by Will Boucek

August 27, 2021   

What’s your USTA Rating? 3.5? 4.0? 4.5?

When is the last time you played up a division?

When I go to tournaments and play leagues, I’ll often see the same people at the top of their division for 2, 3, 4 years in a row!

Why don’t these people get bumped up? This is another debate. What’s more interesting is… Why don’t these people PLAY UP?!

Below, I’ll cover why you should play up more often, and the main EXCUSES people make for not playing better competition.

Below are 3 reasons you should start playing up in you USTA tournaments & leagues.

3 Reasons to Play Up a Level in USTA

Whether you’re a 3.0, a 4.5, or somewhere in between, you should be playing up, at least some of the time if you actually want to improve at tennis.

Here’s why.

#1 – You’re the average of the 5 people you play most!

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

― Jim Rohn

One of the easiest ways to get better at tennis is to start playing people who are better than you. This will force you to play better, smarter tennis.

If you’re a 3.7 rated player and usually play with a 3.9, 3.8, 3.7, 3.6, and 3.5, the solution is simple. Replace the 3.5 with a 4.0 player. Now you’re a 3.8.

Of course this is an oversimplification but it’s generally true.

If Novak Djokovic started hitting against me 3 times per week instead of playing against other pros, I guarantee he’d get worse at tennis – and I’d get better!

#2 – Learn How The Next Level Plays

If you’re serious about getting better at tennis, you have 2 options.

  1. The slow way – Keep working on your serve, return, volleys and groundstrokes. Try making incremental improvements in each area, spending a lot of on-court time until you get better.
  2. The fast way – Find people who are one level ahead of you now, observe what they’re doing differently than you. Go practice it.

After playing up, you’ll see what the next level of tennis players are doing, so you’ll know exactly what to practice. You don’t have to guess.

Maybe you’ll find that your volleys are okay for the next level, but your return game needs a lot of improvement. So instead of wasting hours volleying in practice, go out with someone who needs some serve work and hit 100 returns!

#3 – Playing Up Exposes Your Weaknesses

Again, the fastest way to figure out what you need to work on to improve your game is to play with better players.

When you play people better than you, not only will you be able to see what they’re better at, but your weaknesses will be exposed. Then, you’ll know exactly which weaknesses you need to mask and improve to take your game to the next level.

Two years ago I played a lot of 4.5 tournaments and did pretty well. Last year I played mostly open tournaments against college and 5.0 players. One thing they taught me is that I needed a better 2nd serve.

At 4.5 I never realized it because most people hit your standard crosscourt return, and I could get the point started after that.

However, playing against 5.0+ players, my 2nd serve was completely exposed. They often were able to rip balls down the line at my partner or deep crosscourt to my feet where I was immediately on defense.

Over the past year, I’ve worked on my 2nd serve every time I practice. It’s improved a lot 🙂

Pro Tip: I often see this with lobs. Many players get away with more lobs at 3.5 and 4.0 but at higher levels, they can’t lob as well.

Bonus Reason #4 – Playing Up is More Fun (if you’re a true tennis fan)

Have you ever had a match where you know you’re going to win after the first 3 games because you and your partner are just a better team?

Compare that to a match against a better team, where you won or lost, but had to stay focused the whole time to try to win.

Regardless of the outcome (win or lose), if you’re a true tennis fan & competitor, you’ll prefer the second type of match. You’ll spend more time focused, and in the match mentally, competing.

Playing up will virtually guarantee that you’ll have more competitive matches. You’ll appreciate the level of tennis from the opponent, and spend more time analyzing your strategy and things to get better at.

That “flow state” and desire to continually improve is really why we play the game 🙂

I Would Play Up But…

A lot of people make excuses of why they don’t play up.

  • I don’t want to lose 1st round (in the tournament).
  • I don’t want to get bumped up.
  • No one would want me on their team.

There are a lot of great excuses you can use to keep playing your same level, but the truth is, there’s never a “good time” to start losing. But without losing, you simply won’t get much better.

Try this.

  • Play 2 divisions if the tournament will let you.
  • Put your ego aside and get bumped up! Move from the top of your division to the bottom of the next one.
  • Start your own league team with a group of people who also want to improve. Yes, you’ll probably finish last in the league, but have fun doing it. Maybe next year you’ll finish middle of the pack 🙂

You never want to be the smartest person in the room. Similarly, you never want to be the best player on the court for too long.

Play better opponents, lose some matches, improve faster, then start beating those people.

Will Boucek

About the author

Will Boucek is the Founder & CEO of The Tennis Tribe. He has played and coached tennis for over two decades. Will is a strategy analyst for ATP & WTA tour players and coaches. He also tests the latest tennis racquets, shoes, & other gear from Wilson, Babolat, Head, Prince, and other tennis brands. He currently lives in Fort Worth, Texas where he plays USTA leagues & tournaments.

  • Great piece about playing up. I currently play in a group at the 4.0 level, and began playing in that group when I was a 3.5. I could immediately see the difference in the level of play, and the strategies it took in doubles to win point. This is definitely improving my game incrementally, and it takes time.

    Best regards,

    Jim Durante

  • Hey Will,

    As you know from my past emails, I am a strong 3.5 tennis player, who has been selected to play on a USTA 4.0 team later spring. I was wondering if I did really well on that team, is there a possibility I could be bumped up to 4.0. I had a 3.5C rating until it expired on 12/31/20, and it then then becomes a 3.5S. I appreciate your assistance in this matter.

  • Hey Will,

    I hope you are safe and well.
    I had a question. I am scheduled to play in a summer USTA 4.0 tennis league.
    My partner is a close friend and former tennis partner in my USTA 7.0 summer league.
    He was a very strong 3.5 player on my 7.0 team I am a high 3.5/4.0 player and my friend is a very strong 3.5 player, who can hang with the 4.0s. I am looking forward to playing in the 4.0 summer league; but Rick is rusty because he hasn’t played in a while. He is taking clinics and is practicing with my USPTA trainer in doubles strategies including serving. I think we can do alright in the 4.0 league. I am curious to see what your take is on this situation. I appreciate your assistance.

    Best regards,

    Jim Durante

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