Some Things Money Can’t Buy – How About A USTA 5.0 Tennis Rating

Everybody wants to be rich. At least, everybody wants to feel rich. However, there are some things money can't buy. And one of those things is a USTA 5.0 tennis rating.

For all you personal finance and tennis fans out there, this post discusses one man's rise to 5.0 in 2015 from 4.0 in 2008. I lasted at 5.0 for six years until I finally appealed down to a 4.5 in 2022. Now I'm happily playing at the 4.5-level again.

Playing at the 5.0 level gets pretty brutal at my age, especially as the USTA seems to be letting more and more young Division I college players compete at 5.0. I believe a USTA 4.5 level rating is the sweet spot for fun and competition.

Getting To USTA 5.0 Tennis As An Aging Athlete

One of the most comical, yet sad things every aging athlete must face is that we no longer are what we once were. Our minds are there, willing us to keep fighting, but our bodies don't cooperate. This is a post about perseverance.

At the beginning of 2015, I highlighted several personal goals in a post. One of those goals was to win just one USTA 5.0 rated tennis match. I had just gotten bumped to 5.0 after being a 4.5 for the past four years. It was a big surprise since I never believed that I belonged.

To give you an idea of the caliber of players in the 5.0+ USTA league, here are some bios:

  • Cal team captain in 1998 who played No. 5 singles and owned a 25-6 match record that year.
  • No. 6 singles player for USF in 2013. That's right, he's only 24 years old.
  • Captain for UC Santa Cruz, and 2009 Division III National Champions.
  • All-American in singles and doubles at Stanford for four years.
  • Hall-of-famer at William & Mary with a 70-40 singles record.

In other words, these guys are legit. Winning a singles match against some of these young bucks is impossible. I'd lose 1-6, 1-6 if I'm lucky. Winning a doubles match at the USTA 5.0 level is almost impossible without a good partner. 

Winning At USTA 5.0 Tennis

Although I was recruited to play at a Division III school, I never played college-level tennis. Instead, I chose to go to a better school for academics.

By junior year in high school, I knew I had no chance of ever making pro. I didn't have the drive to compete in tournaments around the Mid-Atlantic. My strokes were consistent, but lacked any sort of punishing pace that could easily vanquish my opponents.

Financial Samurai Tennis 5.0 USTA tennis rating - how hard is it to get to USTA 5.0 level
Ouch! My knees and lower back!

Besides, I'm a 38 45-year-old personal finance blogger who spends most of his time writing. Challenge me to a finger wrestling contest and I'll crush you! However, put me in battle against guys who bomb 120+ mph serves, and I'm not so sure. Waistlines don't stay trim, nor do muscles stay lean with sedentary professions.

In college I remember watching these players compete while I just played intramural tennis. They were the studs who won local and national tournaments. They were the ones who were coveted by coaches and got multi-year academic scholarships. Never did I imagine we'd all play in the same league 20 years later.

Some Things Money Can't Buy

For those of you who don't play tennis, or who don't play competitive sports, being proud of making 5.0 probably sounds stupid. But I grew up in an environment where we had to excel as students and as athletes.

It wasn't good enough to be a nerd. It wasn't good enough to be an athlete with piss-poor grades either. Colleges wanted both! The pressure was on.

Despite being the captain of my high school tennis team a couple years and going All-District, I burned out of tennis my senior year. Practices were long. I couldn't help but pass out early from exhaustion every night without doing all my homework. Staying awake in Spanish class the next day after lunch was nearly impossible. Food coma!

Until this day, my favorite words after lunch are, “Nappy time!”

Dreams Of Being A Professional Athlete

Despite making the logical decision to focus on academics instead of tennis, for years after high school, I always wondered “what if?” What if I had practiced more, tried harder, lifted more weights, and played in more tournaments?

There are plenty of 150 – 160lbs, 5'10” players like me who are doing well in college and on the pro-circuit. Kei Nishikori, the world's #7 ranked player is one such example.

Was I just making excuses when I was younger for not wanting to try harder? Was I too afraid of losing?

Ah, good ‘ol REGRET started creeping back in. Then I discovered a path to redemption through USTA league tennis as a 32 year old back in 2009. I wanted to continue my athletics as an adult instead of just sitting on my couch all day.

