The Jack Kramer Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, where legendary coaches such as Vic Braden and Robert Lansdorp helped shape the nascent games of Open-era icons including Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport, added another significant chapter to its legacy last December. It hosted the inaugural California Championships.
The event offered a modest, $30,000 purse. The highest seed was then-ATP No. 33 Steve Johnson; the winner was then-ATP No. 51 Sam Querrey. Mardy Fish and Tommy Haas, whose tournament-playing days are behind them, were among the other notable competitors.
What was so historic about it? For one, it was perhaps the most “open” of all tennis tournaments ever staged. Over the course of a hectic week, 269 recreational and professional players competed in the California Championships, using an orderly format and entry system based on a new, disruptive technology sweeping the game: UTR. Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) is an algorithm-driven system that rates a player based on his or her 30 most recent matches over the past 12 months, on a numerical scale ranging from 1.00 (raw beginner) to 16.5 (Novak Djokovic territory). It is based on the quality of the opponents and the score differential—competitiveness—of matches, rather than simply wins or losses. It is blind to age or gender. Any match between players registered with UTR can be tracked as long as UTR is provided the data, either by the players or tournament. More than a million players already have UTR ratings, and UTR has processed over 10 million match results.
“The possibilities with UTR are almost limitless,” says Manhattan Beach native Jeff Tarango, a former pro and California Championships tournament director.
At last year’s Miami Open, when ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert ran into colleague Patrick McEnroe and McEnroe’s daughter, Victoria, a highly skilled junior player, the first words out of her mouth to Gilbert were, “So what’s your UTR?” UTR is not a coming thing. It is an already here thing.
Novak Djokovic (UTR 16.28 at the 2019 Australian Open) and Tennis Australia recently announced a partnership with UTR, which gives pro-tour insights. Ranked No. 1 in Melbourne, Simona Halep’s UTR (13.28) was less than Serena Williams’ (13.34); Williams won their fourth-round match, 6–1, 4–6, 6–4.
Competitive tennis is like an enormous onion, with layer after layer of expertise. The weekend warrior who annually dominates his club championships enters a sectional USTA event and gets waxed in the second round by the No. 7 seed, love-and-two. That player then can’t get a set off of a solid Division I NCAA college player—who then can’t buy a win in an ATP Challenger qualifying event. And so forth.
Official rankings in such a competitively deep sport have always been a perilous exercise. They were principally comprised in two ways: through the subjective evaluation and comparison of players’ performances in sanctioned tournaments; or on the basis of points earned, usually by the rounds reached in those events, as on the ATP and WTA.
One drawback of such rankings was that it favored players who were willing and able to travel to and play many events, especially as the competition grew stiffer. The other drawback was that, except for the top events, the skill levels of players was far too disparate. Virginia tennis pro Dave Howell, who launched UTR in 2008, analyzed tournament results and found that, on average, only one of four matches at a junior tournament were competitive.
Howell’s inspiration for UTR was a similar ranking system already used in France, with some data-based modifications. He ultimately sold UTR to a group headed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Leschly, who played college tennis and recruited a formidable group of investors including tech powerhouse Oracle, Blue Ridge Capital and Roger Federer’s management group, Team8.
Almost overnight, UTR has given tennis players something they have never had: a simple, clear rating system that, like a handicap in golf, provides an objective, results-based measure of one’s skill. That opens opportunities that had never before been available in tennis: level-based competition; the chance to improve without traveling to distant tournaments; the ability to better your ranking even without winning (by playing well against higher-rated opponent, in terms of games won) and a vastly expanded menu of tournaments from which to build ratings.
With UTR-based entry, the California Championships hosted 128 matches on the first day, featuring players ranked as low as 2.96—roughly the equivalent of an NTRP men’s rating of 3.0. The early rounds were contested with Fast4 rules.
Using a staggered feed-in, players with higher UTR ratings didn’t compete until the later rounds, as a way to ensure competitive matches from start to finish. After 223 total matches, the highest UTR level was the champion Querrey’s, at 15.46.
“It’s a great way to organize and run a tournament,” says Tarango. “The reverse [staggered] feed-in works great. It brings in players in at their own level, and that makes a big difference.”
In his winner’s speech, Querrey got to the heart of what made the event unique, and UTR’s impact on it.
“It’s fun to have everyone from 8-year-olds to—I don’t know how old the oldest person was—play the same tournament,” he said.
UTR’s greatest impact may currently be felt in college tennis. Coaches have a standard rating to measure potential recruits against, and players have more opportunities to find comparable competition to better their skills and their rating, no matter where they live.
“Tennis is a traditional sport, but it’s been held back because of it,” says Leschly, the CEO of Universal Tennis. “We need to make some changes to grow the game because we’re living in a digital world, especially when it comes to kids. We need to take advantage of tech and connectivity.”
