Sep 27 2014

Hacking the NTRP

League Tennis | NTRP | Rules | Team Captain | USTA       Clif Render      
Hacking the System

This past month I competed in our state Mixed Doubles Tournament. Our team didn't win our division but we performed respectably. The team that won our division, however, did not. This is the true story of how one person on their team found and exploited a loophole in the NTRP's self-rate system.

In the world of technology, there are two kinds of hackers: White Hat Hackers and Black Hat Hackers (yes, in fact, that is a cowboy reference). Black Hats hack systems for nefarious purposes while White Hats hack systems for the good of others. When a White Hat hacks a system (or become aware of a hack to a system), they typically notify the vulnerable parties, give them a period of time in which to correct the vulnerability, and then notify the public of the vulnerability. Notifying the public is important because it puts everyone on common ground. The good guys know about the issue, the bad guys know about the issue, and the public knows about the issue. Notifying the public is key because without that step, untold numbers of unsuspecting people could be taken advantage of and the people who have the power to correct the problem might not ever do so.

Check out this real-time
hack attempt tracker. Warning!
The cyber world is a much scarier
place than you might have

When I was working on my Master's Degree, we studied how the more questionable elements of the business world operate. Chemical manufacturers routinely pollute and leave toxic messes in their wake because it costs more to clean up spills the right way proactively than it does to pay their fines to the EPA the few times they get caught. The only real motivator for many big companies is public opinion. Yet another good reason to inform you, the public, of what I know about this particular mess.

It is my belief that making this exploit known is the only way to ensure that it will be fixed - or, at least, exposed so that others can be on the lookout for it if it should happen again. The purpose of this post is not to tell you how to beat the system but, rather, how others are beating the system and, in turn, beating you. That being said, if you are one of the select few people who will try this, I do not condone your actions but I am interested in knowing if it works for you or not. I'd love to know when (and if) the USTA has fixed the problem. The only sure way to find out for sure if it's been fixed is for someone to try it and update the rest of us.

As I sat on a beautiful grassy knoll watching my teammates playing two courts away, I noticed some friends of mine on another team playing on another court nearby. Now, these two friends are really skilled players and their match looked like it was easily a full NTRP level above the level I was playing at. They are good enough that they are still competitive at that level and their competition was playing even better than they were. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they were actually playing at the same exact level that I was. I was astounded. I have seen plenty of people of various rankings playing at various levels over the years so I have a pretty decent feel for a player's skill level and both players on the opposing team were playing at least a half level lower than they should have been. Their form and reflexes were impeccable. This was no fluke. They were punching way below their real weight class and they were running away with the match. Because of this, later that night, I decided to do a little research.

The two opposing players were both young - only a few years out of high school. The guy was from Pennsylvania and the girl was from right here in the State of Alabama - from the very city in which the competition was taking place, in fact. I didn't find anything much out about the guy except that he probably played tennis in high school but there wasn't much information available about him. The girl, however, was a completely different story. Only one year out of high school, she had competed at a very high level. At one point she was the number 6 highest ranked Alabama high school tennis recruit. A year ago she had played in, and won the deciding court for the Alabama State High School Tennis Championship. She was the real deal.

Her NTRP ranking, however, didn't reflect this. She was ranked as a 3.5. According to the USTA, anyone who has participated in post season play in high school has to self-rate no lower than 4.0. Not only had she participated but she had won. That's pretty significant. She should be a 4.0! Busted! Or so I thought, anyway. On the surface, it seemed obvious that she had lied during her self-rate questionnaire but, as it turned out, that was not the case. No, she had found a loophole and she just might get away with it, too.

You see, after I discovered this, I called up my friends to let them know. They already knew, however. One of their teammates had Googled her during the match and discovered the same thing. They had already filed a formal grievance and had, in fact, discovered the true tale of how it happened. This girl was either tipped off to the loophole by someone else who knew about it or she was a sneaky maniacal cheating genius. Either way, if she were a hacker, she would be the one wearing the black hat.

What had happened was this: She had gone through the self-rate process honestly answering all the questions and had gotten self-rated as a 4.0. Here's the trick, though. Apparently, she then turned right around and appealed her ranking down to 3.5 and the appeal was granted. Genius. Sneaky maniacal cheating genius.

"USTA, you've just"
been pwned!

So, how did this happen? Well, if you know how the appeals process works, it's pretty obvious. The USTA offers an automatic appeals process whereby if you are close enough to the next lower numerical rating then the USTA gives you the benefit of the doubt and trusts your judgment as to your level of play and will automatically grant your appeal. Since she had self-rated, she was as close as you can possibly get to the next lowest rating so when she appealed, the appeals process did exactly what it was programmed to do. It trusted her assessment of her abilities and dropped her down to the next lower ranking. In the immortal words of a culture addicted to slang, "USTA, you've just been pwned!"

So, if you want to follow the rules and still be able to cheat, do this. Or don't. I would actually really prefer that you don't. But, then again, if you do, please let me know. Come on, USTA. Get it together.

Comments (2) -

Jason Ohler Jason Ohler says:

I totally agree.  We played against a player who plays in college but registered as a 3.0 in high school because he was the only decent player on his team did not go to post season play.   The self rating system for the USTA is a joke in my opinion and can easily be exploited.   Changes need to be made to insure fair play for all.

Clif Clif says:

Yeah, it's sad that it's such a pervasive problem. Situations like this have made it almost impossible to make it to sectional or national championships with an 18+ team without at least a couple of obscenely underrated folks on your team. Sad.

Also, a good friend of mine just sent me an email correction to the details above. While playing in High School Championships does mean that you must rate 4.0 or higher, he believes that she also had a national/sectional junior ranking when she was in school, as well. That would mean that she actually should have self rated as a 5.0 - not just a 4.0. Yikes. It's even worse than I thought.

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