Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tennis Channel's Joel Drucker offers ideas for fixing USTA League sandbagging - Kevin's thoughts

I came across Joel Drucker's thoughts on sandbagging in USTA League a few days ago, and he has followed up with his ideas on how to fix it.  Naturally, I have some opinions too so let me comment on what he offers.

Get rid of Nationals and keep play only within sections

The idea here is that people sandbag because there is the goal of reaching and winning Nationals.  There is certainly some truth to that, but just winning Sectionals is still an accomplishment, and from everything I hear in some sections like Southern, they consider winning Sectionals to be a bigger accomplishment that winning Nationals so it would seem to make no difference for that group.  It seems human nature is that no matter what the championship is, if there is one, some people will cheat to win it.

But perhaps more importantly, not having some sort of play at the national level seems to go against the idea of a national organization like the USTA is.  It would be like the NCAA or NFL or NBA just having division or conference champs and that is it.  And some people may be more interested because there is Nationals and wouldn't be otherwise as having Nationals distinguishes USTA League from other local leagues.

Further, having Nationals does serve a purpose as it allows the USTA to compare players from different sections and use that to adjust things so that a 4.0 in Florida can be reasonably comparable to a 4.0 in Colorado or New York or California.

Kevin's verdict: I understand the point, but don't think it really solves the problem and may introduce others.

Be transparent with detailed ratings

Joel's thought seems to be that by being transparent people would know where they stand towards accomplishing goals.  I agree completely, that is a key reason why I do my ratings and reports, because people want to know where they stand and if they are improving or how much.  I don't see how this addresses sandbagging though and I think sandbaggers are actually why the USTA isn't transparent.  They believe if a 4.5 knows they are at 4.05 they would be more likely to throw a few games or a match to try to get bumped down, and the not knowing is a good thing.  Or if a 3.0 knows they are at 2.95 they'll make decisions to avoid playing anymore so avoid a bump up.

Kevin's verdict: I agree the ratings should be more transparent (although what would I do then!), but don't think doing so would address sandbagging and in fact could make it worse.

Make line-ups based on blind draws or using ratings

The goal here is to combat stacking which can result in non-competitive matches.  A blind-draw would have the captains put their players/pairs in a hat and how they are pulled out determines the courts played.  If ratings were made transparent, or even if an app were provided, another option is to let captains pick their players/pairs but they are assigned to courts based on their ratings.

Either of these would prevent deliberate stacking, but I see this less about sandbagging and more about identifying how you want to determine the best team.  Should the best team be the deepest one that can win top to bottom regardless of match-up?  Or should the best team be one that has a captain that can shrewdly get their players in the best position to win and steal a match or two?

Kevin's verdict: I have no problem with either suggestion, although it makes a captains job a lot different and removes some of the strategy involved, but the rules should be written and applied nationally for it to work, and like I said, it doesn't address sandbagging.

Take age into account for ratings

Joel asks if there is a difference between a 50-year old 4.5 and a 27 year-old one.  The answer of course is yes, but I'd contend every player regardless of age can be different and it is arguably discrimination to treat folks of different ages differently.  The NTRP system is one based on results, and so if a 50-year-old can achieve/maintain a 4.5 based on his results, good for him and age should not be a factor at all  Yes, there are different styles of play and a 50-year-old is likely to have a different style than a 20-something, but that is the beauty of our game, that different styles can play against each other and how each person executes their style and finds their opponent's weaknesses is what determines the outcome.

Kevin's verdict: I completely disagree with age based criteria for ratings.  I do believe that for ratings to be accurate you need players to be somewhat connected, and so if 50-year-olds only play others of the same age and there is no connection to the 20-somethings, that can be a problem.  But in most areas there is ample cross over between age divisions.

Emphasize participation

Joel suggests that everyone on a team should be given relatively equal playing time, not letting anyone play three matches before everyone else has played two.  Ignoring for a minute just the logistics of availability, this too is removing a captains ability to try to get his team a win.  It really is making it purely about participation, like little league where everyone gets to play.

