Feb 19, 2020 - Sports

Universal Tennis Handicap could revolutionize the sport

Illustration of a tennis racket being held up with a star imprinted on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) is a rating system that could revolutionize the sport at every level — from country club play, to college recruiting, to the very top of the professional tours.

How it works: The current ATP (men) and WTA (women) rankings are based on point accumulation, which benefits pros who get easier draws or play more matches and junior players whose parents have enough money to travel to tournaments.

  • By contrast, UTR is calculated based on the strength of who you play and the score (games won), not the result. It takes into account the past 30 matches — or however many that person has played in the past 12 months.
  • Players are rated on a scale from 1 (raw beginner) to 16.5 (Rafael Nadal has a 16.19 rating), and anyone can register and start working on a rating for free.
  • Like a golf handicap, it's a simple number that gives players a way to judge results other than win-loss and can show improvement when a weaker player does better than expected, but still loses, to a better player.
  • UTR pays no attention to age or gender, so it allows play between genders and mixed doubles matches to count just like any other result would.

The big picture: UTR was originally launched in 2008 to help match junior players more fairly in local tournaments. It has since evolved into something much bigger.

  • College recruiting: UTR is now the primary method that college coaches use to recruit players, since it allows them to more accurately compare kids from different regions.
  • Country clubs: The current USTA system, which ranks people by 0.5 increments forces country club pros to make difficult decisions about who makes teams, who gets relegated, etc. As more clubs start using UTR to track players and host tournaments, it could help solve that.
"I'll predict that within a year, just as it is understood that any remotely serious golfer has to maintain a handicap to play in an event, any semi-serious tennis player, kid or adult, will have a UTR rating."
— Stewart Verdery, Washington Golf & Country Club (Arlington, Va.)

What to watch: UTR ratings have begun popping up on broadcasts next to names like Roger Federer and Serena Williams, giving rise to the theory that UTR could become a "mainstream" ranking system and perhaps even replace the ATP and WTA rankings.

The other side: That isn't part of the plan, according to UTR CEO Mark Leschly: "I think they tell different stories. The ATP tells a 12-month story of how far you went in major tournaments. With us, it's how you're competing."

  • Plus, most players and tournament hosts are content with the current system because it's designed to reward players for participating in as many tournaments as possible.

The bottom line: UTR has emerged as a widely-accepted ranking system at the pinnacle of tennis.

  • But with the pro circuit representing just a sliver of the world's tennis population, UTR could have an even greater impact serving as the glue that binds tennis players of all ages, genders and skill levels together — much like the handicap system has done for golf.
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