Who Gets to Play?

With Mike “Rambo” Rennels

Your league team is successful and you are going to the sectionals/district playoffs.  How many players do you bring with you — and, do they all get to play, even if they are not the “best” players?  This is the question that came in from one of my good Newk camp buddies …

Play All or Play the Best?

George, I have been coaching usta for a few years now with a friend. In our 9.5 combo league we have made it to districts/sectionals. It is now 6 weeks off and we are preparing our best players for that weekend.

We have 6 clear starting players (3 lines with a 5.0 paired with a 4.5).

A 5.0 player that brought on four of the starters onto our 17-person established team is demanding that he get to play at least one match at districts if he goes as the backup.

I and my fellow coach have never encountered this before after many years of coaching. We have always played to win. Since the format is two sets and a 10 point tiebreaker- it is unlikely that our young team (ages-28-45) will get tired. If we are in a battle going into Sunday we would want our best in the deciding match.

Talent wise he is a step down from our starters. But we would like a 5.0 backup.”

What should our response be to this player?”

Mike, That is why we call you “Rambo” at Newk’s… you are highly competitive and will give your all to win a match for the team.  But most of the world is not that way.  Most of the players play on a team (any team) because they enjoy the competition AND the camaraderie.

Also, in senior tennis, we would never want to go to the districts/sectionals without at least one (or two) players beyond the six.  Someone will always get injured.

And, in my opinion, if you are asking someone to give up their weekend and travel with you to the matches, he does deserve to play at least one match.

Other league player opinions?

Larry Turville Update

Hanging in there from Houston. Didn’t think it would happen with a three-week Chemo, but my hair is starting to go. Hopefully, I have enough left to look respectable. Chemo seemed to work shrinking the tumors some. Radiation to start in a few weeks.  I am still playing tennis.”

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15 thoughts on “Who Gets to Play?

  1. This is a tough one as all tennis players want to win! I do believe you have extra players for reasons such as emergencies. However, if one gives up his time and spends money for hotels he should play. Fairness and consideration should be followed. Play hard have fun winning is a bonus.

    Phil, i am with you! thanks, george

  2. This comes up frequently. We are clear at the onset of the season if are competitive or recreational, and choose lineups and match time accordingly.

    At sectionals (ten times in various divisions), we typically start with our best lineup and adjust based on current performance and health. If we drop out of contention (usually round robin format prior to finals) we substitute liberally to give everyone playing time.

    Ironically, on both our national qualifying teams, it was our lowest (#3 dubs) teams that won our deciding doubles matches to qualify.

    My takeaway is this…be clear upfront on how you will manage playing time. And politely decline to add players that create drama over your stated objectives not matching their expectations.

    Kirk, yes, getting it straight at the start of the season is critical. thanks, george

  3. The goal at sectionals is to move on to Nationals – as a team captain, the obligation is to choose the lineup that gives the best chance to win – the best lineup is subjective but someone has to decide what it is – to diminish the chance to win by giving in to a “me first, team second” player is not fair to the other players. Winning is not important but competing to win as hard as you can is – the solution is to see if the player will adjust his attitude and if not, leave him off the travel squad and next year’s team. Sorry it is hard to get an opinion from me!

    Winder, I generally agree… unless you are asking the “sub” to give up his weekend, travel, and stay in a hotel while his teammates get to play. Thanks. George

  4. In some ways this question occupies the challenging intersection of the tennis gestalt and league play. The tennis gestalt, fueled mostly by its roots in tournament singles play, is heavily (100 percent?) about a player being a player — the singular dude, in control of his destiny. This is why tournaments, not leagues, have long defined excellence in tennis.

    But league play is a team activity, more akin to softball, basketball and volleyball. My belief is that when you throw in with a league team, you are agreeing to participate on those terms. To that end, no one — and I don’t care if Mike Bryan is on your combo 9.5 team — has the right to make playing time a term of attendance. As in other team sports, there are a variety of ways you can aid the squad: warming up your teammates, watching them play, taking notes during their matches so that you can share insights later, etc.

    All that said, this is one reason why I personally have a big problem with league tennis. The subtleties of lineups — endemic to team sports — are typically absent from the tennis culture. Unable to find a spot on the high school or college team? So what. Go play tournaments. But league play has altered that.

    So the 5.0 who demands playing time is barking up the wrong tree. He signed up to be on a team and that’s that. And of course he’s also free not to attend.

    Joel, we can always count on you for a thoughtful response! Thanks. George

  5. It’s a TEAM event. Everyone should be striving for a TEAM win. If the best way for the team to win is for you to warm up the better players before the match and bring them Gater-aid before the 3rd set, that’s what you do – without complaining. If the captain puts you on court 1 as cannon fodder and puts your best players on 2 & 3 to get a win via strategery – take it with a grin.

    Terry. I guess I would want you on MY team! Thanks. George

  6. Perhaps on point is the USA Senior Davis Cup teams that take 4 players and travel (this year the super senior teams play in Croatia) – I have followed our teams for 20 years enjoying as a fan and hoping to get good enough to participate one day – the team captain chooses the best lineup in the 2 singles followed by 1 doubles format. Many many times 3 of the 4 players play and one does not. Assuming the selection of players is based solely on analysis of best chance to win, the 4th player , although a very accomplished player, sits out and should be totally supportive of the team. I have talked to many players after they return from the Team World Championships and the attitude I get from them is absolute support for the team captain’s decisions. The 4th player has traveled but not played in the big matches as it was best for the team. I completely agree with Joel’s well written analysis applying this principal to league teams.

    Winder. I guess like being the backup QB to Tom Brady and winning the SuperBowl. Thanks. George

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

    Mike, what did you end up doing? george

  8. Such a great topic, so let me add that the team, just like in basketball and other team sports, should after each match take a deep and candid look at how each pairing really worked — and not just base this evaluation on a victory. This requires exceptional self-assessment about skills, health, etc.

  9. This can be frustrating and there is no easy answer. Last year, I got recruited to a new USTA team on the strength of my doubles game, or so I was told by the prospective captain. I also was instrumental in recruiting a long time tennis buddy to the team, with whom I had previously entered, and won, several doubles tournaments and am generally compatible with on the court basically because we play the same style of doubles — old fashioned get-to-the-net whenever and as quickly as you can doubles.

    However, even though we both expressed a preference to play with each other, the captain decided to get “creative” with the doubles pairings in an effort to stretch out more victories on the court. My friend got paired with a third player who plays a lot like my friend and I do — the same get-to-the-net type game. They wound up winning together, a lot, which was to be expected because they were both playing the style of play that they knew and liked, and most importantly because that is generally the easier style of play to win at doubles just about everywhere.

    I, unfortunately, was not so lucky. For three or four matches in a row, I got paired with a succession of predominately singles players as my doubles partners, all of whom had wonderful and beautiful loopy topspin-groundstrokes-from-the-baseline type games but who had absolutely no concept of how or when to come to the net in doubles, and had anywhere from mediocre to downright shitty volleys and half-volleys when they even got there. I lost a number of matches that I am sure I could have won, easily, with my normal doubles partner — or in fact with just about any other player who understands the get-to-the-net style of traditional doubles.

    And just to answer anyone who might say it was me and not my partners who was responsible for losing, none of the guys that I was paired with wound up winning with anyone else either. But I did manage to play a single match with another get-to-the-net style player whose normal partner was unavailable that day and we wound up winning easily.

    Complaints to my captain went unanswered. His response was that he had not recruited anyone else beyond the guys that I had been paired with for the team. Nor were any of those guys able to win with each other.

    Finally, when it came time for the weekend of the districts, I wound up being notified by the captain that I was not going to play the first day of the event, which was the more critical day because the team had to win twice that day even to play a match the second day, because according to the captain “my record did not justify it.” Based on record alone, I could not disagree with him. But what he failed to take into account was that the captain’s bad pairings were the main reason why “my record did not justify it.” I think I had every right to be somewhat pissed, and I was.

    You can probably guess the outcome. The team wound up losing one of the two critical matches that it needed to win the first day of the playoffs. The team consisting of my buddy and his new found get-to-the-net partner, my clone, won easily at #1. But the other two teams went down in close tiebreakers. Afterward, one of the players who had lost (another get-to-the-net player) told me when he walked off the court that he had also questioned the captain on why I was not playing and he had even specifically asked to partner with me, because he knew the team that he had to play against and he felt that he and I could have beaten them easily. But, standing entirely on record alone, the captain told him that I did not “deserve” to play, and the rest was history.

    Guess whose team I will NOT be playing on this season.

    Marty, see Joel’s comment right above this one. george

  10. Anent Joel’s second comment, I could not agree more that won/loss records are not, or at least should not be, the primary indicators of doubles prowess. (This could be different with singles.) Instead, whoever makes the assessment — whether it is the players themselves or their captain or coach — needs to look past the scores and take account of things like styles of play, righty/ lefty advantages and disadvantages, preferred receiving sides, foot speed, agility and general health, personality types, ability to play in challenging conditions like the sun or wind, better indoors or outside, better on hard courts or soft courts, etc. to form a deeper assessment of the players .

    Most importantly, it is not about the individual players, but their overall compatability with each other as a doubles TEAM. Success in tennis doubles is very much a whole is greater than the sum of the parts kind of thing. I have seen two 4.0 players who are longstanding doubles partners with each other and are, literally, like ying and yang on the court take apart two strong 4.5 players, who are not accustomed to playing with each other’s games, on numerous occasions on the court. Each of the same 4.5 guys would probably win 6-1, 6-1 or thereabouts against each of the 4.0 guys in singles any day of the week. It is one of the reason why young, fast and hard hitting players in their teens and 20s who have only minimal doubles experience frequently find themselves taken apart and embarrassed by two old and crafty doubles specialists, who are close to if not receiving Social Security, as the old guys slice and dice, drop shot, angle shot, half volley, and lob the young guys to death.