Kevin's verdict: I don't like this idea, while USTA is "recreational", it is also competitive and implementing this turns league tennis into nothing more than a local club mixer where you get to play for 90 minutes.  I do agree it would somewhat combat sandbagging as the players that had sandbagged would not be able to play and dominate as much.  If a team wants to have a "play everyone" policy, go for it, but teams that want to compete should be able to do so, just be up front with players at the start of the year what the plans/goals are.

I applaud Joel for writing on the subject and offering up ideas, but what he proposes, IMHO, doesn't really address the sandbagging issue or waters league tennis down taking the competitive aspect out of it.

But I do agree things could be done about sandbagging.  I would offer up:

  • Tighten up the threshold for strikes - The thresholds are far too high, the USTA erring on the side of letting self-rates continue to play even when they are clearly above level.  Lower the thresholds and players would be forced to self-rate higher or get DQ'd far more easily.
  • Allow a solitary high rated match to be a strike - This would prevent someone from managing their rating by throwing a match or to to keep their rating down.  A single high match result could then result in a strike.
  • Ban self-rates from going to Nationals their first year, or require a higher minimum number of matches to qualify - Right now, a self-rate can be hidden by playing a single regular season match and being listed as the player in a default win, that gets them qualified for playoffs.  Then they can be strategically used in a few important matches at Districts or Sectionals and accumulate two strikes but be fine.  Once at Nationals, they can't get strikes.  If you just ban self-rates outright from Nationals, or even post-season play at all, the incentive to self-rate too low goes down, or the work required to spend a year sandbagging is a lot higher.  Or if the self-rate has to play more matches to qualify for playoffs or Nationals, the chances of successfully being hidden when they have to win important matches goes down.
  • Adopt anti-tanking in the NTRP algorithm - Players will deliberately throw matches or games to manage their rating down and the system allows and rewards it.  If the algorithm did something like the golf handicap algorithm and threw out a players worst scores, it would eliminate sandbagging or make it a lot harder to do it successfully.
  • Adopt consistent rules across sections - Today, National has some rules in place but allows sections to do some things as they see fit.  One is how to handle players that get strikes and whether to reverse matches or not.  In my opinion, players that are DQ'd should absolutely have their matches reversed and DQ's should be checked after every match including during playoffs.  Some sections only check at the end of players, when nothing can be done other than making the player ineligible going forward, but the rest of the team, and captain has benefited and accomplished their goal.
  • Suspend/ban captains that encourage/facilitate sandbagging - There are some captains that are notorious for cheating and flaunting the rules, and the USTA seems to do nothing about it, or have an awfully high tolerance for it.  Captains that have players that are DQ'd should be reviewed, and recurrences of it should ultimately result in suspensions.  This would not be hard, everyone knows who the offending captains are, the USTA should make a statement that such behavior won't be tolerated.

There are other ideas that have validity, but the above and others would not be that hard to implement.  I am not hopeful it will happen, however.  The USTA seems to not understand that many league players are at least annoyed by the sandbaggers, and some choose to leave the USTA and no longer play league, and so by allowing the behavior to continue they are actually hurting the game and ignoring the needs and wants of the many to enable the bad behavior of a few.  League participation is down nearly 5% over the past three years and I can't imagine that is something they aren't aware of.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Tennis Channel writer's thoughts on sandbagging in USTA League tennis

I came across an article written by Joel Drucker at Tennis Channel on The Poison Inside League Tennis.

I've written at times about the blatant sandbagging that takes place to get to Nationals, stats showing indications of sandbagging using bump up/down stats for men and women, and thoughts on if sandbagging is required to get to Nationals, along with many other league related stats, but it was nice to see someone else's thoughts on the subject.

For what it is worth, doing some checking (anyone can look him up), Joel is a 4.5 in the Bay Area and does play USTA League, so I'm guessing he is writing from personal experience and observation, and my ratings show he is not sandbagging at all :)

Joel says he will be offering suggestions on how to fix it, I look forward to reading that.