It's funny, because 2009 was the same year that I started Financial Samurai. Clearly, I was looking for some outlets to get my mind off a very scary financial time for us all. Tennis and writing were my two salvations.

A Rough Start To USTA 5.0 Glory

When I first began playing league tennis, I couldn't even join my club's 4.5 team. I didn't know anybody, and nobody thought I was good enough. As a physically unimposing human being, I had no positive biases in the tennis world.

Given nobody believed in me, I started believing I wasn't good enough either! Instead of trying to make the 4.5 team, I self-rated as a 4.0. After my 5th match, I ended up getting computer disqualified or beating my opponents too badly. It was a hit to the team because all my prior wins also got canceled in favor of the opponent. We were entering playoffs and I couldn't even participate. That was the worst.

After my disappointing 4.0 season, I was finally given an opportunity to play 4.5 level tennis the next year. I went 4-2 in 2010, and 3-1 in 2011. But despite the winning records in 4.5, I still didn't get the playing time I wanted.

Joined A New Tennis Team

Instead of complaining, I decided to leave my club (mainly because I could never get parking or a court time after work), and just join a public team at Golden Gate Park where I didn't know anybody. Once again, I had to prove my worth by challenging other players. That's when I met Jabir, the poorest richest friend I know. Things got better after that.

I ended up going undefeated, 12-0 in 2012, with a couple satisfying wins against my old teammates who didn't believe in me. We went on to win the City Championship as well!

In sports, there's probably nothing more gratifying than proving your detractors wrong by winning. When people doubt you, all you've got to do is keep on winning to shut them up! It's one of the best feelings.

Without detractors, there's no way I would have practiced as much and stayed in fighting shape. Rejection is motivating!

Persevering Through Injuries

Meniscus Tear
Tore my left meniscus in 2007

There's something nobody in the tennis community knows. Back in 2007, I got an MRI on my left knee due to constant sharp pains that would cause my knee to buckle when walking up or down steps. My knee also felt loose every time I'd take a right turn.

It turns out that I had a torn horizontal meniscus tear in the posterior horn. I went to see an orthopedic surgeon to find out whether I should have arthroscopic knee surgery. He told me, “Only if the pain is too much to bear.”

The left knee was in pain, but through physical therapy, I worked through the pain and it didn't bother me as much anymore. I wore a knee sleeve to keep things tight, and battled on!

I promised never to complain about the pain and never tell anybody about my injury. You either win on the court or you lose. And if you lose, it's because your opponent was too good that day. It wasn't because you had some type of injury, or you went out drinking too late, or any other sort of bullshit excuse we tend to make. The same thing goes with our finances!

In sports, you man up, learn from your losses, work on your weaknesses and try to get better. Eventually, our bodies will refuse to cooperate. That's when we've got to come to the realization that it's time to play down a level or retire. But while our bodies are still healthy, we compete as hard as we can in order to discover our potential!

Finding Maximum Playing Potential

USTA Tennis Rating Distribution Chart - From 2.5 rating all the way to 5.0 and 5.5 rating
USTA Tennis Rating Distribution Chart. Only 0.87% are 5.0 rated

None of my teammates from my old 4.5 team in 2009-2010 have made it to 5.0 today. They've either quit, gotten out of shape, or remained at 4.5. I'll admit that I'm probably one of the worst 5.0 players in America. But for at least one year, the computer will say I'm a 5.0, which is something that can't ever be taken away.

All the practicing and mind-bending competitive situations paid off. Getting to 5.0 is something money can't buy. But how about winning at 5.0?

Trying To Win At USTA 5.0 Level

Instead of just winning one match, I ended up going 3-3 in my first USTA 5.0 season. One win was against two self-rated 5.0 players who honestly weren't 5.0s. Another win was against a new 5.0 promote like myself and his 4.5 partner.

My final win was against a three year starter at UC Davis (D1) and his partner who played at Wesleyan (D3). My partner was just like me, a former high school player who just got bumped to 5.0.

As for my losses, I got crushed playing with a 4.5 against two teams who were both 5.0s (2-6, 2-6 and 4-6, 3-6). When I finally got a legit 5.0 partner, we went the distance winning the first set 6-3, losing the second set 3-6, and then losing a 10 point tie-breaker 6-10 against an ex-Cal player (D1) and his ex-Emory (D3) player partner. It was the most satisfying loss of my life because it showed that I could hang.

Non-monetary goals are some of the most precious because you can't buy your way to glory. Not even talent can make you succeed without a tremendous amount of practice. We all need to stick around for as long as possible to give ourselves a chance. You just never know what might happen!

Key Takeaways From Getting To USTA 5.0

1) Not feeling like you belong is a common feeling. Most of us would rather err on the side of caution and do OK, rather than try extremely hard and fail at the chance of doing something great. Failure is embarrassing. It’s why many players don’t even bother to sign up for their club tournament. I highly recommend going for big wins, because what's worse than failure is the regret of never trying at all.

2) Decide whether your mind is an enabler or a disabler. As soon as you feel like you belong, you will get better at whatever you do. I can easily hit a top spin one-handed backhand now, whereas before I could not for years. If you do not believe in yourself, nobody will.

3) When it comes to building wealth, belief that you deserve to be rich and free is equally important. There are so many doubters about saving 50%+ of your income, creating a product that produces passive income, or starting your own business, from people who've never bothered to try! But I assure you that once you develop a plan, good things will happen.

4) Instead of letting detractors get you down, use detractors as motivation to succeed. Your detractors are the most afraid to try! My favorite internal monologue growing up was, “Work twice as hard to get half as much.” There's no better gratifying feeling than success. The worst is if something is just handed to you. Then you can't possibly fully appreciate the significance.

5) If you persevere long enough, good things will happen. Never fail due to a lack of effort! The secret to your success is 10+ years of unwavering commitment to your craft. If you never give up, you can never lose.

How To Get To A USTA 5.0 Level

After publishing this post years ago, a lot of people have asked how a regular tennis player who didn't play in college can get to USTA 5.0. Here are my thoughts:

  • Work on one stroke for one year. Master that stroke by hitting thousands of balls. Drill 5X a week until you can regularly hit the shot. Then move on to a new shot.
  • Drilling is great for fundamentals. However, to get bumped up, you must win. And there's nothing better than playing practice matches to build your match toughness. You want to build a 6.0 mind. After all, a 6.0 mind plus 4.0 skills also averages out to 5.0!
  • You must develop a serve that has different options. We're talking out wide serves, down the T serves, flat serves, kick serves, and spin serves. It's relatively easy to always hit back a big serve if that's all it is. Further, you must practice hitting a bigger 2nd serve. The second serve quality is one of the biggest difference makers between 5.0 and 4.5.
  • There are few out of shape 5.0 singles players. If your body fat isn't below 20% and you don't have less than a 25 BMI, you've got no shot at winning. Therefore, you must get in tip top shape and have the ideal weight if you want to be a 5.0 tennis player.
  • Fitness is less important in doubles. Consistency is key. You must be able to hit inside out backhands on the deuce side and inside out forehands on the ad side. You must constantly be attacking the net. Staying back to hit groundstrokes is not going to cut it at 5.0 doubles when both opponents are at the net. Further, you must constantly be pouching. When your parter is serving, try to pouch 50% of the time to always keep your opponents guessing.
  • For doubles, you must practice your serve, returns, and volleys. Master these three strokes with supreme consistency, and you will be a 5.0.

Tennis Update 2023

I had a good four years of playing 5.0 tennis and now I've had enough. I'm a father of two kids and no longer have as much time to play.

Playing four years of 5.0 tennis showed that getting bumped up to 5.0 was no fluke. I tried my best, lost most of the time, but still couldn't get bumped down.

Sometimes, you've got to recognize when you've reached your limits! Enjoy the ride and get off while you still can. And funny enough, I played two 9.5 matches this year as the 5.0 and won.

Alas, I was finally able to self-rate down to 4.5 in 2022. It’s the appropriate level and I’m having a lot more fun! My team actually won the 40+, 4.5 San Francisco league title in 2022 on March 27, 2022.

We then won the 4.5 18+ San Francisco league title as underdogs. So much more fun!

Due to my bum right shoulder, I've decided to play more pickleball going forward. Pickleball is a wonderful sport that's much easier on the body. I highly recommend you try pickleball out if you enjoy tennis.

Tennis Book Recommendation

If you're a tennis player, I highly recommend reading Brad Gilbert's book Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare In Tennis–Lessons Learned From A Master.

The book really helped me win ugly. The book also helped my high school students win the Northern California Championship twice in a row. Winning one NCS championship was the first ever in the school's 50+-year history.

Related posts if you love tennis:

Finding The Motivation To Kick Your Opponent's Ass! (more tennis stories)

The Best Tennis Groundstroke Game: The Mountain (came up with a new groundstroke game during the pandemic)

The USTA Rating System Doesn't Promote Inclusivity (still very cliquey, and many captains game the system)

Gaming The System Seems More Acceptable Today (a moral dilemma about playing your best or playing just enough to not get bumped up)

For more nuanced personal finance content, join 65,000+ others and sign up for the free Financial Samurai newsletter. Financial Samurai is one of the largest independently-owned personal finance sites that started in 2009. Everything is written based off firsthand experience. 

76 thoughts on “Some Things Money Can’t Buy – How About A USTA 5.0 Tennis Rating”

  1. Hi Sam, thanks for this post!

    I started playing myself in 2021 as a 45 year old, from scratch – quite literally, because in one of my first matches, I tried to run for a drop shot, stumbled, and scratched both of my hands on the asphalt. Talking about commitment! But I am still playing, and practicing, and I am now starting to even win an occasional game against a 4.0! I just seem to be a tad bit too slow to keep up when rallying with them, but I am optimistic for my future. Plus I have already made a couple new friends and acquaintances through the sport. Tennis is great for that!
    You have great form in your trophy position, God knows how hard it is to bend your knees that way when serving. I bet your serve is really good, the way it looks and where the ball is positioned, you must have a great range of motion with a deep racquet drop. The serve has always been my favorite shot, because it is so complex to master, yet looks incredibly aesthetic.

  2. I switched to pickleball and much more enjoyable than tennis now and my body thanks me. Lots of former competitive tennis players switched to pickleball. Its the fastest growing sport in USA

  3. What a great write up, Sam, THANK YOU. My goal is to get to 5.0 some day (I’m 47), but a coach I met once told me it’s a tiny percentage of players who ever make it. Since you say 4.5 is the sweet spot, I would be ok settling for that maybe. I took a lesson today for the first time in probably 10 years, and coach said my serve is 5.5 (but it’s not nearly consistent enough…it was just our first meeting), so that’s promising I suppose.

    Anyway, will be reading more of your page. I’m totally bored by investing, which is why I just tell me PFA to take care of everything and I don’t wanna hear about it. I know that sounds totally irresponsible but I’m just not interested. The only thing that might pique my curiosity is real estate. Thanks again Sam!

    1. Hope you get there! It’s a fun and tough mountain to climb. And it is also very humbling once you battle the young guns at 5.0. But it’s worth the experience.

      If you have a 5.5 serve, then your potential is totally there to get to 5.0. I have a 4.5 serve and it’s going down. But I like to say I have a 6.0 mind LOL.

      1. Thanks for making folks realize the differences between 4.5 and 5.0 tennis. As a 57 year old former D1 player who played 5.0 for 30 years, I finally had to appeal to get down to a 4.5 last year. This is my first year at 4.5 and we will see how it goes…Just because you have kids – don’t give up. I coached my son’s HS tennis team while I was working a full time job (one of the best High School teams in the state/country) and I now play competitively with my son in So Cal with former USC, UCLA and other D1 players in hit sessions/liveball. Take your passion for tennis and pass it on to your kids. It will pay huge dividends in your relationship with them as well as prepare them to build their own relationships in the tennis community….

  4. Congrats on your and others’ inspiring achievements here. I’m a 57-year old 5.0 (in TX), so know most of you all still have some good years ahead!! I’ve been trying to get bumped down for 2+ years now with no luck (you’d think having had both hips totally replaced would have helped with the appeal, but no). Sitting in a chair 8-10 hours a day for 35 years has been ruthless on my body.

    Like everyone, I was looking forward to playing more tennis with Covid-19 breaking (it’s called 19 for the guaranteed 19 pound weight gain). And then just tore my medial meniscus at the root – so, yeah, I have no business being at 5.0 any more! But tennis is the best sport in the world and I plan to enjoy it for the rest of my life… and then there’s pickle ball, which seems to have exploding into a craze here in TX, so might give that a shot too,

    1. Keep the faith with regards to getting bumped down! I spoke to a USTA rep this week and she said after 3 years of inactivity, your rating will automatically go away and you can self rate.