    One of the unique, and gratifying, aspects of playing on teams headed by the Legends at Tennis Fantasies is that so many of the Legends have an amazing ability to match and pair two tennis strangers and put people together with other players who they pair well with on the doubles court. Of course, not all of the Legends are equally adept at this but, for the most part, they are all much better at it than we recreational players are. It is no doubt tough being a captain of a USTA team. But the best ones do not rely solely on won/loss records to create doubles teams. The best ones realize it is mainly an art and not a science.

  11. Marty – for what it’s worth – I would have started you in the districts with a net-rusher partner.

    At our districts- we beat the weakest team on the first day 3-0.

    The second day we played the third best team that lost 0-3 to the top team who we would be playing on the third day.

    No matter how we could measure out the lineup on day two we needed our best teams.

    We lost two tight breakers and lost on the second day 1-2.

    On day three we needed to sweep the 2-0 team. We lost 1-2 in our third match and ended up in second place in the flight – among three team that went 1-2 by virtue of winning 5 of 9 matches.

    The top team in our flight went on to win the sectionals.

    I stuck to my guns and played the same 6 guys all three days.

    I had a fellow 4.5 there as emergency backup and he was fine with his roll.

    The 5.0 I didn’t play was sore about his experience and complained bitterly. Safe to say he will probably not play on any of our future teams. During the weekend he was a decent sport about his situation and helped out his teammates. He is a very decent chap off the court.

    One of his buddies (our best 4.5 backup) refused to come to districts because he wasn’t guaranteed a match.

    All 6 starting players realized the talent level and felt We made the right decision.

    Looking back at that weekend. We handled it correctly.

    Mike, good stuff! thanks for sharing and for the good topic. george

  12. Obviously a topic of extreme interest from the various comments.
    Knowing “what the deal is” when signing up team members at the season’s start is a key. “Everybody who goes plays” verses “we play the best team” are both legitimate approaches but should not be a surprise as the team to go to the districts is selected.

    Ted, like a clear pre-nup! Thanks. George

  13. George, my USTA team won Florida Sectionals and finished 4th at Nationals in Suprise, Az this January. We had 12 players for Sectionals and 9 went to Nationals. The team agreed that everyone who traveled should play, especially with the cost of going to Az. All players played at least 2 matches and the best players played almost all matches. At Nationals, our captain split up our number 1 team in the Division match. One of our number 1’s broke his wrist in the Division match, and the other number 1 pulled a hamstring. As a team we were happy to finish 4th out of 17 Sectional winners, and everyone played.

    Dave, seems like an overall good experience! Thanks. George

  14. George and all, I appreciate all these thoughtful comments on helping teams enjoy/manage their USTA league play and playoffs. I have captained and participated on many teams, at all USTA playoff levels. I agree that during the recruiting of players before the season starts it is necessary for the captain and players to share the “team vision” about the terms/conditions of “who plays when?” These are vital ingredients to a good agreement.
    Beyond “who plays” another interesting discussion within a USTA team involves the hypothetical question of “if we win, then who will commit to going to sectionals and nationals?” Given the significant time and money that can be involved in attending either of these USTA playoffs, league players, even the “best players” might not chose to go to a playoff. This situation can also result in some hurt feelings without a good “pre-nup”.

    Randy, yes, i was on a league team that had “committed” to go to sectionals; but when we won, we did not have a quorum! thanks, george

  15. there is a whole lot of discussion on the NSMTA site about the dilemma a league team coach has in sectional and national playoffs about playing his best players (to win) or making sure all players who spent $$ for travel and hotels get to play. There is a solution – at least a solution part of the time. And it could help participation at the local level also.

    Currently in Texas League play, in the Sectional playoffs, and USTA championships teams play three doubles matches simultaneously. This normally results in teams playing their best three teams. And substitutes who have travelled with the team (and spent gas, hotel and food $$) usually don’t get to play unless the team has already lost their chance to win.
    In our USTA league play and championships we could modify the format and play two of the three matches at the same time, and then play the third match after the first two finish. If the match has already been decided then team captains could play their ‘weaker’ players. Mathematically the exact same number of courts are used no matter the number of teams participating, except for the last match of the day.
    This format would allow teams to bring additional team members with them and have a higher chance of those teammates playing than under the current system.
    (As you know, in International Cup play the three matches are played consecutively, and when a team has won the first two matches, substitute players many times get to play the third match. )
    Our mission in tennis has always been to find ways to increase participation. While this proposal doesn’t increase the number of players per se, it does allow more team members to play and then those players will talk about their experiences to their friends, and hopefully more players will want to play in our leagues. In any event it doesn’t cost anything to try this.

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