More 2017 USTA League Sectionals and other playoffs this weekend - Sectionals in Florida and Southern

The march to USTA League Nationals continues this weekend with more post-season play.

A sampling includes:

  • Florida is holding their 40+ Sectionals for 3.5 and 4.5+ at the USTA Nationals Campus
  • Southern is holding their 40+ Sectionals
  • Intermountain has 55+ Districts in Colorado and Idaho
  • Mid-Atlantic has 18+ Regionals for Virginia
  • Eastern has 18+ Regionals
  • Midwest has Districts or flight playoffs in 18+ and 40+ in Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan
  • Southern Cal has 40+ Districts
  • Middle States has a host of flight playoffs

As always, a great way to scout opponents or just if you like numbers and seeing what is predicted is to get a flight report.  Contact me if interested.

Good luck to all the teams!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2017 USTA League 18+ Southern Sectionals are complete, 40+ this coming weekend

The Southern section of the USTA held their 18 & over Sectionals this weekend so more teams have been identified that are heading to Nationals.

Here is the break down.


  • 2.5 - Tennessee, an early start team with a roster of 9, 8 of them now 3.0s
  • 3.0 - Tennessee
  • 3.5 - Tennessee
  • 4.0 - North Carolina
  • 4.5 - Kentucky
  • 5.0+ - Tennessee

  • 2.5 - Arkansas
  • 3.0 - Mississippi
  • 3.5 - Louisiana upset Alabama with 11 now 4.0s!  Won 3-2 with one upset
  • 4.0 - Mississippi
  • 4.5 - Kentucky
  • 5.0+ - Georgia or Georgia - Final not played?

Tennessee ruled the women's events, and Kentucky seems to be where all the good 4.5s are, men or women, in Southern!

Congrats to all those that played and the above teams are headed to Nationals.

Southern is back at it against this coming weekend with 40+ Sectionals.  Stay tuned for some previews.

Friday, July 21, 2017

How are the ratings predicting matches at Southern Sectionals and Dallas City's after day one?

I was just taking a look at some results after the first day of this weekend's playoffs, and thought I'd share how the ratings are doing at predicting matches.

In one of the flights for the 4.5 men at the Southern Sectionals, four matches were played and my ratings predict the courts on the team matches as follows:

  • 5-0
  • 5-0
  • 4-1
  • 4-1, the one miss where the match was predicted to go to a super tie-break

And two matches were played in Dallas at their city playoffs, those matches going as follows:
  • 5-0
  • 3-2

So out of 30 matches, there were only four upsets.

My ratings are not perfect at predicting matches, but 26-4 ain't too bad, which just reinforces how using my ratings to scout opponents can be a great help as they can tell captains when their team is favored or not and help them identify how to arrange their line-ups to maximize the chances of winning the team match.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

USTA League Playoffs this weekend - Intermountain / Utah 18+ 3.5 Districts women preview

More playoffs are on tap for this weekend.  A partial list includes:

  • Pacific Northwest 18+ Mixed Sectionals
  • Mid-Atlantic / Maryland Regionals 18+ x.0 levels
  • Southern Cal 40+ North Region Districts
  • Intermountain / Utah 18+ Districts
  • Southern 18+ Sectionals
  • Middle States / Central PA 18+ Playoffs
  • Texas local flight playoffs 18+ / 40+
  • Missouri Valley / Heart of America 18+ Districts
  • Hawaii 55+ Sectionals

And as a free preview, here are the top-8 averages for one of the flights at the Utah Districts.

Flight ASports Mall-Johnson/Mitchell3.41
Flight ACMTA @ Liberty Park-White/McManus3.41
Flight ASpanish Fork-Lucas/Padgett3.27
Flight ASalt Lake Tennis Club-Crandall3.21

It appears Sports Mall and CMTA are the favorites and it is a toss up which is the favorite to win.  It will come down to how the players do this weekend and if either captain is able to get advantageous match-ups in their match.  But they shouldn't ignore the other two teams, upsets do happen!

