Sunday, October 12, 2014

Texas wins 2014 Men's 3.0 National Championship, takes sandbagging to a new level

I just saw that the Texas men won the 3.0 National Championship played in Tucson this weekend.  Congratulations to them on winning, ... and also for taking sandbagging and apparent under self-rating to a new level.

I have on occasion written about suspect matches where individual players may have been throwing matches in order to manipulate their rating down.  But I have never seen what appears to be this example of an entire team manipulating the system to get a National Championship.  Here are the details.

I've been writing about some of the progress at Nationals this weekend and had a few comments written about how some Texas individuals were doing and the team as a whole.  I then looked and saw that they won it all earlier today so decided to take a look.

First, at Nationals, in their flight they won it easily going 3-0, 12-3 on courts, losing just the 6 sets and 79 games.  While they lost the 3 courts, they won every match 4-1, most of the wins of the 6-2,6-2 type of score, and two of the losses in match tie-breaks.  In fact, take out the 29 games lost in the 3 losses and the rest of the matches, the wins, averaged 6-2,6-2.  That is perhaps a little suspicious but not that unexpected at Nationals.

It is worth noting that in their flight where they lost one court per team match, it was generally their lower rated players that lost and 2 of those 4 did not play in the semis or final, so they may have known they'd win the other 4 courts and were able to get their lower rated players in matches this way.

But in their semi, they played a Pacific Northwest team that had gone 3-0, 15-0 on courts, losing just 4 sets and 83 games.  On paper, PNW looked like the stronger team going into the final, except that it is interesting that PNW lost more games despite not losing a match, so their wins were not as lopsided at Texas'.

The result in the semi?  Texas won 5-0, losing just one set, and losing a total of 19 games in the other 4 matches, an average of slightly better than 6-2,6-3 on average.  It would seem PNW were not the sandbaggers, or they just didn't do it as well.

In the final, Texas also won 5-0 over a Northern California team that went 3-0/9-6 in their flight and had won their semi 3-2.  In this match, there was another match-tiebreak win, but the other 4 matches lost a total of only 9 games.  Not exactly the close competition you'd expect in the final at Nationals.

So, Texas was clearly the best team there, but were they the best fairly?  By the rules the USTA has in place, I have to assume it was all technically legal.  But I've written before that I think the rules are too lenient, so does it pass the smell test or the stricter rules I or others would advocate?

Looking at the Texas roster of 15, only 4 were self-rated which is not unexpected at the 3.0 level as 3.0 is a common level for new players to USTA League.  But what is somewhat surprising is that every other player on the roster was self-rated in 2013.  Ok, perhaps a bunch of friends got together and played in 2013 and enjoyed it and got some more friends to join them.

But if you look at the 2013 records, it all gets more suspicious.  Every one of the computer rated players played the exact minimum 3 matches in 2013 required to get a C rating and all did so in Texas' Fall league.  Of those 33 matches, all but three were losses or competitive wins, so these players were not exhibiting the level of play they did at Nationals in playing the minimum 3 matches.

What about the self-rated players this year?

One played only 3 regular season matches, the last being a bad loss that appears may have been thrown to keep their rating down.  Because of this low rated match, they were able to win twice at Sectionals without worrying about a DQ.

Another played only one match and was not part of the Nationals team.

The third played only once in the regular season (a default win got them their second match to qualify for playoffs), and went 2-1 at Sectionals with an odd retirement loss thrown in there.

The last played only once in the regular season (also a default win to qualify for playoffs) and that was a retirement loss, then went 2-0 winning easily at Sectionals.

From all of the above, there appears to have been an orchestrated effort to get most of the roster a 3.0C rating at 2013 year-end, and then to minimize the matches played for the self-rated players to avoid DQs.  Is this necessarily an indication of cheating?  Not on a case by case basis, but when every single player of a 15 player team falls into one of those categories, something seems amiss.

I also can't say for sure that any of the self-ratings last year or this year were inaccurate or dishonestly done.  But seeing where some of the players are now rated and observations from Nationals that some of the Texas team was not putting forth a full effort and still winning easily makes one suspicious.  It is possible that the players just improved throughout the year, but when looking at my Estimated Dynamic NTRP Ratings nearly every player is well into the range for a 3.5 now and a few are threatening being double bumped up to 4.0, and they all did this without playing up, I think it is safe to say they were not legitimate 3.0 players.

Now at Nationals, you are always going to have players playing above level, it is just the nature of the beast that the best players at a level are at the top and even above that level as they have improved.  But because of the apparent orchestration to get players C ratings, the Texas players were able to improve and be well above level without any consequence, and if they did play Fall league matches at less than full effort to secure the 3.0C ratings, those were achieved falsely and the players were fraudulent 3.0s.

And perhaps this is just a case of Texas cheating better than the other teams.  There may be some validity to that, but in the case of PNW, there were no self-rated players, only one appeal and that was an appeal up, and only one player was a self-rated player last year.

So, how could the USTA solve this?

One school of thought is to not allow self-rated players to play at Nationals.  There is some merit to this but this team would have been largely unaffected as 11 would still have been eligible since they did the minimum to get their 3.0C ratings from 2013.

Or, the rules for qualifying for playoffs are pretty low, be in 2 matches but 1 of those can be a default.  Why not increase this at least for self-rated players and not allow defaults to count as a match?  That would keep players from not playing so few matches to avoid strikes but still qualifying for playoffs.

But regarding self-rated players, something I advocate is tightening up the tolerances for strikes.  Today, a 3.0 can be clearly playing at a 3.5 level and not be DQ'd due to the tolerance the USTA allows for players to improve.  Doing this would have DQ'd 2 of the 4 self-rates on the Texas team so it would have helped, but not done enough to prevent the team from advancing.

The another option would be to not allow a player to get a C rating unless they play at least 3 matches in a league that advances to Nationals as that is the league where players are more likely to play their best.  In Texas, this would not allow players to get C ratings from playing in secondary leagues like the Fall league.  Note that some sections don't include these secondary leagues in NTRP ratings as their solution to these leagues being used to manipulate ratings.  Either way, this would have kept this entire roster as self-rated and then many of them would have been DQ'd or at risk of DQ preventing them from advancing.  Of course, the players would just have had to start earlier to get the 3 matches in during the Spring/Summer league but it at least makes it more difficult.

Last, the USTA could do away with the rule that C rated players can't be DQ'd.  One approach would be to have the threshold for a C rated player be higher than for a self-rate, but still have a threshold for strikes to preclude players that are clearly above level from continuing to play at that level.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment or vote in the poll to the right on what the USTA should do about situations like this.