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Devil to Play

Tom McCroskey's teammates call him The Retriever.
During a late spring match--May is still considered early season for competitive tennis in Colorado--McCroskey, who plays for the Denver Tennis Club, is ahead in the score. But that is far from the worst of it. McCroskey is so frustrating to play against that the opponent is beginning to look as if he has just suffered an actual physical attack, even though, sartorially, he still looks excellent.

Indeed, he is what many serious club players see when they picture themselves playing tennis. He is dressed in elegant sportswear. He's nicely tanned, and his curly hair is a salt-and-pepper tousle. His strokes are as just as picturesque: long, flowing forehands struck atop statuary footwork; artistic, leaning backhands that, performed without a racquet, would look like a maestro directing an orchestra through an inspirational movement.

He is also losing. "Um, it's 4-5," he says in answer to a teammate's question during a changeover, adding in an embarrassed mumble, "He won the first set 6-4."

The spectators wince, but they don't move. Watching Tom McCroskey hit a tennis ball is like tuning in to Jerry Springer: You stare because you are awed by the degradation you yourself are being spared.

"He's...unorthodox," suggests Andy Reinhart, a bystander.
"I've never seen anyone like him," agrees another slack-jawed observer. "I'd hate to play him."

McCroskey looks like a giant stork--slightly hunched posture, long wingspan, skinny legs. He wears a baseball cap, a baggy gray sweatshirt and floppy shorts. In between shots, he wheezes. Technically, he is appalling. He hits the ball with only a hint of a backswing and from an open stance--duck-footed, shoulders parallel to the net. The shots are all delivered with almost no pace, enough backspin to slow them down even more, and little, if any, consideration given to placement.

After each shot McCroskey scurries back into position with tiptoed, oddly dainty steps, alighting for an instant in the middle of the court before gasping to the next ball. The rallies take on a steady rhythm, the opponent's textbook shot sounding like a gunshot, McCroskey's return like their distant retorts: BANG...pop...BANG...pop.

A typical point goes like this: The opponent serves (BANG) and McCroskey blocks it back (pop). After a series of lovely strokes by the opponent (BANG, BANG, BANG) and hideous returns by McCroskey (pop, pop, pop), the opponent sets up an impossible-to-return overhead, which is returned all the same by a rasping, lunging McCroskey. This may happen once, twice, even three times. On the next shot, or the next, the opponent, flustered into a miscalculation, hits the ball into the net or out of bounds.

The second set is still unfinished when the opponent twists his knee while trying to run down one of McCroskey's despicable chopped forehands and is forced to forfeit the match. On nearby courts, McCroskey's teammates have all come through as well. By the end of the evening, the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 team has recorded another easy shutout victory.

All of which makes Larry Gabler, The Retriever's coach, positively gleeful. "Tom is the ultimate 4.5-level player," Gabler says as the match concludes. "He'll do whatever it takes to win a match. Once he won a four-hour-and-forty-minute match--and that's best out of three sets."

People who lose to McCroskey often get angry because they think his level of play is beneath them. Yet, as much as it is about physical skill, 4.5-level tennis is a seething and unstable brew of ego and self-delusion, particularly as players get older. To his admirers, the fact that Larry Gabler understands this so well has made him justifiably famous within the state's competitive tennis-league circles.

To league officials, the fact that he has unraveled the psychology of mid-level tennis so well that he's been able to treat their rulebook the way a mob attorney treats the law has simply made him infamous.

At its core, the tennis ratings process is designed to get players a good match. The system is overseen by the United States Tennis Association, which, to promote equity in its leagues, separates players by skill level using a numerical ratings system. It starts at 1.0--a beginner struggling to connect with the ball--and goes to 7.0, a circuit-playing professional. Most club pros, who teach tennis for a living, are ranked 5.0, or maybe 5.5.

Although there is often a correlation, higher ratings should not be mistaken for greater seriousness of purpose; many 3.0 players crave victory as urgently as a 5.5 pro struggling to break into the circuit. But there is a real correlation when it comes to a player's commitment to the sport. A higher rating requires more time and effort to maintain, and the struggle increases dramatically at the uppermost levels of play. At a 5.0 or above, players often must play or teach the game daily to keep their ratings.

As a result, a 4.5 rating seems to represent the threshold so many club tennis players long to cross. Below it, the game involves a bit of strategy but more often ends up being won or lost when someone finally makes a mistake. Above it, through a combination of reliable skills and mental clarity, players begin to actually win their points; the game starts to look truly professional.