If you are playing this weekend or in any upcoming playoffs and want the above report for your flight and more, including the full roster averages and details on how a team typically stacks their courts or not, contact me for a flight report.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The road to Nationals continues - More playoffs, more teams advance

I wrote a few days ago about the Sectionals schedule for Southern, but playoffs are taking place in other sections too.  The past couple weeks have seen:

  • Northern Oregon (Portland) held their 40+ local playoffs this past weekend
  • Pacific Northwest held their 55+ Sectionals a couple weeks ago
  • Oklahoma held 18+ Districts this weekend
  • Maryland held 18+ Regionals a week ago
  • Virginia held 18+ Regionals this weekend
  • Southern Cal held 18+ local playoffs this weekend
  • Texas held some 18+ local playoffs this weekend

I'm sure there are more, feel free to leave a comment if you recently had some playoffs or have some upcoming.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

New addition to Estimated Dynamic NTRP Rating Reports - Average opponent NTRP level and rating

When I generate Estimated Dynamic NTRP Rating Reports for folks, some are disappointed to see they aren't rated higher than my report shows.  When this happens, it is often the case that they've won a lot and so expect their rating will have gone up, but their wins are close and/or they've been unlucky to play a lot of lower rated opponents.

In the reports I do, I explain the reasons for this and cite examples of matches where there were weak opponents, but I've wanted to make it more clear in the report and have added a few things that I think will help with that.

First is showing the average NTRP level for all the opponents played.  For many people, this will show their NTRP level, e.g. if a 3.5 only plays against 3.5s, their average opponent will be a 3.5.  But if you happen to play quite a few players playing up, this average can be a bit lower, 3.4 or even in the 3.3s, and seeing this be lower than your NTRP level can be an indication you played a number of players playing up.

Second is showing the average dynamic rating for all the opponents played.  This gets a little more specific as not all 3.5s (or 4.0s or 4.5s, etc.) are created equal.  It is possible you may play all players at level, but happen to play particularly strong or weak ones and this stat will tell you that.

The other thing you can do is look at the difference between these two statistics.  If you are a 3.5, and play only 3.5s and happen to play average 3.5s, your average opponent NTRP level would be 3.5 and your average opponent dynamic rating would be 3.25.  So you sort of expect a 0.25 gap between these.  If you've played stronger players, the second number will get larger and the gap will be smaller than 0.25, and if you've played weaker players on average, the gap will be larger.

Here is an example.

This is the player in my example report from last year, this player went 17-8 and went to Nationals and was bumped up from 4.0 to 4.5.  Their full chart is below.

Their average opponent NTRP level was 4.01, they played up and so playing some 4.5s moved this average up, and their average opponent dynamic rating was 3.87, just a 0.14 gap.  So either because of playing up or because they went to Nationals and were playing very strong 4.0s, this stat shows they did play strong opponents and going 17-8 against them resulted in a bump up.

With this addition, I think it will become more clear how strong your opponents have been and why your rating is where it is.  All new reports I do from this point forward will include these new stats, and as always, contact me if you are interested in getting a report.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It is July, Sectionals are starting to heat up - Will teams that win be eligible for Nationals?

It is the time of year that various Sections begin to hold their Sectionals to qualify teams for USTA League Nationals.

Southern really gets started with the following schedule:

  • Adult 18+ July 21-14 in Mobile, AL
  • Adult 40+ July 28-30 in Mobile, AL
  • Adult 55+ September 17-17 in Ashville, NC
  • Mixed 18+/40+ October 6-9 in Little Rock, AR

Southern, being the largest section with nine states and teams having to navigate local playoffs and then States with 8+ teams just to make it to Sectionals, is arguably the toughest section to make it to Nationals through and results in some tough competition at Sectionals.  As a result, some teams find my flight or team reports useful to help scout and navigate the competition there.

I recently did a flight report for a team headed to Southern 18+ Sectionals and so went looking at some of the teams there at different levels and was reminded that Southern allows players in early start leagues, that were bumped up at 2016 year-end, to continue to play at their lower level through Sectionals.

