A look at a possible new, more streamlined tennis ranking system

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- On Monday morning, Rafael Nadal replaced Roger Federer as the top-ranked player in men's tennis. This, despite the fact that Nadal hasn't played a match since mid-January. An ordinary sports fan couldn't be blamed for feeling baffled.

Is there a better, more relevant ranking system out there?

Perhaps. The Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) system is already taking junior and college tennis by storm. It rates players on a scale ranging from 1 (raw beginner) to 16.5 (Federer pulls a 16.21). The pro ratings generated by UTR are fascinating -- different enough to be significant, but not so different that this becomes an apples and oranges comparison to the current system.

The ATP top five this week are, in descending order: Nadal, Federer, Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov. The UTR top equivalent: Federer, Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Nick Kyrgios and David Goffin.

The UTR also has a three-month "trending" rating. Last week in Miami, John Isner faced Hyeon Chung in the quarterfinals. Isner, 17 in the ATP rankings but mired in a slump, was rated No. 20 in UTR. Chung was ranked No. 23, but rated No. 7 by UTR. So by UTR's standards, Chung was the favorite (although Isner did win that match, and the tournament as well).

The current ATP/WTA computer rankings are based on point accumulation. By contrast, UTR ratings crunch data from a player's past 30 matches, using a sophisticated algorithm that also factors the quality of the opponent and even the score differential. UTR pays no attention to age or gender; anyone can register and start working on a rating for free.

Brad Gilbert, an ESPN tennis analyst, first learned of UTR from Victoria McEnroe, a ranked junior player and daughter of Gilbert's fellow broadcaster Patrick McEnroe.

"The UTR now is way more important to kids than the USTA ranking," Gilbert said. "In the juniors, if you have enough money you can go to certain events and pick up points. It breaks things down on the basis of who you played and beat."

The UTR system also allows for great flexibility of playing opportunity. Theoretically, any club can host a UTR tournament.

"You can have UTR tournaments for players of a certain UTR level," said Patrick McEnroe, whose daughter is a rated 7.47. "It could have boys and girls, even adults. It creates a real competitive environment and accurate measure of your ability."

Kamau Murray is the CEO of XS Tennis, a program that targets the underserved youth of Chicago. (Murray is also the coach of US Open champion Sloane Stephens.)

"Our kids love the UTR," Murray told ESPN.com. "They can improve their ratings and maybe earn a college scholarship without having the resources to travel all over the country, chasing points."

Universal Tennis Rating was launched in 2008 by Virginia tennis pro Dave Howell. Analyzing tournament results he found that, on average, only about one match in four (27 percent) at a junior tournament was competitive; at the USTA nationals level, the percentage rose to 40. Still not very high. He modeled UTR on a similar system that has been used for a long time in France, but added some tweaks.

Mark Leschly, a venture capitalist who played Division I collegiate tennis, is the principal owner of UTR. He told ESPN.com that the rating functions something like a golf handicap. His long-term vision is that UTR becomes the glue that binds together tennis players worldwide, on a digital platform that provides an accurate, portable, verified picture of a player's ability. Over time, it might morph into the main place where enthusiasts at every level gather, communicate and find goods and services.

The UTR ratings are already the principal tool college coaches use for recruiting talent. "The different geographic pathways in tennis are complicated," Leschly said. "How do you pick between a kid highly ranked by his Croatian federation, someone with experience on the ITF Tour and a good kid from NorCal [USTA's northern California section]? Now you can look at their UTRs. It's right there, and the kids know it."

Right now, the UTR has no desire to replace the ATP and WTA rankings. "I think they tell different stories," Leschly said. "The ATP tells a 12-month story of how far you went in major tournaments. With us, it's how you're competing, especially in relation to other players."

The ATP and WTA ranking systems haven't changed significantly in years, nor availed themselves of advances in the era of big data. The tournaments and most players at this point accept it happily, partially because the system is designed to reward players for participating in as many tournaments as possible. That also makes tournament directors happy.

Leschly deals with the temptations of tech every day. "We could develop a more predictive model UTR, take in the variables and put applied math on it. But that departs from our core focus, which is to create a system that allows everyone to be rated and understand what level they're at."

It isn't difficult to see what level Federer and Nadal are at currently. But it would be nice to see that reflected in the rankings.