Rating players "is not a science, it's an art," cautions Tom Van De Hey, co-chair of the USTA's Colorado Verification Committee. Still, there are guidelines for each level, and a 4.5-level player is described by the USTA as follows: "Starting to master the use of power and spins and beginning to handle pace, has sound footwork, can control depth of shots and is beginning to vary game plan according to opponents. Can hit first serves with power and accuracy and place the second serve. Tends to overhit on difficult shots. Aggressive net play is common in doubles."

That's the book version, anyway. From the sidelines, the level has a decidedly middle-age bent. Conversations list toward injured knees, creaky backs and chiropractic visits. Limbs must be carefully stretched, pulled and warmed before and after matches; many are supported by bandages, braces and wraps. And while some 4.5 players can be beautiful to watch, most are simply good at winning. Four-five may be the last rating at which a player can still win ugly.

None of this is news to Larry Gabler, who, in Colorado, is the guy you go to if you want to win at 4.5 men's tennis. In his spare time, Gabler, 55, is a dentist. When he can get away from the office, he coaches and plays and talks tennis. In 1995 he took his team to the national championships and came in third. In 1997 his players earned a spot in the national tournament again. Last year his latest team, the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 men's squad (on which he also plays), went to the USTA national championship in Tucson and won.

At first glance, the team seems an implausible group of champions. Most of the players are over age fifty. Unlike many other 4.5 team captains, who sign up 4.0 players as they improve, Gabler likes to pluck his team members from the ranks of the aging 5.0s--guys who were once very, very good but have recently sunk to very good. "The trick is to get them on the way down," he explains. "Most of my guys have played at a higher level, while the teams we play have guys who've moved up. It makes for a total mismatch."

Although time always takes a toll on a players' athleticism, Gabler appreciates that, at a certain age, most players have reached the understanding that they are not going to win Wimbledon. It's a revelation that could potentially improve their games, but few players take advantage of that insight.

"You get these young guys out here pounding the ball, and they'll hit some winners," explains Chris Anton, 47, a member of Gabler's team. "But they'll also hit the fence. And that's the difference: You can hit winners, but at this level, that isn't the way most points are won."

"We don't always win pretty," Gabler agrees. "But tennis is a game of putting the ball between the lines. We just want to do it one more time than the other guys."

The oldest player on Gabler's team is Joe Martin, who is 64 years old. At tournaments, Gabler loves to observe people watching Martin play. "These 28-year-old guys get out there thinking, 'I'm going to crush this old guy.' And he carves them up like a pizza," he says. "It's beautiful."

Every year, about sixty 4.5-level teams that have won their local leagues across Colorado compete for the state USTA championship in Denver. The winner goes on to the Intermountain Regional Championships in Salt Lake City, where top teams from the eight mountain states compete. From there, one winning team goes to the nationals. This year's tournament is in Mobile, Alabama, in October.

All of which is to say that Gabler's record of bringing three teams in four years to the national finals is remarkable. Especially since the USTA--because of its nature, as well as its personal dislike of Gabler--keeps trying to stop him.

"We've got 400,000 players nationwide," explains Van De Hey. "What they look forward to, the carrot, is getting the opportunity to advance in these state, regional and national tournaments. If we've got people trying to unfairly hoard the carrot, it tends to kill our program."

USTA rules state that in the year following a national championship run, a team may return only three players from its core squad. In theory, this breaks up championship teams and permits others to have a chance. In practice, Gabler gets around the rule so easily that he doesn't even really consider it an impediment. The catch, he explains, is that players bumped off a championship squad must stay off it for only one year.

"So I have a pool of 25 players to draw from every year," Gabler explains. "Breaking up my team basically means I just recycle guys from 1997 to 1999. That really pisses off the powers that be."

In fact, there is a lot about Larry Gabler that pisses off the powers that be. "Larry could write a book on how to be a successful coach for USTA tennis," says Scott Richardson, who has played on Gabler's teams for several years. "He's figured out the system; he knows it better than they do. And as soon as they change something and try to stop him, he figures out a way to get around it. He flaunts it."

Gabler insists that he is doing only what is necessary--things that may be, if you insist on getting technical, illegal--to overcome an unjust system. It's more conscientious objection than dishonesty.

"To guys like Van De Hey," he says, "it's apparently okay for teams from Colorado to get killed every year, as long as we're 'playing by the rules.' I don't necessarily think that's so good."

