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Copyright 2016 by Paul Fein

Super Senior letter to the USTA about Rankings

Dear USTA Adult Competition Committee and USTA Officers, March 1, 2016

The Feb. 17, 2016 email from Doug Wenger, Chair of the USTA Adult Competition Committee, to Ron Tonidandel, requires a comprehensive reply. This issue of the number of Super Senior tournaments to count for a national ranking involves both producing accurate, fair rankings and increasing tournament participation.

What’s wrong with the much-criticized USTA’s “Super Senior” men’s ranking system that counts only 4 tournaments? And how can we devise a ranking system that produces accurate, and thus fair, rankings?

The worst flaw is that not all tournament results count in the current Super Senior national rankings. Because the top 100 men’s singles players in the 55-60-65-70-75 divisions averaged 6.74 tournaments (from Jan. 1 to Dec. 15, 2014) and 6.38 tournaments (from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2015 *), an average of 2.74 tournaments — 41% — were not counted in the “Best 4” rankings for 2014; and an average of 2.38 tournaments — 37% — were not counted in the “Best 4” rankings for 2015.

The specific 2014−2015 tournament participation breakdown averages are as follows:

  • 6.2 and 6.3 tournaments in the 55 division
  • 6.9 and 6.4 tournaments in the 60 division
  • 6.7 and 6.4 tournaments in the 65 division
  • 7.0 and 6.5 tournaments in the 70 division
  • 6.9 and 6.3 tournaments in the 75 division. (* 81 players in 2015)

The sine qua non of all tennis ranking systems historically is that all tournament results must count. This principle applies to all regular-season and playoff results in the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA—both for team standings and individual player statistics.

That time-tested tennis tradition ended when the ATP adopted a “Best-14” ranking system in 1990. Its rationale was that this innovation would induce or bribe unwilling players to play at least 14 tournaments, only if the ATP threw out the results of their worst tournaments.

The "Best 14" succeeded in increasing the average number of singles tournaments played—but it also decreased Davis Cup and doubles participation, while not decreasing participation in exhibition events. Worst of all, it ruined the ATP ranking system by producing inaccurate rankings.

Today’s ATP and WTA rankings systems are a hybrid in the sense that the four Grand Slam events and nine Masters events are "mandatory" and thus automatically count in the rankings, while a total of 17 ATP and 16 WTA tournaments count. For many players, 1 to 15 of their tournaments still do not count in the rankings. A ranking system must count all results to produce accurate, and thus fair, rankings.

The second ssine qua non of a valid ranking system is that it must use a point average that divides the total number of points earned by the total number of tournaments played. A point average system uses a “minimum divisor.” We recommend that the “minimum divisor” for 55 to 75 Super Senior age divisions be 6. Why? For two reasons. First, a national ranking is always extremely important, but especially so in a country with 17 sections that vary greatly in strength and depth. At least 6 tournaments provide sufficient tournaments to measure accurately everyone’s record.

Second, 6 tournaments is a reasonable minimum number, considering that only one national tournament is required to be eligible for a national ranking.

In 2015, the USTA’s Adult Competition Committee was comprised of 19 members, of whom 6 were women. Of the 13 men, only 6 were active 55 to 75 division Super Senior tournament competitors during the past ten years. These 19 committee members contended that a "Best 4" ranking system is fair for Super Senior men’s players because many Super Senior players cannot afford to play more than 4 tournaments per year. This contention is incorrect, as we will show.

The number used in "Best-whatever-number" ranking systems is analogous to the number used as the "minimum divisor" in point-average ranking systems. The "minimum divisor" simply means that if, for example, you play fewer than 6 tournaments, your point total is still divided by 6 to determine your point average. If you play more than 6 tournaments, your point total is divided by the exact number of tournaments you play to determine your point average.

In the debate about the right number for the "Best" number or the "minimum divisor" number, what matters most is what Super Senior players actually do. That means the number of tournaments they actually play each year.

What matters least is what they say in polls or surveys. The poll designed by Ron Tonidandel was intelligent, fair, and comprehensive in the sense that pertinent questions were asked and several choices about their preferred number of tournaments were given to respondents, all of whom were Super Senior men players. Furthermore, Ron’s poll asked for and received the reasoning of respondents, which added information and insight to the debate. Ron’s poll of 180 players found that 83% favored 5 or more tournaments being counted.

