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Everything Wrong with the UTR - the Universal Tennis Rating

Updated: 4 days ago

The Universal Tennis Rating, or UTR, has been gaining popularity in the tennis world, but it's not without its flaws. While the rating system was created to unify the tennis world, regardless of age and gender, many parents and players are finding that it's doing more harm than good.

Tennis players in NSW standing on tennis court shoes and balls
The UTR has been rubbished by many tennis experts in NSW

The Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) was created in 2008 with the intention of providing a more comprehensive and accurate representation of a tennis player's ability. While it has been adopted by many players and organisations worldwide, it is not without its negative aspects.

One major issue with UTR is its structure in most competitions. Tournaments are often structured in a way that favours seeded players, giving them an easy run through the early rounds. This means that players may not be exposed to the necessary levels of competition that they need to advance their skills quickly. Playing against opponents of varying levels is essential for a player's growth and improvement, and UTR's focus on matches against players of similar skill levels may hinder that.

Another drawback of UTR is that it places too much emphasis on winning well, rather than playing well. Winning ugly is a term used to describe the ability of top players to grind out victories even when they are not playing their best tennis. However, the UTR algorithm may punish players who win but do not meet certain performance thresholds, which can be unfair and may not accurately reflect a player's true ability.

The argument that UTR is more inclusive than traditional rankings because it allows for regional and international crossover is moot. State, national, and international rankings have been in use for years and provided opportunities for players to compete against players from different regions. Qualifying rounds and wildcards are also used to give players a chance to break into higher-level tournaments.

The fact that ATP/WTA players have UTR ratings is irrelevant, as they are primarily judged by their ATP/WTA rankings. UTR's focus on player ratings may be viewed as redundant by professional players and the tennis community.

Another issue with UTR is the way it is implemented, which can lead to division rather than unity. UTR's creator, Dave Howell, intended for it to unify the tennis world regardless of age and gender. However, parents may not like the fact that their young children have to play against much older and stronger opponents, causing frustration and a sense of unfairness. Additionally, most tournament structures in Australia care little for universality - instead, events continue to be set up based on age and gender.

UTR's accuracy relies heavily on the number of matches played. To obtain an accurate UTR rating, players must play a minimum of 30 matches over 12 months, which equates to 2-3 matches per month. This may not be feasible for all players, especially those with limited access to tournaments or who are not able to travel frequently.

The growth of UTR has not necessarily led to higher participation rates in tennis. While the system apparently incorporates around 80,000 players in NSW alone, many profiles have been added without their express permission. This has caused controversy and raises questions about the validity of the ratings. Additionally, it's unclear how active many of these players really are.

Regional tournament numbers are down as competitions and weekly events offer UTR in a metro surrounding whereas the only way to improve your ranking in the past was to play sanctioned tournaments. Surely the need for Australia to have a strong and vibrant regional tennis system outweighs the need for players to only ever play against others who are of similar ability.

It has been widely observed that players are retiring mid-match to protect their UTR. This is not only unfair to the opponent but also disrupts the flow of the game. It's also not a true reflection of the player's ability and can skew the UTR ratings.

The UTR appears to view the format of doubles as an afterthought. It is not valued, rarely promoted, and unclear how a person's doubles UTR is calculated equitably when players change partners all the time.

Will the UTR prove to be a positive development tool that promotes higher levels of participation and a higher number of players achieving greatness?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Unsure

It should be noted that past performance does not always guarantee future results. Tennis is as much a head game as any sport. In the scenario of three friends, player (A) always beats player (B). Player (C) will easily beat player (A), and player (B) usually beats player (C). So how should they be rated against each other? UTR doesn't factor in these variables, resulting in a skewed rating system.

UTR also doesn't factor in a player's bad days. On an average day, someone can be a UTR 8, but on bad days, they can become a worse player, nearing a UTR 6 level. One bad day in the office is enough to skew a player's UTR so horribly low to the point where they are unmotivated to even try anymore to bring it back up, and that's a sad reality, particularly when so much emphasis and focus is on a player's UTR.

One of the most significant issues with the UTR is that it is supposed to be universal but often juniors have higher scores than adults who they would almost never beat. The UTR is designed to be a level playing field for all players. While relative ratings are more accurate, they are not accurate across different groups as these groups don’t meet each other often.

Another issue with the UTR is that too many 'official' ratings are based on matches with players who don't have 'official' ratings. If your 'official' rating is based on matches largely played against opponents with "incomplete" ratings, then that 'official' rating is junk. This means that for the vast majority of players in the database, their ratings are not so good. Only for juniors or college players who play a lot of tournaments, the statistical stew is pretty rich, and the relative UTRs should be pretty good.

Increasingly, many players are creating multiple UTR profiles so that they can enjoy no-pressure match-play with burner accounts. It's laughably easy to create a fake profile and then play against that fake player to skew results, making the UTR less reliable.

In what is potentially a huge safety and privacy issue, UTR and tournament organisers are creating UTR profiles for players without obtaining consent. This can also mean that a player’s match results are being split between potentially more than one profile.

Players can be removed from elite squads quickly if their UTR drops. While it is essential to have standards for being part of an elite squad, relying solely on UTR can be detrimental. A player may have a bad patch, which could negatively impact their score, leading to removal from the squad.

In conclusion, the UTR claims to promote universality: a removal or blurring of the lines between age, gender, location and so forth. But for many in the highest levels of tennis decision making, there is a distinct inability to let go of traditional structures. Ultimately, because of this, the UTR will never achieve its main target function, and our game will continue to crumble.