The Problem With Leagues

Joel Drucker

Amateur golfers are known to inflate their handicaps to gain a competitive advantage.  Now it seems tennis players are DEflating their NTRP rankings to gain a competitive advantage in league play.

The Cheating Culture

Well known tennis writer Joel Drucker says, “Welcome to the culture of league tennis, where winning matters more than improvement, where a 4.0 who can win frequently will be more in demand than an entry-level 4.5, where players will intentionally lose games or even entire matches in order to stay at one rating level.”

“Has the pursuit of seemingly significant outcomes – a trip to the nationals, or even a victory – turned tennis into a cousin of Little League Baseball?”

Combo Leagues

And have you come across the 8.5 combo leagues?  There, the team captain strives to combine a true 5.0 player who is playing down at a 4.5 level with a strong 4.0 player, to make an almost unbeatable doubles team (unless the opposition does the exact same thing).

Joel continues, “So the concept of doing well — of being considered a good player and having a steady flow of tennis mates – can often be less in the hands of the individual and more a matter of administrative politics, of captains who make lineups (including the order of matches, shuffling the deck for all sorts of personal and competitive reasons), of some teammates who are more available than others, of cheaters who manipulate their rating in the pursuit of esteem (wow) at what after all is only a game we play for our health.”

“In many cases, be it at a club or a park, league teams have become the central tennis community-building tool – in large part, taking on much of the work that should be done by a tennis director. Much of this is good. League tennis can be a fun way to compete and socialize in a workable manner. But there is also a poisonous aspect to it.”

For Joel’s full article at, please click HERE

What are your league experiences?

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10 thoughts on “The Problem With Leagues

  1. I agree with the article , one of the things I have suggested is to have a singles and a doubles ratings for each player. I know players that usually play doubles will play singles in a tournament knowing they are going to lose and want to lose simply to continue winning in leagues at doubles. In our area tournaments play into the rating. The other suggestion was to go by the win record for instance a player wins over 75% of the matches for two years straight its time to move up, this would help with the sand bagging letting the other player win games instead of earning them. The sad part is that it is not growing the game because the new players that have I seen are discouraged and feel they could never become good enough to play league or tournaments.

    OhioJack, good thoughts; and, i was asked to get my rating lower so i could join a team (which i did not do). thanks, george

  2. Excellent article–as always–by friend Joel Drucker.
    Our summer league in CT struggles with all of this, and, frankly, it gets tiresome with the prevailing mania mirroring Little League (OMG little Johnny will be permanently scarred if he loses or strikes out three times. Each game MUST be close, etc.!).
    Anyone who’s ever played sports knows you learn a lot more by losing–especially to players better than you–than by winning.
    As Joel points out, there’s a lot of rating “games” being played, so why not try leagues for players 40+, put your best players at the top and and let the chips fall. Tennis and country clubs and associations are from year to year better or worse based on age, injury and membership changes, and the truth is that some clubs will at times be a lot better than others.

    So be it.

    Phil, agree… i do not understand the need to manipulate things in order to win. thanks, george

  3. Several comments.

    First, there is nothing new here although I agree with friend Drucker and his article. League teams have been stacking their lineups by recruiting strong players to “play down” since the league concept gained favor in the 1980s.

    Second, I have always felt that separate NTRP levels for singles and doubles make sense. I am somewhat better at doubles than singles. Some of my friends are the opposite. Why should we be given a single overall rating that obliges us to play with and against players who may not be at our level – better or worse – because the rating computer will only issue one combined level? It makes no sense.

    Third, the rating computer is dynamic. It changes constantly as head to head match scores are recorded. Heretofore it is secret – USTA will not reveal the exact two decimal number that everyone has to the general public. But why not reveal the number? If the numbers were public, rules could be set that team captains are not allowed to play players who are greater than a certain percentage higher than an opposing player or team without the opposing captain’s consent. Arguably this would result in much better competition and closer matches.

    Fourth, this notion of “playing down” so teams can make districts, sectionals or even nationals makes no sense to me. If I have to cheat to get to the playoffs, I don’t want to be there. Personally, I would rather”play up” than down any day. I don’t feel tested unless I am playing people who are either better than me or close enough that they make me work hard to win. How else can we get better?

    Marty, four good points (enough to win a game!). thanks, george

  4. George, I played in two doubles USTA leagues this year. A combined 7.5, 55 and older league and a combined 7.0, 65 and older ( I dropped down after the 55 and over season completed). First time playing USTA. I did see Captains from all teams trying to decide where to play their players. When I played with the weaker players on my teams, I was about 50/50. When paired with another strong player, we were undefeated in both leagues. My quandary was to decide if I really thought that I was a true 4.0 at my age. I definitely know that my 4.0 self from 30 years ago was much better than my current self. Do you take your age into account when you play?

    Dave, i have debated this with USTA folks for years … according to them, age is NOT a factor in ratings. but in my opinion, a 4.5 player over 60 has no chance vs a 30 year old 4.5. Buuuut, as i remember your game, you are closer to a 5.0 than a 4.0!! george

  5. For reference, best teams in our section were from Naples/Ft Myers and Tampa area.

  6. Fortunately for me, I started to play tennis 40 years ago with someone that would beat me 6-0 every time! So there was no pressure on me to win but I gradually improved over the years thanks to Steve Contardi and the Tennis Legends help. Since starting to play in a 3.5 league, I saw the same aforementioned things happening. Playing against players who have no business at that level. I equate to the “Rosie Ruiz” rule in Marathon races, when someone’s cuts the course to get an impressive time or qualify for Boston. I am afraid is a part of most things in today’s society, which is a sad statement. Enjoyed everyone’s comments.

    Larry, sandbaggers in every sport! thanks, george

  7. George, thanks, but your (our) age is affecting your eyesight and memory : )
    Some top ten nationally ranked USTA players my age (65-70) are rated at 4.5
    Hope to see you in October.

  8. One additional issue (at least in the Northern Section ) is that when you reach age 65, they will never raise your rating. So if you have one year where you “manage” your play to get a lower rating, you can play forever at that new lower rating. It can make for some pretty unbalanced leagues.

    Rick, and that is how some “game” the system. thanks, george

  9. In my experience, USTA League Tennis has tended to bring the worst out in folks, rather than the best. I have seen countless instances of men (and women) behaving badly because of the “importance” of the match, the rating, the standing, and one’s reputation as a player. The ideals of fair play and collegiality have largely been lost, in my opinion.

    Jim, you are right on! Thanks. George

  10. Right on with your comments -Joel. The need to win at the top level in Softball applies as well. This last weekend at the Western States tourney, the top 6 over 55 major plus teams squared off. Basically there were 5 teams playing for second. A huge Construction Company sponsors a top team and pays players to play plus all travel expenses. They recruit the top talent from 5 states (all from other teams over the years). Add in steroids (yes at our age) and shaved bats and you cannot stop them. All the rest of the teams were very competitive and the greatest guys. We are resigned to it and have fun with our team that has been together for 7 plus years.

    Rambo, that top team sounds like the Newk camp Sunday night draft on steroids! Thanks. George

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