      I tried to do the automatic appeal again this year after 4 years in a row and got rejected. So I’m just going to let my USTA membership lapse. Nice to save $44/year and play rec tennis too. The USTA rating system has too many holes.

      I’m impressed you are still 5.0 at 57 though! That puts my situation in perspective as the USTA might think I’m still a spring chicken at 43!

  5. Excellent post. And, I look forward to following Financial Samurai. Can you provide more information on the NTRP rating distribution table? What year? Source? Anything. I came across your article when I searched “How many 4.5 players are there?” Lucky find. Many thanks.

  6. Reece Goodwin

    As a 2.5 player, I congratulate you on achieving 5.0 status. I can sincerely appreciate that accomplishment. I also, however, want to comment on a quote in your takeaways, “Most of us would rather err on the side of caution and do OK, rather than try extremely hard and fail at the chance of doing something great. Failure is embarrassing.”

    I ask that all tennis players who consider self-rating at a lower level because they are afraid of losing, please consider the effect your decision will have on players at the lower level . As you stated, you were disqualified for self-rating at 4.0 after violating the 3-strike rule. You seemed to breeze that off like nothing in your blog above. Did you ever stop to think about how your actions embarrassed your opponents? They trusted that you self-rated truthfully, and as such, in losing to you, you very likely caused them to lose confidence in their own game.

    I myself have played in a few matches where my opponent clearly self-rated too low, and I have been blown out. It caused me to let down my team, to be personally embarrassed, and to lose confidence in my own game. Yes, your wins were eventually reversed, but there was a point in time when your opponent did not know the 3 strikes were coming.

    I see folks often complaining that the USTA rated them too high. Please, consider playing at the level you were rated at, and if you lose too many matches, let the system move you down. Reason: I have to believe not too many folks will complain that you rated yourself too high, as they are going to have the win and it has much less effect on their confidence. On the other hand, the effect you will have by beating someone badly because you self-rated too low will be damaging to your opponent , and to tennis. Plus, you risk a DQ and your team will suffer.

    1. Not really. When I self-rated at 4.0, it was my first time ever playing in the league. 4.0 is what I thought I was, bc I saw the 4.5 players and didn’t think I could beat them. I played with other 4.0s and I was about there.

      Getting bumped to 5.0 at 39-40 was a surprise. But a bigger surprise is staying at 5.0, 3 years later despite my age and losing record.

      Remember, I did not play college tennis. Yet every 5.0 I play against has, and 80% are younger than me.

  7. Hi Sam,

    I am a new reader and fan of your site! I especially love when you write about tennis in your posts, as tennis is also my husband’s “forever sport”.

    Are you still in SF? If you are, would you be interested in hitting? He is always looking for 5.0 players to play with! My husband hasn’t joined a league yet (he has a hectic schedule working as an entrepreneur), but you know he is legit when there is a small crowd of people that stop to watch his tennis match at Dolores Park :)

    1. Hi Jessica,

      Nice to meet you! Yes, I’m still in San Francisco, but I’m trying to move to Honolulu. Is your husband ranked 5.0 as well?

      Where are you guys located? Are usually play at Golden Gate Park a lot.

      But now they’re going to go through a year-long remodel. But it’s gonna be great!

  8. I played college tennis at decent 5.0 level-5.5 was my unacheived dream, at 35 I’ve been inspired by Roger bossing everyone at 37 so I’m back to playing 4 times a week after playing 5 times a year! Should it be possible to pay some money and guarantee reaching that next aspirational level… how much would you pay?! I’m currently investing in 2 club memberships, private lessons with a top coach and a regular sports massage…. The ROI for me is fitness, health and the satisfaction that hard earned wealth has now allowed me to improve in the most optimal way possible given work / family commitments. 5.5 here I come! It’s cheaper than a few big nights out.

  9. Update 10/18/2017: Three years later, are you playing at 4.5 or 5.0 ? Or did you self-rate down to 4.5 to have more people to hit with? Glad you’re still enjoying tennis once you hit your goal.

  10. Wow, talk about “just what the doctor ordered”. Thank you for crafting this article – its relevance and timing couldn’t be more perfect for me today. May as well share my story.

