Longform

Devil to Play

Page 5 of 8

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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer