May 22 2014

Switching Hands and the USTA

League Tennis | NTRP | Rules | Singles | USTA       Clif Render      
United States Tennis Association

I recently wrote a post about my injury laden 2014 spring season and my decision to switch over to playing with my left (non-dominant) hand. One of the things that you may be interested in knowing is just what the USTA has to say about changing up the hand that you play with. My level of play has dropped drastically. Does that mean that my NTRP rating will change or does it stay the same? Are there any rules against changing hands mid-season? What about mid-point? All good questions.

As it turns out, the USTA does not care whether you strike the ball with your left hand, your right hand, or both. You are free to play with whichever hand you wish to at any time. That is why player listings in TennisLink don't list a hand dominance. If you wanted to, you could switch hands on every serve depending on which serve would give you the greatest advantage. You could even go so far as to switch hands for every ball strike if you wanted to. I wouldn't advise being quite that aggressive with the switching, of course, but switching it up every few serves might not be a bad idea when you want to catch your opponent off guard. Don't do it too much, though. There's a reason that none of the pros do it during match play.

So, the USTA's "hands off" (pun intended)
approach to player handedness is
a good thing, right?

So, the USTA's "hands off" (pun intended) approach to player handedness is a good thing, right? Yeah, maybe. But, then again, maybe not. You see, for folks that are equally gifted with both hands, this rule is perfect. This rule gives them great flexibility in how they play. They can hit with two forehands or two backhands. They can gain the leftie service advantage whenever they want it. They also gain an extra foot's worth of court coverage on their backhand side which is a very sneaky cool and unexpected advantage to have.

But what about the rest of us? How does it affect us? Well, being a member of the 99% of the population that isn't ambidextrous, I can tell you that this approach doesn't work out so good for us. Those of us who are clearly dominant on only one side and find ourselves needing to switch hands due to injury are in trouble. Our level of play is going to drop drastically and for heaven only knows how long. Can we appeal our rating or get a temporary NTRP rating reduction? No. Not unless the injury is drastic and substantial. USTA rules state that an injury appeal will only be granted if a "permanent, disabling illness or injury" has occurred, and not in any other case. The process is an extremely involved process requiring a very thorough medical write-up by your attending physician detailing the permanent nature of the injury and any other limitations or considerations. As long as there is even a sliver of a chance that you will get better, you will have to keep your current ranking. That means that our only choice is to eschew USTA play entirely or find a team at our level that is routinely having to default courts and volunteer to be their "dead man playing." After enough 6-0, 6-0 drubbings, your rating will eventually come down. Depending on how highly you are ranked, though, and when during the season the injury occurred, it could take several years for it to get down to where it should be. This does keep the "mildly" unscrupulous from being able to easily game the system, but the "totally" unscrupulous will do it anyway.

United States Bowling Congress

So, this begs the question, is there a better way? Is there some way that the system could work that would be more fair for those of us who want to keep playing despite a game changing (although not technically permanent) injury? Well, let's take a look at how another US recreational sports league handles this kind of thing - the USBC. The United States Bowling Congress is the USTA of bowling (the standard 10 pin variety) here in the US. They govern the rules of play, coaching certifications, and recreational, school and professional bowling leagues here in the states. According to the rules of the USBC, you have to indicate the hand that you will be bowling with when your handicap is being calculated. In bowling, your handicap is inversely analogous but similar in function to your NTRP rating. This means that you are able to get a different handicap (or rating) for each hand. So, you can actually play in multiple leagues with different hands and have a completely different rating for each. That sounds like a pretty good system to me. And it really should sound like a good system to the USTA.

A hand-specific NTRP would open up twice as many league play opportunities for most of us and could potentially increase USTA league registration fees significantly, as well. Think about doubling participation with just one minor rule change. That's definitely a win, win USTA! I'm sure the 1% of the population that is ambidextrous wouldn't be very happy with a system like this but does it really make sense for us to define our rules to fit the needs of such a tiny minority? Not hardly. Of course, since when has "making sense" been a criteria in most people's decision making processes?

