Platform tennis, or paddle, has been a popular sport in Fairfield County for decades and, during the pandemic, interest in the game shot up like a well-executed lob. But many fans of the sport lament that the system used to rate players is taking the fun out of paddle and could threaten its continued growth.
The rating is called the Platform Tennis Index or PTI, for short, and according to Amy Shay, Director of Paddle at Woodway Country Club in Darien, “It’s making everybody crazy.”
Wendy Blattman, who plays for the Rowayton Paddle Tennis Association, said that the PTI has “ruined the sport.” She added, “My husband jokes that he is going to create a support group called H.A.P., Husbands Against PTI, because so many wives complain about it.”
Based on the Elo rating algorithm used in chess, the PTI was created by a group of paddle players in Boston a decade ago. Similar to a golf handicap, a lower PTI is meant to denote a higher skill level. Johan du Randt, the reigning Men’s National Champion, has a negative 18 PTI while some beginner players have PTIs in the high 80s.
The PTI was embraced by the American Platform Tennis Association (APTA) as a transparent, objective and fair way to achieve more competitive matches and has been widely used by both men’s and women’s paddle leagues in Fairfield County since 2019.
According to Tiernan Cavanna, President of the APTA Board and Secretary of the Fairfield County Women’s Platform Tennis League (FCWPTL), the PTI was introduced as a response to “constant complaints about stacking,” referring to a strategy of matching stronger players against weaker opponents which runs counter to most leagues’ best-on-best rules. By removing any subjectivity, Cavanna said the PTI has eliminated those complaints and made the league easier to administer. Still, she admitted that “it’s not perfect” and that the APTA is “always trying to make it better.”
Many paddle professionals expressed mixed feelings about the PTI. While Shay said that the rating system has made her job easier by giving her “black and white” data points as guidance for evaluating players, she’s also concerned about the “morale change in my membership.” She added, “Paddle should be fun and people are having a little less fun.”
In neighboring Westchester County, the birthplace of platform tennis, the leagues use a weighted point system, instead of the PTI. Ozzie Benitez headed the paddle program at Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville for 4 years before taking the job of Director of Racquets at the Middlesex Club in Darien. He has worked with both systems and said they each have their pros and cons. The PTI is a “useful tool for pros,” he said but noted “I think there’s a little more anxiety with PTI.”
Cynthia Dardis, a paddle professional who has coached at a number of clubs around Fairfield County, said the stress of maintaining one’s PTI can be a deterrent to playing. “We have lost players from paddle because of PTI,” she said.
But Cavanna points to the tremendous growth of platform tennis as evidence that the PTI has been good for the sport. “We’ve doubled our membership in the last 15 years,” she said. “The PTI has not crushed the league.”
Another benefit of the PTI, Cavanna added, is that it allows the APTA to host tournaments for players of all levels, further growing the sport by offering more opportunities to compete to a larger number of players.
Supporters of the PTI rating system point out that it is no different than the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) in tennis or the handicap index in golf. But, unlike golf and tennis, paddle is played exclusively with a partner so players are not in sole control of their individual rating.
Sharon Parr, who plays for the Middlesex Club in Darien, said the PTI compromises team camaraderie as players become selective in who they partner with in order to protect their PTI.
“The fun of competing,” she said, “is overshadowed by the fear of a negative PTI outcome.”
PTIs are dynamic and change constantly. Match scores, not merely wins or losses, matter in determining a player’s PTI. In fact, a player’s PTI can worsen even if they win on the paddle court. That feature can be a huge distraction for players. ‘I’m always thinking about PTI on the court,” said Rowayton’s Blattman. “Am I winning by enough?”
Demian Johnston is Chair of the APTA’s PTI Algorithm Committee and the creator of “The PTI Guy,” a series of YouTube videos with titles like “Why did my PTI change when I didn’t even play?” Johnston explained that the APTA is constantly re-evaluating the system and is “seriously looking to replace it with something that will better predict outcomes and be less volatile.” He conceded that any replacement would still be based on a formula that assigns players a rating.
While Johnston said he is sympathetic to the anxiety surrounding the PTI, he likes to remind players that it is a measure of performance, not ability, and it “doesn’t capture everything about you.” Your PTI, he said, “doesn’t reflect your sportsmanship or if you’re a good teammate or person.”
In response to players’ feedback, the FCWPTL decided last year to “hide” players’ PTIs so the rating is not visible on the website unless the member logs in. Cavanna said that players were telling us “I just don’t want to see it.”
Middlesex’s Benitez said that what could be driving discontent is that most players, including himself, think they’re better than their PTI. Benitez currently has a PTI of 9.8 but said “he is probably more like a 2 or 3.” To that point, Cavanna believes that many players like the rating system but she said, “We never hear from anybody whose PTI has gone down.”
Ultimately, Cavanna said the pros of the PTI outweigh the negatives. The challenge may be convincing more players of that. “If they got rid of it,” said Woodway’s Shay, “members would jump for joy.”