Sunday, December 15, 2013

USTA League Points Per Position Survey - Probably not as good an idea as it appears on the surface

The USTA sent out a survey last week asking for people's thoughts on a "Points Per Position" scoring proposal for USTA League team matches.

The short summary on the proposal is that rather than each court counting equally and there being a winning team based on who won the most courts in a match, the lower numbered courts will have more points allocated to them and team standings would be based on total points accumulated rather than team wins/losses.  The idea is that by doing this, teams will be encouraged to play their best players on the courts that are worth more points resulting in more consistently competitive matches.

Apparently, the USTA has received complaints from players about uncompetitive matches and/or "stacking".  What happens with stacking is that a team tries to steal a team win by playing weaker players on court 1 in order to try to assure that they get wins on courts 2 and 3.  In a normal 5 court match, by throwing courts 1 and winning courts 2 and 3, the team can get a 3-2 team win.

This is great unless you are the good player on the team playing things straight up.  You may be a strong 4.0 and have to face a so-so 3.5 playing up on court 1.  This isn't a competitive match and not a lot of fun for either player.  It can also wreak havoc with ratings as having players that are rated far apart play each other is hard to properly rate.

The issue originates in the misconception that there is meaning to the court number, e.g. court 1 is supposed to have the best player(s) and higher numbered courts are supposed to have the weaker players.  The USTA actually states that court numbers don't carry that meaning, they could just as easily be name red, white, and blue.  If there is no meaning to the court number, players shouldn't expect to play court 1 and get a tough opponent.  You might or might not.

But let's humor the USTA and consider what happens with a Points Per Position scoring system.

Given that some courts will be worth more, this results in two things.

First, there is even more pressure on captains to get the ringers and stud players that they can play on court 1 and be reasonably assured of a win.  There are already complaints about teams that recruit players to self-rate too low or manipulate ratings to get bumped down so they can be a ringer, and the pressure to do so would be even greater with this scoring system.

Second, the higher numbered courts will be worth less, effectively telling the weaker players on the team that they are less important.  One can do the math and see how a team might just have studs that always win courts 1 and could accumulate enough points that it doesn't matter if they ever win courts 2 or 3.  This effectively means teams don't need depth.

And if the original issue was uncompetitive matches, the problem may still not be solved.  Consider a team that has several exceptional players for their level.  Their opposition will probably know this and if they have several very good players that are still going to be underdogs, the prudent move may still be to play these players on the higher numbered courts rather than wasting your best players in losses on court 1.

If this is the case, we just changed the system to one that rewards top-heavy rosters and sandbagging and didn't in fact help reduce the stacking that was the original complaint.

So while I understand what they are trying to do, I don't think this is the right approach.

There are other approaches that might be better solutions.

First, while the USTA says the court number doesn't matter, it actually does a bit.  If there are defaults, they start at the highest numbered court, so there is some meaning to the courts today and you wouldn't want to put your best doubles team on court 3 only to have the other team default that court and your best players don't get to play.

An extension of this that gives a little more meaning to the courts would be to have a rule that players playing up are not allowed to play on a lowered number court than players at level.  This would avoid the scenario where a team throws a court by playing their player playing up on court 1 and avoid the biggest case of uncompetitive matches.

Another that the USTA will never do is to publish actual dynamic ratings and requiring that a team have their highest rated players on the lower numbered courts.  Or if they don't want to publish the ratings, have an app that lets you put in your line-up and it tells you which court the players must be on to have the right ordering.

Now, both of these would essentially ensure that the stronger team/line-up usually wins.  We'd be taking away the ability of a captain to manage their team into the best position to get the 3-2 win.  If the USTA wants to take the drama out of some of the matches and reduce the upsets, either of these could work.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and let me know.