Van De Hey agrees that the ratings system is often in direct conflict with serious coaches bent on winning. "If I'm a coach, I'm looking for the best players," he says. "But in some cases the best players you can find are too good for that level. Every system has its loopholes. Some people are just more adept at finding them," he concludes. "And we have team captains who are so...motivated to win that they push the envelope.

"Larry Gabler," Van De Hey adds carefully, "is extremely motivated."
"Fine," Gabler responds. "Call me a poor sport."
The third match of the 1999 season pits Gabler's 4.5 team against the Greenwood Athletic Club. This seems like it could be a fair contest. Nestled in the tony Greenwood Village neighborhood, the club practically screams "affluent tennis lifestyle." It is one of the few in the region to boast indoor clay courts. Members take their tennis very seriously.

After depositing a half-case each of cheap beer and soda in a refrigerator, Gabler begins to assess the competition, something he does obsessively, even while playing a match of his own. "On paper, this match is a joke," he says, looking at his scorecard. "We should be outta here by"--he checks his watch, which reads 6 p.m.--"about seven."

"You'd think that they'd be a good team," Gabler explains, softening his tone a bit. "And there are a lot of good players out there. But with these closed clubs, a lot of good players who want to be on competitive teams just say 'screw it' and go to teams like ours."

A long time ago, when white balls were struck with tiny wooden racquets and players wore all-white togs, tennis clubs fielded teams made up entirely of their members. These days, however, if a club really wants to be competitive, it needs to cast its net wider--and not just for players who are highly skilled. The players also must have the drive and commitment needed to win a national title that returns no money (worse, players pay their own way) and promises no prestige outside a small group of fanatics.

Unlike Greenwood Village, Gabler's club is essentially a Denver All-Star team consisting of players from across the city. "To compete at a national level, you have to have deeper teams than what any club can have on its own without going out and recruiting," says Andy Reinhart, who is studying Gabler closely as part of his attempt to build his own nationally competitive 4.0 team out of Denver. At 4.5, "Larry is really a guru. He knows everybody, and when you have that kind of success, everyone knows him."

"I've sort of cornered the market in 4.5 tennis," acknowledges Gabler, shrugging. "Generally, if I want somebody on my team, I get them."

Part of the reason Gabler has such command over the local talent pool is that after a half-century of the sport, there is little about tennis that Gabler doesn't know or hasn't thought about. He began playing when he was eight years old. Gabler graduated from Brooklyn College, where he competed mostly at singles, and in 1973 moved to Colorado. By the time he turned 35, he was ranked fifth in the state in that age group. In the 1980s, when the USTA began its national league competitions, he played for a few local teams, with some success.

Gabler had always been a 5.0- and, at times, even a 5.5-level player. But in 1992 he started losing tournaments; matches that he would have won a few years earlier began slipping away. To people who don't understand competitive athletics, signs of aging might be considered depressing. For someone like Gabler, however, it simply represented a new and better chance to win against lesser players. When his coach suggested he drop a level to 4.5, he readily agreed.

The following year, Gabler played for the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 USTA league team. "We were just fair," he recalls. "And I realized that nobody in Colorado had ever organized a good 4.5 team. I saw everybody else making all the mistakes, and as a player, I got tired of it. My goal from the beginning was always to get better players than me and go to the nationals." The victory last year, in other words, was the culmination of a very specific, very single-minded quest to acquire the title.

Recently, Gabler has begun to find more enjoyment in coaching than in winning on the court himself. "Now I would almost rather not play and just watch the guys I put out there," he says, "see how I've done. Did I make the right move?" This evening, he is at ease on the sidelines, watching his first doubles team.

The duties are being handled by Dave Gamba, a tall IBM salesman who once was interviewed by Connie Chung for having more frequent-flier miles than anyone else in the country; and Chris Anton, a commercial real-estate salesman. The two have never played as doubles partners before, but Gabler wants to see how they fit each other. He'll watch, and then store the information in the card catalogue he keeps in his head. In this way, he keeps tabs on every talented tennis player in the state who has the potential to someday be an opponent or a recruit.

A longtime friend of Gabler's, Gamba is 57 years old and lanky, with a huge reach that at times seems to encompass the entire court. His serve looks awkward--he faces more forward than sideways and uses a cramped windup--but it has a misleading pace, and he never double-faults. The rest of his game relies on remarkable consistency, the relentless depth of his ground strokes and a flummoxing lob.

