What’s in a number?

While spring connotes sunshine, blooming flowers and nesting birds, it’s also the season for USTA league tennis — meaning that during these three months, one’s wins and losses really matter. Each fall, after victorious teams have gone on to Districts, then Sectionals, and finally Nationals, the computer re-calculates everyone’s NTRP (National Tennis Rating Program) rating, and it either keeps players at the same level, or it moves them up or down depending on a complicated and mostly secret algorithm — one that people may profess to understand, yet no one can explain in full.

I play 3.0 ladies’ tennis. For those who aren’t familiar with USTA, this is not an impressive level. Most “real” tennis players look down their noses once they hear I’m only a 3.0, or they’re friendly but somewhat condescending.  Sure, I’d like to move up to 3.5 – what 3.0 wouldn’t want the respect that comes with the extra half-point?  At the same time, other than wanting respect and acceptance, I’m actually fine with being a 3.0.  The point of USTA ratings, after all, is to help people play against opponents with about the same level of ability and consistency, thus giving everyone a decent chance of winning or losing.

Non-tennis players aren’t off the hook here, though: tennis is merely my topic of the moment.  The situation of a 3.0 who wants to move to 3.5, or a 3.5 who thinks this is her year to go to 4.0, is pretty much the same as that of an executive who believes she should move one level higher in the organization, and earn perhaps twenty percent more — then she would be satisfied.  Or the school volunteer who calculates that, if she could only be nominated to the Executive Board, her talents would finally be recognized for what they really are.  We all want to demonstrate progress, whether it’s with our tennis rating, compensation package, community leadership, the size of house we live in, or some other measure that matters to us. 

It’s not that progress is bad.  But progress at the expense of others is, at a minimum, distasteful.  I happen to love the gals on my 3.0 team – many of us have played together for years, sharing kid issues, recipes, personal tragedies, and recommendations on everything from travel to the latest buys at Costco.  I wouldn’t want any of them to think I had put my own interests over theirs – our team’s sense of community is too important to me.


All the same, that half-point nags.  There are days when I wonder if I’ll ever make it to 3.5.  So I ask myself, what’s in a number, anyway?  And I think about my high school and college kids, who see how a half-point on one’s GPA can make a difference in getting into one’s “reach” school or not.  Or in gaining admission to one’s “target” school vs. one’s “likely.”  (Notice how they’re not called “safety schools” anymore – there’s nothing “safe” about applying to college these days!)

Here’s another example: think about the people who flew on the four hijacked routes during the afternoon of September 10, 2001, rather than the morning of September 11.  For them and their loved ones, half a day made all the difference in the world.

Or this one: A woman has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer and told she might have only twelve months to live.  If she survives an extra six months beyond the predictions, it’s not a victory over cancer, but it is a half-year more she gets to stick around and watch her children grow up.

So it doesn’t take much effort to think of areas where .5 actually matters.  Not that tennis isn’t important – but when put into perspective, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, or 7.0 – it doesn’t really make much difference.  I just hope I can remember that the next time I head into a USTA match.

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