So, USTA, if you're reading this, 2015 is the year to implement hand-specific NTRP ratings. More money for you, more participation for us, and a whole lot less of an advantage to the 1%. Come on, USTA, make that change!

Comments (5) -

Clif Render Clif Render says:

As a followup, I should probably clarify that the USBC's "multi-average" system applies only to regular league play. In tournament play, a bowler must use the highest of his two averages in order to minimize the temptation to cheat. Similarly, I would think the USTA would want to do the same for tournament and playoff competition.

Kevin Schmidt Kevin Schmidt says:

Interesting idea Clif.  I've written about having different ratings for singles vs doubles ( as well as different surfaces ( so this idea is similar.  Your handedness is arguably an easier thing to do, but still has the issue of how to enforce it and what if a player switches back mid-year or mid-match?

And what if a player hits two-handed off both sides?  Or what if they do the "Sharapova" lefty shot on occasion when stretched?  Is that an automatic point loss?

So like my suggestions, I'm sure the USTA won't adopt this, but it is an interesting idea.

Regarding appeals, the USTA is in a tough spot.  As soon as you start granting some that aren't clear cut permanent injuries, where do you draw the line?

Clif Clif says:

All good questions, Kevin, and good ideas of yours, as well. I agree that these aren't things that we're likely to ever see put into practice, but it sure would be nice to switch things up a bit and see if the net result is better or worse. If nothing else, it would give us something new to post about. Smile

Yeah, the situations that you mentioned are definitely considerations that would have to be addressed. The idea of the two handed backhand or forehand to me is a little simpler to address than the idea of the occasional left (or right) hand shot. I would argue, in general, that there is no singularly unique advantage to the two handed stroke - you may be able to hit with greater power or at a sharper angle - but it doesn't significantly change either the path of the ball or the nature of the bounce. To me, there's no harm in the two handed stroke as the player's dominant hand is still significantly engaged.

The occasional left or right handed, shot, however, is a different matter. It would have to result in a point penalty. This would be much easier to manage in an officiated match than in a non-officiated match. In a non-officiated match, this would be one of those rules like bumping into the net where the offending part would have to call it on themselves.

This would be similar to something that happens to new players (often with less expensive racquets). How many times has a new player stretched out for a ball that is just out of reach and let go of the racquet in hopes that the racquet's path would intersect with the ball's path and work a miracle? While I have never seen this particular shot actually work for anyone, the end result of a thrown, tossed, or released racquet is always a forfeited point. The USBC handles someone switching hands similarly and will cause a forfeiture of any pins felled in a cross-handed attempt.

In regards to appeals, I could see a temporary reduction in rating as a possibility. For instance, my hand injury requires a two month minimum recovery time (although I'm already on month 3) so a doctor's note that mandates non-use of the dominant hand could allow for an immediate .5 or 1 point rating reduction. At the end of the two months, unless renewed, the rating would go back up by the amount of the reduction. Like you said, allowing subjective appeals would definitely be a slippery slope but, in this case, I don't think that would be as big a danger. If a doctor says that you can't use a hand for 2 months then that seems straight forward enough. Any less than a month, though, and it probably wouldn't be worth the effort.

Jason@bowling how to Jason@bowling how to says:

Along the same line, I wonder if it is permissible to switch from right handed to left handed during a point or during a match?

Well great bog anyway Smile

Clif Render Clif Render says:

Yep, as it stands right now, you can switch hands every shot if you want. If the USTA were to adopt my proposal, however, you wouldn't be able to do that any more. As it is done with the USBC, you would have to consistently play with the same hand in order to solidify your rating. I propose that it be treated like a foot fault or touching the net. In an unofficiated match the player would have to call it on themselves or admit to it under questioning. In an officiated match the umpire would call it.

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