The Idiocy of the USTA

Last fall, I picked up my tennis racquet again (which I remember, had bought from tennisracquets.com) after no consistent play for 20-some years and I got back in the game. I love tennis. It’s a be-here-right-now game and I’m meeting great people on the court after my too-long hiatus.

So it’s a natural next-step to want to play tournaments and matches this summer. I signed up online for the United States Tennis Association, which you have to join and be rated by in order to play in leagues, which are 99% USTA organized these days. And therein lies the problem.

Haven’t we learned that a monopoly leads to no good? I know it’s just recreational tennis we’re talking about and not big business or factory work, so I won’t blow this out of proportion. But the experience I’ve had in the past week has been downright ridiculous for one simple reason: an organization that’s about people playing a game doesn’t care one iota for people.

Here’s why: The ratings are computer-generated. You answer a series of questions and from that, they determine what level you should play at. From my answers that I played high school tennis (more than 23 years ago) and that my team advanced to post-season tournaments (which all Michigan high schools do), the USTA has deemed me a level 4.0.

I’m a 3.5 at best, according to my coaches and as I’ve evidenced when playing with true 4.0 players. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a big deal to you – but when I see a friend who’s 4.0 play much more consistently than I do, and I lose almost every game to her, I know it wouldn’t be that much fun to play a bunch of women a league ahead of my current ability.

So I appealed the computer decision. And three people said, “I’m just the messenger,” “the decision is legal and binding,” and “we’ve moved away from consulting people in this process.”

Oh.

A computer that’s never seen me swing a racquet knows where I should play better than I do.

And people who are cogs in a wheel have decided it’s their job to maintain the status quo, rather than help recreational players play more comfortably.

Hmmm…what’s wrong with this picture?

I may play in a 4.0 league and if I skate by, maybe it’ll raise my game to that level. Or maybe I’ll get so discouraged by losing too many games that I’ll not want to play in a league. We’ll see.

What disturbs me the most is this broken, misguided system which completely leaves the person out of the conversation. Are we back in the 1950s?

Here’s a blog I wrote last month about what makes the game of tennis so great. I am going to try to get back to that state of mind rather than the one of being annoyed with the stupidity at the USTA:

The Yoga of Tennis

I’m not a treadmill girl, mindlessly flipping magazine pages as I walk a conveyor toward fewer calories. I like three main modes of exercise: yoga, swimming and tennis. And lately, I’m in my short skirts and snazzy tank tops a whole lot, whacking the ball with all the belly-infused strength I can muster.

This morning, I participated in an hour and a half drill with three others, running the court toward lobs, volleys and strategic ground strokes. There is nothing else to clutter my mind when the fuzzy yellow ball is heading my way. It’s all, planting feet, turning shoulders, not taking the racquet back too far and making sure I follow through.

And there’s another important metaphorical lesson I’ve picked up since I resumed the game I love last fall: it’s not important to follow the ball with your eyes once you hit it. Instead, it’s more important to think through the stroke in advance and finish it to its conclusion. If I do, then it’s sure to land in a good place.

That’s not the instinct, I find. I hit and immediately look to see where I sent it. Not good. That means I’ve already left the shot to become an observer; I’m no longer in the game.

In tennis, as in life, you can’t get a step ahead or fall a step behind. Taking the racquet back too far means you’ll hit it late. Not following through means it’s too open and will sail out of bounds.

There is a rhyme and a reason for the steps we must take: turn sideways, square shoulders, butt of the racquet facing your opponent, top-spin as you cut upside the ball, finish with the racquet scratching your back, a complete and total follow-through. As my coach says, you want to be able to read the time on your watch.

In the course of an average day, the same truths become universal. Get there too late or arrive too early, you’re off-kilter. Think about two days from now rather than this move right in front of me and I’m off-track. One shot leads to the next shot, and several consecutive moves make a game.

There’s another thing about tennis. It’s not just cool attire or the amount of sweat. The way we score is curious, too: zero and love are interchangeable words. As a lifelong wordsmith, I’ve often wondered why that is.

So for the purpose of this little riff, I decided to look it up. Here’s what Yahoo answers had to say:

Although the theory is often heard that it represents the French word l’oeuf, an ‘egg’ (from the resemblance between an egg and a nought), this seems unlikely. The term “love” is said to come from the English phrase, “neither for love nor for money”, indicating nothing. (Taken from the book entitled The Guinness Book of Tennis Facts & Feats and Fifteen Love).

Also, it can be traced to the 17th-century expression “play for love,” meaning ‘to play without any wager, for nothing’. It is this meaning of ‘nothing’ that love takes on when used in tennis–and in certain card games, as well as in the occasional British football commentary. The proper way to describe a score of zero to zero is to say love-all.

Perhaps that’s the best lesson of all from my favorite game: play for the sake of playing, not for the score, nor for the outcome, just for the thrill of the moment. And personally I think that’s the best reason of all.

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