Introduction to Junior Tennis Rankings
by Dallas Oliver, 14 July 2015
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There are many ranking and rating systems in junior tennis. These systems attempt to assign relative values to players for purposes of comparing them. Each system has different properties and goals.
Whenever there are different products in the same space, there are always arguments about which one is "best." There have been many articles on tennis blogs and posts on message boards arguing the merits of different systems. But what does "best" really mean? What metrics are important? Evaluating a system must be done in the context of its goals - and there are many goals for junior tennis rankings and ratings.
Let's take a brief look at the goals of the most popular ranking/rating systems in American junior tennis: USTA Points Per Round (PPR), ITF Junior World Rankings (ITF), Universal Tennis Ratings (UTR), and the Tennis Recruiting Class Rankings (CR).
USTA Points Per Round Rankings
USTA Points Per Round Rankings (PPR) is the ranking system currently used in USTA Tournaments. Junior rankings are based on player ages (i.e., 18 and under, 16 and under, 14 and under, 12 and under). The official national rankings of the USTA use PPR, and the majority of USTA sections use a variant of PPR for their regional rankings as well. Over the past decade, these rankings have been commonly used for entry into tournaments as well as for event seeding.
In the USTA PPR system, players earn points for each round they reach in events. Tournaments are leveled, and the points available increases with the level of the tournament. There are additional tweaks to the basic structure (e.g., bonus points are awarded to players who beat highly-ranked opponents, reduced points for doubles wins), but earning points for advancement is the basic structure. A player's ranking is determined by the total points earned in his/her six best events.
This system has a number of interesting properties and goals:
- Easy to Understand - Points systems are usually the easiest systems to understand, which is a good property for a ranking system used by a governing body. All players can compare their points with those from other players to understand what they need to do to earn entry into a particular tournament or earn a particular seeding.
- Encourages Play - Players earn points for wins, but there is no penalty for losses in PPR. Losing in the first round of the main and consolation draws of a tournament may not result in any points, but such an outing does not take away points earned in other tournaments. Other systems we discuss below will take losses into account to come up with more accurate orderings, but encouraging play is obviously a nice property - especially for a governing body. Points systems also make it easy to include doubles events - which is a challenge that existing head-to-head systems have not been able to address.
- Credit for Doubles - PPR awards credit for doubles play - a desirable trait for college-bound players, and something that many players, parents, and coaches want. Head-to-head systems have a difficult time including doubles, and neither UTR nor CR make use of doubles in their ratings and rankings. This is a clear win for PPR.
- Control over Tournaments - The point tables for PPR are determined by the governing body, and so the organization can promote tournaments that it wishes. The USTA can use this property to place tournaments with similar point structures around the country - allowing players in all states access to points.
International Tennis Federation Rankings
The ITF Rankings are also points-based, and so they have properties similar to the USTA PPR rankings. The ITF rankings have only one age group - 18 & under - and they also include both singles and doubles events.
ITF tournaments are leveled, from the Grand Slams to Grade 5, where Grade 5 offers the least ranking points. As mentioned above, ITF rankings use both singles and doubles results. Rankings points for singles events are worth between 20% and 50% more than points for doubles events, and then the point total for singles is weighted above doubles by a four-to-one ratio.
The goals of the ITF Rankings are similar to those of the USTA PPR. For the purposes of this article, we will not further discuss ITF rankings.
Universal Tennis Ratings
Universal Tennis Ratings (UTR) are rating numbers between 1 and 16 assigned to tennis players to provide objective measures of their level of play. UTRs are distinct from the USTA PPR and ITF in that they are ratings rather than rankings - the numeric values are intended to have meanings. Higher UTRs indicate a higher level of play, with a small number of elite professional men having UTRs of 16.5 and the newest beginners having UTRs of 1.0.
Universal Tennis Ratings use a head-to-head algorithm based on results from the most recent thirty matches from the past year. The ratings are based on the ratings of recent opponents and how competitive the matches were in terms of scores.