It is Anton who draws the eye, however. He hits classically beautiful, fluent strokes. With enough preparation time, he also whips a powerful top-spin backhand that plunges over the net and rockets up and out toward the baseline. At the net, he unerringly places deep, strong volleys.

By the middle of the first set, the match has effectively been decided. Anton and Gamba move around each other easily during the rapid-fire rallies of the doubles play. They seldom talk, covering for each other instinctively. Even more telling, they don't compliment each other for this; they're good enough to expect it.

Across the net, the team from Greenwood is mismatched, both in this contest as well as with each other. One of the men is a superb player for this level, with the huge legs and loose gait of a former college athlete. But his partner lacks the crucial skill--particularly in doubles--to end a point. He misses open put-aways far too often; twice he whiffs overheads.

He also double-faults, which infuriates Gabler: Shabby competition is degrading to everyone.

"Look at that," he hisses. "Guys with one serve and no second serve. If a guy came to me with one serve, he has one match to get a second serve. His second serve doesn't kick, he comes back when it does. This guy's a 4.0. And not a very good one, at that."

By the end of the first set, the Greenwood team is already frustrated. The lesser player has begun talking to himself. When he nets an easy backhand volley that should have been a put-away, he picks up the ball and slams it in disgust into the net cord. His partner, meanwhile, has started to reach back and swing with the abandon of a player who has admitted to himself that there is no reasonable hope of winning. Some of the shots go in; most do not. The final score is 6-1, 6-2.

Like many sports, tennis can reveal larger truths. One of these shows up in the difference between how men and women regard their USTA ratings. "With the men, it's seen as better to play at a lower level and win matches and tournaments than to play at a higher level and lose," explains Van De Hey. "Women, on the other hand, seem to look at the ratings system like a badge of achievement; having the rating is more important than their performance."

For the women, the result can be a sort of benign ratings inflation. At its worst, this makes for some lopsided matches, in which a team whose players insist they are, say, at a 3.5 level but really are 3.0s encounters a team whose players actually are at that level. Nobody is really hurt--the better team will win fairly against an opponent who even if overmatched knows the lay of the land. Nevertheless, it drags the system down generally by deflating the level of competition.

If the level plummets too far, adjustments must be made. Four years ago, Colorado women's teams were destroyed in a regional tournament by teams from other states. In response, a USTA national representative recommended that all of the women on the Colorado teams lower their ratings by half a point to more accurately reflect their actual level of play. This caused an uproar among the female players, who coveted their higher rating more than a victory.

Men's personalities, by contrast, can create a more corrosive manipulation of the ratings system. This could occur when, say, a 5.0 male player is so eager to win that he is willing to sacrifice a half-point drop in his rating to win more matches at the 4.5 level. This is clearly unfair and, according to USTA rules, illegal.

How often a player thinks this really occurs most likely depends on how often he's losing. Successfully penetrating the ego of the aging male tennis player to understand why it happens and how to use it to your advantage can net you a national title. But doing it a little too successfully can earn you the ire of the USTA.

In the fourth match of the year, the Denver Tennis Club crushes the Jewish Community Center.

The mismatch is especially obvious at second doubles, where Gabler's team is uncharacteristically youthful. One of the twosome, Robert Rydel, is a young architect who played for the University of Detroit. Gabler swiped Rydel from the Gates Tennis Center in Cherry Creek. (And in an example of how Gabler's team continues to prosper, Rydel showed up with a friend, Rainer Lehner, a towering Austrian physician who wears two different-colored sneakers on the court.) Last week, Rydel made it to the finals of the Denver City Open tournament's 4.5 division, where he lost to another member of Gabler's team. And neither Rydel nor his opponent are even starters for Gabler--more evidence of how good his team is.

During the match against the JCC, Rydel and his teammate both have the exaggerated, C-shaped swooping top-spin forehands and open, arched-back stances imprinted on a generation of tennis players by Bjorn Borg when he dominated the game in the 1970s. They roll over their opponents in less than an hour.

Later, while the two DTC players remain on the court to practice, the JCC team wanders over to the sidelines and sits down to debrief over a beer. They watch the men clobber ground strokes at each other.

"Are those guys 5.5 or 4.5?" wonders one, shaking his head.
"They sure like to win," says his partner. "I don't know what satisfaction it gives them, beating bums like us."