In contrast, the USTA poll was flawed in several respects. Besides asking tendentious and irrelevant questions, the USTA poll failed to ask the most relevant questions. Furthermore, the USTA poll asked the wrong people about a Super Senior men’s issue. Of the reported 517 players who said "Yes" in favor of the "Best 4" ranking system, 288 were age 54 or younger, and 173 were women. Only Super Senior men players should be allowed to vote on Super Senior men’s issues in a poll.

However, Super Seniors gave the vote that counts when the overwhelming majority of them played five or more tournaments in 2014 and 2015.

Did Super Senior players care about the "Best 4" rule? Based on the evidence, they did not care. If they truly had great financial difficulty playing 4 tournaments, why did only 11% of the 500 ranked players in 2014 and again only 11% of the 481 ranked players in 2015 play in exactly 4 tournaments? And, even among that 11%, were there reasons other than financial hardship why they did not play 5 or more, and perhaps many more, tournaments? The only way we can know for sure is to ask that 11%.

However, we do know that Super Senior players decide to enter a given tournament—or not enter a given tournament—as well as enter a given number of tournaments during a given year for various reasons.

These reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • time required
  • travel distance
  • the likely or actual quality of the field
  • environmental conditions: heat, humidity, and altitude
  • court surface
  • how one has fared there in the past
  • the quality of the facilities
  • the time or season of the year
  • the competence and integrity of the tournament director
  • one’s current playing form and recent results
  • one’s current overall health and that of one’s family
  • business and family commitments
  • one’s current injury status
  • mortality factor
  • loss of interest
  • a consideration of how one can best improve, or at least not hurt, one’s ranking based on the ranking rules and related factors, such as the amount of points awarded at a given tournament. Of course, these same reasons can apply to all players, especially those who played 3 or less tournaments in a given year.

We believe no player should wrongfully lose in a flawed ranking system what he rightfully won in tournament competition.

A final point to think about: the USTA claims—with no supporting evidence—that participation in Super Senior events has decreased in the past ten years. The aforementioned statistics show a very slight decrease in overall singles participation from 2014 to 2015 among the top 100 players in the 55-60-65-70-75 divisions, and most of that is because of a decrease in participation among players ranked Nos. 51-100 in every division.

Let’s assume the USTA claim is true for the sake of argument. During those past ten years, the USTA has decreased the number of tournaments that count for a national ranking from 6 to 5 to the current 4. While correlation does not prove causation, it is highly suggestive: counting more tournaments results in greater player participation in tournaments.

Conversely, it may in fact be the case that counting fewer tournaments decreases participation. And if that is the case, then it cannot also be true that counting more tournaments decreases participation, which is the USTA’s longtime claim.

Therefore, to produce fair rankings and to increase player participation, the USTA should increase the number of tournaments that count to 5 in 2016. At the end of 2016, in consultation with Super Senior players, the USTA should evaluate both the numbers and the players’ conclusions, and then determine how many tournaments should count in 2017.

Thank you, in advance, for reconsidering this important issue for Super Senior players. We look forward to your reply.


Paul Fein — lincjeff1@comcast.net

Ron Tonidandel — travelingtennisman@gmail.com

Bob Dreyfus — robertmdreyfus@aol.com

J.B. (Jerald) Hayes — jbhengr@netscape.net

Jim Higley — jim@higley.net

Charles (Whitey) Joslin — whiteyjoslin@gmail.com

Leon Kennedy — lckennedystpete@aol.com

Jim Lazenby — shirleycunningham55@yahoo.com

John Mayotte — mayottejr@verizon.net

George McCabe — georgemccabe@hotmail.com

Murray (Ray) MacNeil — raymacneil@comcast.net

John Natolly — jnatolly@harborhills.com

Jim Reilley — jrei@earthlink.net

Robert Schmitz — rs72535@aol.com

Steve Sudarsky — ssudarsky@comcast.net

Ed Trost, Tournament Director — etrost@dc.rr.com

Roger Upton — rrupton@bellsouth.net

Enclosures (2): Super Senior 2014 and 2015 tournament participation statistics

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