As I wrote about before, this is going to cause confusion at it means someone that was a 3.5 at 2015 year-end that signed-up for a 2017 3.5 team starting in October 2016, but was bumped up to 4.0 at 2016 year-end, can continue to play on the 3.5 team through Southern Sectionals.  This results in quite a few rosters of Sectionals teams having above level players eligible to play.

While this probably means a very high level of play at each level, this also means that teams that weren't early start teams with at-level players are at a competitive disadvantage as they can't have (now) above level players on their rosters playing there.

The other challenge is that the USTA League Nationals regulations state that these (now) above level players will not be eligible to play at Nationals.  So if a team loaded with above level players wins Sectionals, one of the following is likely to occur:

  • They go to Nationals but aren't the same team missing their best players.  They will also have a (potentially) much smaller roster which makes playing the up to six team matches in three days a lot harder.  It is possible there was a stronger team when this eligibility is taken into account that would represent the section better.
  • They elect not to go or don't have enough eligible players to to go to Nationals as a team must have at least eight players (at most levels) in order to go.  There are provisions for appealing this minimum, but I'm guessing it is not typically granted.

If they elect not to go or don't have enough eligible players, then you have to decide who is going to go.  The easy answer is the runner up that was beaten in the final, but that team could have the same issues.  How would you select the next team in line when you have two flights?  And while it may not be likely, what if every team at Sectionals has the same issues?  You can't very well go back to a team that didn't advance to Sectionals can you?

And before you say this is all theoretical and won't really happen, here are a few examples I've seen already:
  • A 2.5 team with 8 of 9 players now 3.0s.  There are provisions for 2.5 teams to still be eligible though unless the players are above the clearly above level mark.  The point is made though.
  • A 3.0 team with a roster of 15, 8 of which are now 3.5s.  If they won they wouldn't have the minimum eight eligible.
  • A 3.0 team with a roster of 12, 4 of which are now 3.5s.  This team would have the bare minimum 8 and be missing 4 of their best 6 players.
  • A 3.5 team with a roster of 16, a whopping 11 now 4.0s.  Only 5 eligible Nationals players!
  • A 3.5 team with a roster of 16, 8 of which are now 4.0s.
  • A 4.0 team with a roster of 16, 5 of which are now 4.5s.  Sure, 11 is enough to go to Nationals, but missing 5 of your best makes for a different team.

There are some other teams with 2-4 players now above level, but with larger rosters it isn't as significant a percentage of the team as above.  But clearly having above level players, and a lot of them, isn't just an exception.  And with these above level players they very well could be favored to win Sectionals.

All of this is why I thought early start ratings were actually a good thing, they would have weeded out at least some of these players from being on the rosters in the first place, but given they were abolished, players should have been ineligible to keep playing at their lower level as soon as year-end ratings came out.

But since Southern didn't go that route, we will be entertained to see who wins and what happens if one of the above teams is a sectional champ!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Easiest path to Nationals may not be through Hawaii!

I've written before about some easy paths to Nationals, notably that Hawaii has on occasion sent their local league winner straight to Nationals.  That means just playing an eight match local league!

I've come across a few others that will have similarly short paths this year, and I'm sure there are more.

For example, in Montana and Wyoming, they appear to have no local league and teams go straight to Districts.  Or perhaps they just think of their local league as being a weekend tournament.  In any case, this is perhaps just three matches played.

The winner of their "Districts" then does have to go to Intermountain Sectionals, and there they will face four or five other teams, so potentially a total of seven or eight matches played that could get them to Nationals.

Now, this is arguably a harder path than Hawaii and their local league winner advancing, as they are having to play other good teams that advanced from their district, but still, a pretty short path with definitely fewer than 10 matches played.

On the other hand, some areas in the Midwest, East, or South may have local league, a local league playoff, Districts, States, and Sectionals that all have to be navigated to advance, upwards of 20+ matches.  Such is the nature of living in (un)populated areas.

What is your path to Nationals?  How many matches might you have to play and win to advance?