UTRs are intended to identify players who have similar skill levels so that they compete against each other to provide matches that are more competitive, better for development, or are more fun. Matches between players within one UTR level of each other are expected to be competitive.
The UTR system has unique properties and goals:
- Common Framework - Unlike other systems that rank juniors, college players, adults, or professionals, the UTR provides a common framework for evaluating and comparing players from all levels.
- Crossing Categories - Organizations that make use of the UTR can use the common framework for better placement of new players. New college freshmen could qualify for early-season college tournaments, and junior players who age up or move to a new area of the country could be immediately eligible for higher-level play.
- Head-to-Head Ratings - Unlike the PPR, UTR is a head-to-head system that takes into account who you play rather than where you play. Beating a player ranked above you or losing to a player ranked below you will pull you up or down, respectively. Even a close loss to a player ranked above you could potentially lift your ranking. Losses and scores are used by the UTR to generate more accurate comparisons between players.
Tennis Recruiting Class Rankings Lists
Tennis Recruiting's Class Rankings Lists (CR) are head-to-head rankings of American junior tennis players grouped by graduation year (e.g., High School Seniors, Juniors, Sophomores, etc.). The CRs are based on head-to-head ratings for players that use USTA and ITF match results from the previous twelve months. These ratings are then used to create a single ordering of all players - and, finally, we filter out the Americans by graduation year to create the CR lists.
The ratings behind the CRs - which we call Power Ratings - are perfectly retrodictive. That is, the power ratings for a player and his/her opponents are set such that the expected number of wins is exactly equal to the actual number of wins for his/her match results. Tennis Recruiting also has a predictive variant that takes scores into account and weights recent play more heavily.
The CRs have several several distinct characteristics and goals:
- Rankings Based on Graduation Year - Unlike the other systems which classify players based on age or across the entire population, the CRs rank players based on graduation year. Such rankings allow players and coaches to easily identify and categorize players competing for roster spots and scholarships.
- Mathematical Properties - The power rating numbers behind the CR lists have interesting mathematical properties. As can be seen in our junior tournament heat maps, the relationship between two players' power ratings can be used to calculate a probability for the match winner.
- Head-to-Head Ratings - Like the UTR, the Class Rankings use a head-to-head system based on wins and losses. The CR ranking algorithm is a variant of the well-known Elo system which is the standard rating system used for chess and other competitor-versus-competitor contests. Such ranking systems are known to be very powerful and accurate.
More Is Better
We have reviewed four different ranking and rating systems - each with very different goals. Which one is the best? Well, that depends on what you are looking for. Are you looking for an easy-to-understand system that is highly transparent? Or a system whose ordering is a good reflection of past results? Maybe a system that tries to capture how players are playing right now? Or predicts how they will perform in the future?
These goals differ significantly, and no ranking system is going to do a good job of achieving all of these goals simultaneously. The USTA PPR holds a unique position today as the official system used for tournament entry and seeding, and so it should be held to a very high standard. But the goals of a governing body differ significantly from those of, say, a website for college recruiting.
One significant benefit of having multiple ranking systems in place is that it is difficult to "game" all of them simultaneously. Playing doubles does not help your UTR or CR ranking, but doubles earns ranking points for PPR. Finding relatively weak tournaments with high point rewards might help one's PPR ranking, but there are no rewards for that kind of play in UTR or CR. Relatively small point values may not provide much incentive for players to compete in consolation events, but those matches have the same impact as main draw matches in head-to-head systems.
We would argue that there is a place for all of these ranking systems in junior tennis. Each system has its strengths, and having multiple tools for comparing players is a good thing. There are multiple rankings in football and basketball - why not for junior tennis?
We hope you have enjoyed this discussion of junior tennis rankings. Feel free to weigh in with your comments below. Also note that we plan to discuss tennis rankings further over the coming months with a series of articles - so stay tuned!
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