JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best
State of the Club Game: The Growing Death of Sportsmanship
As someone just shy of six decades in the game as a player, coach and administrator, I've seen it all, including a disturbing slow decline of sportsmanship and fair play, particularly in league tennis, one of the USTA's premier components with over 300,000 participants, many of whom are newish players. After all, their mission statement is: "To promote and develop the growth of the game."
Sounds admirable, but at what cost to the game's long standing traditions? I wish that mission statement included, and should, the health of the game as well. Shouldn't quality of growth take precedent over quantitative growth? Sure, we live in very different times compared to the shamateur days of wooden rackets, all white attire, and under the table payments to "pro" players. Yet that was also a time when society enjoyed a greater general sense of civility, both in and out of the game.
It's fair to point out that this can be construed as, at least, part of the reason for some of the on-court boorishness and line-up tom foolery that takes place today in club team tennis. But make no mistake, that doesn't make it excusable.
Let's start with the USTA's admirable introduction of the NTRP (National Tennis Rating Program) rating system, first conceived in 1978 and then methodically implemented throughout the 80's. It was tennis' effort to replicate golf's long standing handicapping, in order to create a level, competitive playing field at the club level; one that today relies on computer algorithms to interpret match play data to place players in the correct skill category.
Sounds good, at least in theory.
Previously, for eons, clubs utilized a simpler (computers and algorithms were a distant reality) A, B, C system of rating their own members, who then competed with other area clubs doing the same. It was Club X's A team vs Club Y's A team, B vs B, and C vs C. A nationalized standardization of this A, B, C method did not exist. That's when club pride and bragging rights held sway with no effort to create egalitarian playing fields. Survival of the tennis' fittest. Team captains, predictably in good faith, placed their top doubles team at the #1 position, 2nd best team on paper at the #2 position, and so on, letting the chips fall where they may. They did not view their A players, for example, as absolutely interchangeable pieces, such as putting their #1 team at #3 to sacrifice first position and insure a win at #3 - a practice that has grown without any apparent meaningful consequences or correction in today's NTRP driven club game.
I'm trying to figure out exactly when and who decided that all 3.5's on a given team are perfectly equal in playing ability and therefore interchangeable – nonsense - and that captains can therefore "strategize" their line-ups to gain an unfair advantage over a team that's, shall we say, old school in their honor system based line-up. Just because "everyone does it," the common often repeated rationale, doesn't make it right.
This is not playing to one's strength and in the spirit of a game with worthy long-standing traditions. It's sand-bagging, stacking, etc. Call it what you will... I call it willful cheating and prioritizing winning above all else!
Katrina Adams, USTA CEO and President, states on their website: "We are doing our utmost to inspire fair play and sportsmanship at every level of play."
Yet, on the same site, I could find only one brief article by one Jackie Finn on the subject. Yes, "there are numerous USTA designated sportsmanship awards handed out throughout the year", but do they trickle down to the masses playing local club tennis and have a positive impact?
I most definitely think not from my vantage point. Lip service at best.
So, since the USTA and also any local independent leagues basically maintain a blind eye, it falls on you, your team members and your team captains to communicate both individually and en masse with both local league administrators and USTA National in order to voice your concerns about undermining line-up manipulation. I know you have them because I hear about it constantly from disgruntled, frustrated players. Be proactive by challenging those opponents clearly inserting players out of position, looking to cheat the system, you, and your teammates.
Now there's a New Year's tennis resolution that is, at the very least, part of a solution.
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