not allowing them to go to playoffs, another solution would be to tighten up the buffer given to allow for natural improvement.  Simply lower the threshold for strikes and these players would get DQ'd and bumped up and be ineligible to play on the team.

Second, and more important, I would institute a rule that any self-rated player that gets DQ'd or bumped up in their first year should be treated as a self-rated player again the next year.  And if it happens in their first two years, they are still treated as self-rated in year three, etc.  I don't think you could extend any prohibition on going to Nationals to year two, but this would at least preclude them from sandbagging their first year to get a C rating and then being protected from DQs.

There is no panacea for this, having levels of play will always result in issues where the levels meet, but a few minor changes could reduce the opportunity sandbaggers have to cheat the system.