    I started playing tennis when I was 12 and it fast became my 2nd favorite/best sport behind basketball. Zero exposure to private lessons, academies, clinics or clubs – always relied on “natural” athletic ability and mimicking the form of good players. Made HS varsity squad as a freshman, going on to play 2nd doubles during Jr. and Sr. years for a team that won county and then sectional championships in those 2 years. Went to a DIII university and was invited to be a walk-on, but decided against it – chose heavy partying and intramural sports instead. Tore ACL as a sophomore playing pick-up basketball… had it reconstructed. But since it was the most painful injury I’d ever experienced, my return to sports of any kind was plagued with trepidation. Tore meniscus 6 months later… and that was the beginning of a 25-year hiatus from athletic activity – competitive or otherwise – of any kind.

    Like the apathetic idiot I was in my 20s, I didn’t follow-up with proper physical therapy at all… and the more time went by, the more I was convinced that my bad knee(s) and neglect of PT would prevent me from ever enjoying competitive sports again. Not to mention the fear of ever having to experience excruciating injury again. Life sort of swept me up from there … but always, my love of basketball and tennis nagged at my soul. Still, I became a shell of my former self without sports in my life.

    At 46, with feelings of mortality egging me on along with the overdue need to get in shape, I knew I needed to do something. Last summer, a newer buddy of mine mentioned that he played tennis with a group of guys at some local public courts and suggested that I hook up with them. A mix of 4.0 and 4.5 players, with a retired teaching pro in the mix for good measure. I started out playing once a week, for 4-6 hours at a time. In retrospect, I should have only played 2-3 hours max… but I was hooked! The pain and swelling I experienced was rather harsh at first, taking me 5-6 days before I felt able to play again. But after 2 months, my knees (and foot, and elbow, and shoulder, and back, and.. and.. lol) began recovering faster and faster. [With tears in my eyes] I am proud to report that I now play twice a week, about 4 hours per night… and playing the best tennis of my life. Use it or lose it, indeed.

    This public club fields 4.0 and 4.5 USTA NorCal teams (leagues start next week!). The 4.0 team has me slated for 1st doubles. 1st and 2nd singles will be on a rotational basis amongst 3 of us, depending on who beats who in practice the week prior to matches (and/or who’s body is most resilient…). I’m truly stoked about my progress – especially after such a long time away from the game and sports in general.

    A self-rated 4.0, I’ve heard a few higher level players say that I have a 5.5 serve, and display 5.0+ strokes at times (certainly in practice). I may have let some of that go to my head, but ultimately, I know I’m a 4.0 right now. What’s eating me a little is that, up until very recently, I’d been given the impression that I would be playing for the 4.5 team too… but now the captain (my buddy) is saying I probably won’t be playing regularly.
    It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. And I recognize the long road ahead to achieve a solid 4.5 game. Better physical condition (20 lbs?), overall consistency, top spin backhand, improved mental game. But I’ve played against some of these 4.5s and simply don’t believe the delta is as wide as my friend claims it is. To add insult to injury, he thinks I’ll be “lucky” to win 50% of my matches at 4.0 Right or wrong, I bet him a steak dinner that I would have a winning record this year.

    Hearkening back to what you said about detractors, Sam… I now have something to prove to someone other than myself. Actually two other people, but who’s counting! I ordered Winning Ugly, and am joining a great racquet/swim/fitness club with the goal of getting into the best shape of my life.

    Here’s to a successful 2017 season to all (except my opponents, of course)!

  11. Great article! Fellow tennis addict, USTA 4.5 and about to get my USPTA Profesional Cert (was part-time rec coach for a long time). I think these personal goals define your passion.

    Although you don’t win money, and only a small bit of pride to win one round of wild card to enter qualifiers at Indian Wells (out of 256 players), it’s something you’ll remember the rest of your life.

    Funny, I set the same bucket list to visit all 4 grand slams. Tennis opens a LOT of doors and networks you with Doctors, Lawyers, Wall St., C-level execs, and very SMART people like no other sport can – maybe except golf. It is definitely a lot more active too…the tennis court is my gym and my mind is totally Free for those 90-120 mins I sweat out there. The sort of Freedom you cannot buy or drink or wear. Thanks Sam!

      1. Hi Sam, a brief background from my perspective:
        I have a systems engineering degree, work as an IT consultant by day, and become Tennis dude by night (playing 4-6 times a week if I can). I also run 2 tennis blogs ( – Tennis Travels & Press/Media work) and ( – “Groupons for Tennis Deals”).