The answer to such questions go to the heart of Larry Gabler's winning system. If you're a fan, he wins because he is a master of sports psychology. If you're the USTA, it's because he's a manipulative cheat. Either way, it's key to his huge success as a tennis coach.

Players who lose so badly that a slight imbalance in skills can't explain it need to search for logical reasons why. Thus, for the trounced JCC players, their thinking probably went like this: We are ranked as solid 4.5s, and we've just been whipped. Therefore, our opponents must be rated considerably higher.

But to Gabler, the JCC guys sitting on the sidelines would do better to break down the equation from the other end: Is it possible that we're overreaching? "There's a lot of ego in tennis," he explains. "A lot of guys who think they're 4.5 really aren't."

Ego figures into the ratings system right from the beginning. A player's first rating is self-bestowed. Later, when he begins competing in sanctioned matches, a USTA computer program adjusts his rating up or down according to how he does against other rated players in those tournaments. In this way, the system is like a man progressing across a tightrope: always in motion, constantly trying to adjust the balance.

And yet it's not. Although a nationwide squadron of USTA "verifiers" tries to keep ratings the same across the country--a 5.0 player from Buffalo should be at the same level as a 5.0 player from Berkeley--the major weakness of the system still lies in the huge variation throughout the USTA's seventeen geographical sections.

"Locally, everybody thinks he's too good to play at a certain level," Gabler explains. "But nationally, they're rating good players against good players, not hacks."

It only follows that there are many 5.0-level men playing in Colorado who really belong on his 4.5 team--they just don't know it. These are the men Gabler tries to get on his side. Unfortunately, even once a player agrees to accept Gabler's lower opinion of his ranking, changing his USTA tennis rating is not as simple as it sounds.

Van De Hey says the organization would prefer a player's rating deterioration to be a long, organic process. As a 5.0 player begins to decline physically--at a certain point, no one's tennis rating goes up with age--he loses a step. He starts taking something off of his serve; he begins floating backhands instead of stroking them. He starts losing more and more to players he could once beat. Finally, after months or even years, the computer concludes he doesn't belong in the 5.0 division and downgrades him to a 4.5.

There are other ways, too. Players can challenge their computer ratings to a local USTA appeals committee, in the same way that property owners can protest their taxes. (Women tend to argue that they're underrated; men grit their teeth and assert that they're really not that good.) A player with an injury that permanently affects his game can petition the USTA for a lower rating. Also, a player who doesn't compete for two full years can start all over with a blank slate; a certified USTA verifier will rate him visually.

Unfortunately, says Van De Hey, one of the paradoxes of tennis at this level is that the better the player, the more convincing he is in fooling the system. "Sometimes we have players looking to squeeze into a rating who, when going to a certified verifier, they might not show everything they have," he says. "It's easier for a player to look worse than it is for a player who's not so good to look better."

Similarly, a coach could place a guy looking to drop a half-point on a doubles team: "You could go out in front of an unsuspecting verifier--there are more experienced and less experienced verifiers--and stick him in with three other 4.5s and he blends in. He just blends in."

"Or let's say I'm a real deceptive, deceiving, manipulative captain," he continues. "I might tell a player looking to go down a rating, 'Why don't you lose this match?' Maybe in the best-of-five league match, I've already won three matches and could afford to lose one..."

In short, he concludes, "There are some deceptions out there. Just because you play at a certain level doesn't mean you are that level."

Although Van De Hey is careful not to mention Gabler by name, it is an open secret in Colorado 4.5-level tennis that Gabler does all of this, and more, guiltlessly.

"Unfortunately, it's the only way they'll allow you to change your level," Gabler says.

It was about five years ago that he started instructing his players to throw matches for the computer's sake. "I had guys roll balls into the net [in tournaments] who then got rated 4.5 on my team," he recalls. "That was the first year we made it to the finals."

He still does it--or at least counsels it--when the occasion arises. "Last year," he remembers, "a guy said he wanted to play on my team. He was rated a 5.0, but I knew he was a 4.5. He went out and lost two 5.0 tournaments--you need two tournaments to get a computer rating. I think he lost the second one 0-1, 0-1.

"Did he lose on purpose? I don't know--I wasn't there. But if you ask me 'Was he trying to get down to 4.5?' the answer is yes. Definitely.

"I don't tell people to throw matches," he clarifies. "I just tell them what the computer will say if they lose."

