Longform

Devil to Play

Page 6 of 8

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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer