We’ve all had blowouts while competing. We’ve all ‘sent someone home on a bicycle’ (the popular euphemism for beating someone 6–0, 6-0 from my junior days), and we’ve all taken that soul-crushing ride, too. Running into an opponent far more skilled than yourself is a likely feature of tournament play, where opponents—in general—get better and better the further you progress through a draw. But lopsided wins and losses can be especially grating when they’re encountered in weekly league matches where playing skill is supposed to be standardized.
This idea of preventing lopsided matches is what first inspired tennis pro Dave Powell to create a truly accurate tennis rating system. After convincing fellow coach Darryl Cummings to join him, the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) was born (Steven Clark, an engineer and intellectual property businessman joined a while later). The trio—along with help from numerous ex-college players whom Cummings had coached—got to work in 2006 figuring out how the system would work. A little more than a decade later in June 2018, the company was quietly sold to a group of buyers led by computer technology giant Oracle. According to the Virginia Pilot, the buyer group also included The Tennis Channel, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Magic Johnson, and Major League Baseball.
So what is UTR?
Every country has a different rating system for its tennis players: Tennis Australia has a stand-alone ranking system; the United States uses a mixture of national rankings and NTRP ratings for league players; and France has a ‘classment’ system which ranks players from -30 to +15. With the numerous systems in place, it can be difficult to pinpoint the level of a player globally—unless they hold ATP or WTA rankings. We’ve all heard stories about a foreign player showing up and carving through the first half of a tournament, simply because their ranking in their home country wasn’t factored in when making the draw.
But that’s exactly what the Universal Tennis Rating is for. It’s a ranking system capable of ranking everyone globally—not just professionals. This means that everyone qualifies for a UTR: from Rafael Nadal, to Serena Williams, to the local weekend warrior.
A simple explanation of how it works
Your UTR is calculated based on the last 30 eligible match scores from the past 12 months. The key point is that your UTR will change based upon how you perform vs. how you’re expected to perform. For example, the algorithm might dictate that you will lose 6–1, 6–1 to a higher ranked player, but if you lose 6–4, 6–4 then your rating will go up and theirs will go down. If you’re expected to beat a player 6–1, 6–1 but win 6–4, 6–4, then theirUTR will go up and yours will go down. It all comes down to the percentage of games a player wins compared to what is expected by the algorithm.
Factors like Match Weight and Match Rating are also considered. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of what those are and how the algorithm works, read the original UTR blog here. But for a general understanding, the blog puts it succinctly:
Your UTR will go up or down based on how you perform vs. expectation.
To improve your ranking, the UTR website advises players to compete well and strive to get the most games, regardless of whether they’re losing, noting that “you can improve your UTR… by winning more games than expected.”
Playing often enough to have matches recorded in the UTR system is also another way to improve your rating—the more often a player competes, the quicker the UTR system will be able to calculate an accurate rating.
The uses and advantages of UTR
Far from the small operation which began in 2006, UTR today is a well-known aspect of our global game. It doesn’t take a lot of brainstorming to see how useful a system like UTR can be.
Evening the playing field
For one, there’s the way it equalizes financial disparities between players (to a degree). Since most countries use a Points Per Round system for ranking points, where players accrue more and more points the further they progress through a draw, it’s easy to see how this system can be abused. Simply play tournaments all the time to give yourself a better chance of improving your ranking, or travel to tournaments in the middle of nowhere to collect coveted ranking points. This is a common feature of junior tennis, where kids are hauled to tiny towns by eager parents intent on helping their progeny rack up the most points. If a player’s family can’t afford to engage in this costly exercise, their ranking suffers. UTR fixes this loophole to a degree by simply calculating your ranking based upon whom you play and how you perform.
Gone are the days where coaches relied exclusively on websites like tennisrecruiting.net, and taking educated guesses on the quality and potential of international players through YouTube recruiting videos and disparate national ranking systems. UTR provides a simpler way.
Dané Vorster, Assistant Coach of the University of California Santa Barbara women’s tennis team told Tennis inbox that UTR provides an accurate estimate of a player’s ability in the US, but that the system is yet to be as accurate internationally.
“We use UTR for American athletes because they play so many UTR events and tournaments here—therefore making their rating pretty accurate. It’s not yet accurate in Australia, and I find that European players’ ratings are usually 0.5 below their actual standard, so I just round up.”
Similarly, Derrick Taylor—a Volunteer Assistant Coach for Columbus State University men’s tennis—told Tennis inbox, “whenever a player sends in a recruiting email, the first thing I do is to look up their UTR.” On the limits of UTR, he added, “I still use tennisrecruiting.net for players who haven’t had the chance to get their UTR up, because it allows me to see all the way back into their playing history.”
Though not exclusively made for college recruiting like tennisrecruiting.net, UTR has a ‘College Fit’ program which allows players to find prospective universities based on a UTR range and where they’d like to play in the line up. Many factors apply in college recruiting, but one of the quickest way to ascertain a player’s quality is through looking up their UTR.
Those pesky league teams
Hypothetically, it should also make ‘stacking’ league matches impossible. I know that it’s a common occurrence in some parts of the United States to have 4.5 NTRP teams filled with ringers who are teaching professionals, college players, and ex-pros. The end result is a lopsided contest or a league match which plays at a 5.0 or even 5.5 NTRP level. The use of UTR could potentially mitigate this trend.
Where to get your UTR
Anyone who plays tennis can get a UTR—just visit myutr.com and follow the prompts to start or claim your profile (look for “Join”). Depending on how much you play, you might find that a profile has already been created for you and that you simply have to claim it—this was so in my case. UTR also has a handy mobile app so that you can enter your results right after your matches.
From humble, quiet beginnings to now being a universal aspect of global tennis, UTR has come a long way. The system partners with some of the world’s premier tennis academies and clubs, including IMG Academy, Rafa Nadal Academy, Saddlebrook Tennis Academy, and Kim Clijsters Academy. And with endorsements from some of the top professionals of our game, including Novak Djokovic, Jim Courier, Martina Navratilova, and Tracy Austin, I’m sure that it’s around to stay.◉