To Gabler's way of thinking, he is only doing his part to correct a ratings system that, locally, has succumbed to players' egos and is completely out of whack. If he really was wrong--if the 5.0 players he had tanking matches really were 5.0 players and not 4.5s--then his team would trounce its opponents at the national championships every year. Instead, his team last year was ranked fifth going in; it won as an underdog, which he says confirms his methods.

T here is a tennis tautology made possible by the USTA's own rules: As long as Larry Gabler's team keeps winning, it can't lose.

The best way to explain this is to watch Ray Herr play. Herr is Gabler's top singles player. In 1994 he was rated 5.0. But after sitting out the next two years, he joined the team as a 4.5, a level for which Gabler had him verified while playing doubles, where it is more difficult for a rater to assess an individual player.

"I hid him for the first year," admits Gabler. "I had him play mostly doubles, although I allowed him to play singles on a limited basis. I basically told him, 'Don't beat people 0 and 0 if you can help it.'"

On a warm, slightly breezy evening in early June, Herr is matched against the best player on the Jewish Community Center team. The two competitors couldn't be more different.

The JCC player is tall but hunches his shoulders. (This is not an uncommon or even an unworkable build for tennis players; think Pete Sampras.) His shots land deep and his serve is monstrous. His flaw is a combination of traits: the tendency to try to hit a better shot than he needs to; and his game temperament, which revolves around anger. He curses himself, his opponent, the sky, his racquet. He stalks into position; his face becomes red early in the match.

"Good shot," Herr compliments him at one point.
"Great shot," the opponent growls to himself as he returns to the baseline.
Herr is a short man, muscular and quick in the way of someone who works regularly at fitness. He is an unusual 4.5 player in that his backhand is better than his forehand, which he holds in a hammer grip, straddling Western and Eastern styles.

His backhand, though, is compact and smooth, with a small wrist flick at the point of impact that sends the ball deeper than it first appears it will go. He hits the shot with amazing accuracy, easily passing the JCC player at the net or driving shots into the baseline corners, beyond his opponent's reach. Even worse, Herr is infuriatingly even-tempered and genial. "Yup-yup-yup," he says as one ball eludes him. "Very nice."

Herr wins tonight's match easily, 6-2, 6-2, something he does week after week for Gabler. Given such a dominating record, you might wonder why he wasn't rated higher...and you would have stumbled on one of the great catch-22's of the USTA tennis ratings system, which Gabler has used to great advantage.

One way the USTA tries to maintain equity in its leagues is to send certified verifiers to each state tournament to observe the best players. At the end of the weekend, they often order the top performers into a higher rating category. Despite his dominance, this never happens to Herr. The reason is a paradox: He is on too good a team to get a higher rating.

After the state championship, players are once more assessed by USTA verifiers at the regional championship and again in the national tournament. Their opinion of players carries more authority than that of the state raters. But the competition is better once a team arrives at the nationals, and the ratings are more realistic--there is no grade inflation. While Ray Herr may whip every player he encounters in Colorado, he is a bona fide 4.5-level competitor against top players from other states. (In fact, he has lost most of his matches against national opponents.)

So the fact that Gabler's team is so good only solidifies Herr's lock on the state. Each year, many of the top Colorado 4.5 singles players with outstanding records--but who still lose to Herr and whose teams aren't good enough to go to the nationals--get rated by the inflated local standards and upgraded to 5.0. Herr, meanwhile, gets rated by national certifiers and stays at 4.5. He is literally too good a player to get rated higher.

"We'll lose Ray if we don't get to the nationals," says Gabler. "I've reconciled myself to that." In the meantime, however, "they would kill to get Ray out of the division. Kill. If I were the other coaches, I'd be pissed as hell. I mean, they keep losing their best singles player every year, and every year they see Ray Herr come back as a 4.5. I'd be beside myself."

"There are some times I have not been totally comfortable with a player's rating," says Van De Hey. "The system is not mistake-proof, it's not foolproof. But it's the only one we've got."

On a steamy Tuesday in mid-June, Gabler's team overwhelms a 4.5-level team from Highlands Ranch. With the win, they effectively clinch the league title and earn a spot in the upcoming state championships this August. It is barely halfway into the season.

The win gives Gabler no real pleasure. "If we could get a free pass to the regionals, I'd take it in a minute," he says. "You think we like to go out and kill people one-and-one? No. We would like to play against good players."

"In a way," he adds, "I understand guys like Van De Hey. They don't want to see the same team--my team--going to the nationals every year. Would you want to see the Yankees win every year? So why not just start rating people correctly?