Using tech and its reach isn’t just about fancy algorithms. It’s about empowering disadvantaged players, broadening the pool of tournaments, finding players for teams and introducing a greater degree of certainty to college recruiting.
“Say there’s a young Frances Tiafoe out there, but he doesn’t have the $50,000 it takes to travel to tournaments chasing points in order to develop a ranking,” Leschly says. “Now he can play locally across all age and gender groups, develop a UTR and become eligible for a college scholarship.”
Until UTR gained traction, Leschly’s own son, an excellent college player, had trouble finding a decent group of practice partners close to home. With UTR, he learned there was a pool of over 20 ideal candidates nearby. As any club or organization is free to host an official UTR tournament, the opportunities for a player to improve at little expense grows exponentially.
“My kids are crazy about UTR,” says Kamau Murray, currently the coach of Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig. He’s also the CEO of XS Tennis, a well-funded program that targets the underserved youth of Chicago. “They love it. It lowers a lot of barriers to getting noticed and maybe earning a scholarship.”
UTR may be having its greatest impact in the collegiate game. As Leschly puts it, how is a coach supposed to compare a player with a high national ranking in Romania to a player from the always-strong NorCal USTA section? The integrity of tournaments and rankings isn’t always guaranteed, but it’s much harder to game the UTR system.
More important, perhaps, is the way UTR can help players aspiring to go pro with the ITF Transition Tour. The pathway onto the ATP is now much narrower.
“The chance for a college player to excel up through the game without wild cards is virtually non-existent on the transition tour,” Leschly says. “We’re trying to create a pathway with UTR.”
Steve Johnson was the highest-ranked ATP pro to enter the 269-player California Championships. But the winner of the event, which included players as young as 8 years of age, was Sam Querrey, whose UTR of 15.46 was the highest in the field.
The ATP and WTA Indian Wells tournament will not rely in any substantial way on UTR—at least not this year. But it almost seems inevitable that at some point it will. Larry Ellison, the owner of the popular March event, is an innovator. He’s also the founder of tech behemoth Oracle, which powers UTR.
People always ask Leschly if UTR is “better” than the ATP rankings, or if UTR hopes to replace them.
“We’re not here to change the ATP or WTA rankings,” he said. “Theirs is based on point accumulation. Ours is different. At the pro level we tell an interesting narrative that compliments the rankings. The ATP tells the story of how far you went at major tournaments in the last 12 months.
“UTR is about how you’re competing, especially in relation to other players. Which seems better? It’s in the eye of the beholder.”
Leschly’s disclaimer doesn’t change the fact that UTR features its pro ratings prominently on its home page. The ratings are similar enough to the tour rankings to be relevant, different enough to be compelling.
In addition to the overall rating, each player has a three-month trending rating. In UTR, a slumping player isn’t living off points earned nine months earlier, nor punished when results from long ago drop off.
To be sure, a few aspects of UTR can and probably will be tweaked. The rating doesn’t take playing surface into account, nor a player’s surface proficiency. Also, while UTR is blind to gender and age, a lack of crossover play influences the ratings. Serena Williams held a rating of 13.28 at the start of 2019. She was ranked No. 16 by the WTA, but rated No. 2—a whisker behind then-WTA No. 1 Simona Halep—in UTR. That isn’t even in the Top 150 among men’s UTR ratings.
For Williams to significantly improve her UTR, she would have to do well against more highly rated players—she would have to play men.
That notwithstanding, UTR has already been an age and gender barrier-busting technology. At most levels, the ratings produce competitive matchups. If you’re a UTR 6.0, you can expect a good match against a woman who plays Division III collegiate tennis, a man with an NTRP of 4.0, a woman with an NTRP of 4.5 or a boys’ USTA sectional 14-and under contender. Pairing a senior player against a youngster of the same UTR can provide an objective lesson in maturity. That points to the overarching potential value of UTR as a tool for community building.
Leschly didn’t acquire UTR and attract his string of heavy-hitting investors just because he wanted to give tennis a handicapping system. He plans to make UTR a platform for a full range of tennis-related activities, from shopping to tournament entry and social interaction. Think of Leschly as the Mark Zuckerberg of tennis, but 16 years older and wearing a white polo instead of a hoodie.
The advantage Leschly’s company may have over other digital tennis platforms is UTR itself. Players will gather because of the common rating system, and from there, a racquet or tickets will be a click away.
“We want to build a very large platform and become a destination where people can engage digitally,” he says. “This is the Yelp, the OpenTable of tennis.”
The effort is bearing fruit. The California Championships was a landmark event, but it wasn’t a one-off experiment. A UTR community engagement platform was rolled out last July, featuring a fully-integrated tournament and event management system, and it has already been the host for 1,800 UTR events.
Perhaps the acronym should stand for Universal Tennis Revolution.