The conventional wisdom of most high school coaches (and college ones too) is the best way to determine a lineup is using head-to-head challenge matches as a vehicle for determining where people should be on the ladder.
When I tell people I coach high school tennis, they’re somewhat curious about the format. Given that tennis isn’t really a team sport, it seems like an odd fit for school team sports and for the most part, it is. The beauty of high school tennis, in contrast to competitive junior circuits, is that kids in that 13/14-18 age group can be mostly of average ability levels and get a lot more experience than they’d otherwise get playing on their own.
The team aspect also has a lot of benefit for kids who might otherwise struggle in other sports, and with even remotely okay coaching, multi-sport athletes can pick up tennis as a side sport during their off-seasons to stay in shape. Not every sport lends itself to this kind of dexterity. For schools, it’s a pretty cheap sport to offer as they only need to pay for travel, a coach and tennis balls. Kids provide their own racquets and courts can be found in most communities.
On ladders and variation
The basic structure of a high school tennis lineup has been the same pretty much forever. Tennis coaches setup a “ladder” at the beginning of the season that essentially ranks everyone on the team from top to bottom. In order to move up a spot, you challenge the person in front of you.
In theory, this model is quite fair because it means that anyone playing varsity on a tennis team has pretty much earned their job. There’s not a lot of subjectivity like a basketball or football coach deals with, no “playing time” issues in the same way.
I’ve always been wary of ladders, partially because of my own high school experience where I often felt (at times) the ladder too rigid for the realities of the situation. A player could be a very good doubles partner that works extremely well in a unit, but not as good a singles player. Most ladders are singles ladders, meaning you challenge someone for a doubles spot, but play singles for it.
When I started running camp programs in my early 20s, I immediately flipped this model and created a relatively elaborate three-tier system that started kids off playing mini-tennis (from service line to service line) in a competitive event, through a top-tier for the highest performers.
For me, giving kids the confidence to move up meant that they were more inclined to want to participate, and creating space for kids to casually enjoy the game meant that the stakes were a lot less high. Tennis is easy to pick up, but extremely hard to master and it’s why so many people give it up. If I had a dollar for every person who told me they “played tennis in gym class” or “tried it when they were young and gave up,” I’d be able to eat pretty well, because it’s a common refrain.
Over the years, I refined this model. As a high school coach, I couldn’t do this because there was a lot less time. Initially, I had a relatively complicated ladder that included participation points and try to smooth out the fairness of having to play a single match — with all of the attendant pressure — and giving more opportunities for hard workers.
Right now, my model is a lot less complicated than the one above. Simply, after the initial slating of players during the pre-season, players are ranked (for singles only):
- You can challenge no more than 2 up from your slot.
- Players are offered a one-time “wild card” to challenge higher than 2 spots, but this must be coach-approved. (This is handy when a kid shows up mid-season, is injured or has a lot of progress in a short period of time)
- You can only challenge in periods designated by coaches. Challenges can be disruptive and if you don’t have the court space, they throw off what you have working.
Getting players to buy-in
Ladders do not help players buy-in. They mostly take an individual sport and turn it into a cutthroat exercise where players near each other are more interested in ensuring their own position at the expense of the team’s goals. Head-to-head matches are necessary for coaches to get a sense of how players perform, and to give players peace of mind that they really earned their spot.
This does not apply to having the 8th or 13th best player get beat by the top player unless it’s a really deep team. Bigger teams in larger tennis-playing areas will schedule week-long tournaments where players will duel in essentially a pod-format series of matches to determine the lineup over time. I prefer this, but this format only works in a place where parents, the school & kids are aligned around this type of match-format, mostly because you need to leverage non-school courts and non-school time to carry out the sheer number of matches this would require.
In the absence of a full-on tournament, I believe that anyone who earned a varsity letter the year before ought to be given the opportunity to play for their spot. Newbies are ultimately playing for the varsity spots left open from graduation/injuries/players who chose not to return, and then we sort out the lineup from there.
Is this the fairest way to manage things? Probably not. There could be a glut of freshman/transfers who show up and able to duel their way onto the lineup from the start of the season. I have seen this and it’s paid massive dividends.
On my best teams, veterans are almost always willing to defer to younger players to give them more experience against inferior competition, which is a win-win because eventually those upperclassmen graduate and you need to build your depth.
On Doubles Team Construction
Some coaches will simply take the two kids nearest to each other in the lineup and make them a doubles pairing. I almost never do this, because it very rarely works optimally. I like to use regular season matches to try different doubles formations to see what works best.
Going back to senior player input, I like to hear from players about what they want. It doesn’t mean I’l do it, but it’s useful to find out where their heads are; if two kids don’t get along off-the-court, it’s not really worth trying to force them together on the court unless it’s a minor thing. You just don’t have time for it. I’ve had kids who are friends who still prefer not to play together because it’s just too much.
There are other dynamics at play. Sometimes, pairing a senior with a younger player can be great for a mentorship purpose. Other times, it can be a bit suffocating because the senior bosses the younger player around and it’s hard for them to adapt. They won’t always tell you, so you just need to pay attention to body language.
Another thing is managing players based on the opponents, it’s harder to do when you don’t know your competition year to year, but once you do, using lower-tier opponents to give kids a chance to play other spots is something I really enjoy.
Every year I’ve coached, I’ve found surprise doubles pairings that formed somewhere between mid-season towards the end, because we gave kids a chance to improve, gel and get the rust off.
Last year, I had a dilemma where a very dedicated senior didn’t really have a suitable partner for Districts (our version of State qualifiers in Oregon) but in our last match of the regular season due to injuries and scheduling conflicts, I paired her with veteran junior who spent half the season away due to club volleyball commitments. They ended up playing 1st Doubles against a Top 10 6A school (we’re 3A) when they’d normally have played 3rd doubles for us.
They lost that match, but I kept them together for Districts and they indeed upset the 3-seed en route to qualifying for the state tournament, then they won the consolation bracket at State after being down a set in the consolation final. Truly one of my favorite coaching moments, because I realize how it almost did not happen at all.
Rankings & the “eye test”
Realistically, you just have to watch players and see their talent levels. On teams where there are lots of UTR players, it’s a lot easier to do this stuff because you have ways to justify standing. It’s also a lot more competitive, and this advice does not apply to these situations because those dynamics are a lot more complicated than teams that are playing in states/leagues that are mostly full of seasonal tennis players.
Challenge matches can be a great way to keep players from being too complacent, it’s also a milestone that you can set for kids that need to work harder to ladder up. But on a team where the talent dropoff is evident or where you have lots of players who are even and could beat each other on any given day, that’s where “the eye test” and flexing your lineup is truly the best way to maximize things.
One thing I didn’t mention is using JV competition to give kids reps. I have zero problem with first-year players working their way into the lineup unless they’re for sure elite and it’s obvious they need to be starting. JV matches can be a good way to work your way into high school competition, to test them into leadership roles early. This is more useful at bigger schools where you can field a full JV team and perhaps make a JV schedule that’s varsity quality.
When I coached in Colorado, there were so many tennis players in the greater Denver area that teams would often have several traveling “varsity” squads to play small town schools and that’s a great model assuming you have enough coaches. In Oregon, the state is too spread out and the weather a bit too uncooperative for such things. (Also we annoyingly play boys & girls tennis in the same season instead of a split.)
Like any advice, your mileage will vary and I’m always willing to adapt my methods to accommodate what’ll motivate the kids to be most comfortable and play their best. But I think ultimately, doing whatever we can to defang the intra-team competitiveness of tennis teams and focusing on the wider goals, is the best way to develop depth that makes for competitive teams long-term.