An Ugly Racket

The Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 men's team was marching inexorably toward a second straight national championship, when suddenly, in the middle of the Colorado district championship tournament last month...

"It's the revenge of the nerds," snarls Larry Gabler, the team's coach. "It had everything to do with them wanting me out of the tournament. No doubt. No doubt about it."

The nerds in question are the honchos at the Colorado Tennis Association, whom Gabler has crossed rackets with plenty ("Devil to Play," July 1, 1999). The disputes have mostly centered on the United States Tennis Association's complex, and frequently subjective, ratings system: The USTA says the ratings are the best way it knows to pit like-skilled players against each other in leagues and tournaments. Gabler, however, maintains that the system is a fraud.

Players are rated from 1.0 -- rank beginners -- to 7.0, professional players who make the rounds of pro tournaments. The ratings are determined either by a computer, which compares a player's record against similar players; or by human USTA "verifiers," who observe a player on the court to make sure that he is in the correct division. Gabler's specialty, the 4.5 men's player, falls on the border between a decent club athlete who merely looks good and a genuinely skilled player who knows how to win.

Unfortunately, Gabler's version of what a 4.5 player looks like has been at odds with the CTA's. Part of the reason is the coach's phenomenal success -- at least in relation to other Colorado teams. In 1995 he took his team (which he also plays on) to the national championships and came in third. Two years later his team cruised through the state competition and earned another spot in the nationals. Last year they went all the way, winning the USTA national championship.

Gabler's explanation for his success is simple: He is a good judge of players and a fine coach, and because of his earlier successes, he has no trouble recruiting the state's best tennis players year after year.

The USTA's explanation is somewhat darker: Gabler cheats.

Specifically, he finds higher-ranked players, usually 5.0s, and obtains a lower ranking for them by, among other tactics, instructing them to throw matches. All of which Gabler freely admits. But the reason, he explains, is that he must. In his view, the USTA's rating system is inflated to appease its members, in much the same way an unscrupulous karate instructor hands out black belts to undeserving pupils. Thus, he concludes, instructing 5.0 players to throw matches is the only way to fool the USTA's computer and visual verifiers into correctly ranking his players.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that a USTA verifier will never know for sure if he's watching a player from Gabler's team trying his hardest or intentionally smacking balls into the net.

Earlier this summer, one of Gabler's players, Robert Rydel, an architect, earned a berth in the semi-finals of the Denver City Open. As the match began, the co-chair of the USTA's Colorado Verification Committee, Tom Van De Hey, was in the stands. He wanted to make sure that Rydel, a hard-hitting player with a looping topspin forehand, was in the right division. There had been complaints.

Rydel started quickly, taking three of the first four games. In fact, he appeared to be completely in control, when suddenly he began losing with a vengeance, dropping five of the next six games and losing the first set. Satisfied that Rydel was playing competitively, Van De Hey left. Which, coincidentally or not, is also when Rydel caught fire, sweeping the next two sets 6-2, 6-0.

Van De Hey suspected he'd been had. "My suspicion is that he got wind I was in the stands," he says.

But Gabler insists that no one knew a USTA verifier was in the stands and that Rydel couldn't have known to throw the match. Besides, the coach adds, Rydel "is a 28-year-old Polish Catholic kid. He wouldn't tank a match if I begged him to. He's as honest as the day is long."

And while Rydel is a strong player, his playing is inconsistent. A month later, at the Colorado State Open tournament, he lost in the finals -- to the same player he'd beaten in the Denver Open. The conclusion, according to Gabler: Rydel is a legitimate 4.5.

Van De Hey isn't so sure. Because Gabler tells his players to throw matches and because they do, he says there will always be a lingering question as to whether they are genuinely competing to win or purposely losing to maintain a lower rating. "It's becoming more and more difficult to discern results," complains Van De Hey. "We've reached a point where, with some players, we're not sure what to believe anymore: Is what we see real?" Regardless of whichever was the case with Rydel, the incident served only to widen the rift between Gabler and the Colorado Tennis Association.

Cut to the men's 4.5 regional championships. Gabler's team had ruled the regular season, compiling a 41-5 record. In the semi-finals, the Denver Tennis Club faced a team from Lakewood. The outcome was never in doubt; DTC trounced Lakewood 4 to 1 (each team fields three doubles teams and two singles players). Unfortunately for Gabler, USTA verifiers were watching once again.

After a review, two of Gabler's players were disqualified for playing out of their division -- Rob Rydel and DTC teammate Chris Anton. That forced the DTC team to forfeit two of the five matches it had won with those players. The result: Instead of losing 4-1, Lakewood won 3-2. The defending national champs were out of the tournament.

Gabler is willing to concede that the USTA might have a case with Anton, a fluent player whom the coach describes as "borderline 4.5-5.0." But as for Rydel, Gabler says he was robbed. "Rydel," he says, with no disrespect intended, "just isn't that good."

In the end, Gabler says, the big loser is Colorado tennis, which won't be represented in the nationals this year. Lakewood lost the state title to a 4.5 team from Washington Park, which in turn lost to a team from Idaho at the USTA's Intermountain Regional Championships in Salt Lake City at the end of August. That team, and not one from Colorado, will travel to Mobile, Alabama, in October to compete for the national title.

Naturally, Van De Hey views Gabler's early exit another way. For starters, he maintains that forcing the DTC out of the tournament had nothing to do with Gabler. He points out that a 3.0 team competing in the state's district tournament also ended up forfeiting a match it had already won because it, too, had two players disqualified for playing below their level. Moreover, he adds, the fact that a Colorado team lost in the regional tournament -- instead of dominating it -- isn't necessarily bad news.

"For the first time in many years, there were three 4.5 teams competing down to the last day," he says. "That's what we're all about."

Personally, Gabler is already over it. "Next year we reload," he says. "I can get whoever I want in the entire state."