        So for me, it’s a business expense, plus adds to the tennis resume. I teach on junior players on weekends a few times a month at a local club for my cousin.

        Actually, I am literally going for my USPTA exam this coming Sunday – so I think you caught me at the perfect time while the info is fresh. I’m aiming to upgrade my cert to the Elite Professional level if I score well. They offer a 1-day option (half the exam is tested online) and a 2-day option (where you learn everything hands-on), but on alternating months. I’d do the 1-day option but was too late to sign up last month.

        Also, I watched a few youtube videos of the USPTA exam, a few forum posts and a blog on USPTA testing. I would recommend spending 2-3 weeks to review and prep for the exam – they want everything taught a very specific way. Since you are rated between 4.5 and 5.0 then you should have no problems with the basic fundamentals and shot-making test.

        The major areas of the exam are: Grips, Feeding, Private Lesson, Group Lesson, Analyzing strokes, Stroke Production.

        My Tips for a high score: Give an intro with 3 things about yourself, always try to repeat your student’s first name for specific encouragement, adjust the practice feed Depth & Frequency to suit the skill level of the student, keep the lesson plan very simple ~20 mins, and lastly Safety First (clear all balls on their side of the net).

        From an ROI perspective, it might be tough for a part-timer to justify. It’s $190 to apply. Then about $300/year to keep the membership & insurance. However, if you can do it through the school then the annual fee is much less ~$100/year:

        The certification does give you some nice perks: wholesale discount on Nike + Tennis products, free entry to most US Open series pro tournaments in the summer, and finally exposure & networking opts with the tennis insider industry.

        Feel free to email me if you have any questions or want to take a look at the PDF study guide.

        1. Quick Update:
          I think the students in the 2-day class all passed. At least 2 guys who did the 1-day option had to come back. The instructor basically gives you a “rehearsal” on day one and refines any glitches so there’s little chance to screw up badly.

          I will say that the stroke production portion is not “easy”. The stroke that was the toughest (even for the former Top 300 all-american) was the 3 bounce drop shot. Luckily, even if you miss most of these attempts, it is in the same category as overheads which you should Ace. As long as the average per category is good, you will get that mark in the end. The other shot that is uncommon, is the forehand cross-court slice for accuracy. Recommend practicing the serves as well.

          On day 2, you have the Group and Private Lessons. Definitely, use at least 3 levels of Progressions* from easy to hardest drills… Also Time Management in the 25 min lesson is important. Go at a good steady pace, but always finish on time with a review of “homework” for the student.

          I’ll put up a more detailed description and breakdown on my blog:

  12. My 18 yr daughter plays in a 4.5 league because there are no 5.0 leagues around here. There are some players in her league that are barely a level above beginner and there are a few former D1 and junior players who are clearly 5.0+ players. I’m not sure exactly how it works but because of age and injuries, you can ask to have your rating lowered. I think the USTA understands the lack of 5.0 players to form a league so they are more accommodating in allowing players to play down. I could be wrong about that.

  13. Had the exact same feeling. Played a lot in juniors. Took it light in my late teens and early 20s and been playing USTA league the last 15 years. I turned 40 this year and got bumped to 5.0 few years ago at 38. There are no 5.0 leagues in milwaukee. I tried to appeal my rating but got denied. Once in a while you get lucky and feels great to kick someones butt 20 years younger. Used to grind and hit topspin when i was younger. Now, I take the ball early and flatten it out. My all time favorite match is Blake vs Agassi in 2005 US open quarter finals. Agassi wakes up from being 2 sets and a break down and runs Blake all over the court by taking the ball so early.

  14. In your opinion, what are the best tennis clubs in the SF area? I’m graduating from college in May and moving out to SF and trying to find a club that has a USTA League.

      1. Thanks! Any idea which one would be suitable cost/atmosphere wise for a 21 y/o 5.0 player? I hear Cal Tennis Club is essentially impossible to get into

        1. Bay Club at Gateway and SFTC (same owner) is easy to get in. Try there! Did you play in college or USTA at 5.0 already?

          Clubs want 4.5 players who are really 5.0. And 5.0 players who are really 5.5!

  15. They just changed the self rate system last year to make it easy for young ex-college players to get a 4.5 rating when they start out. The USTA is making itself a bit of a joke letting all the best teams be those that have the self rated players with skills out of whack with the rest of the league.

    1. Did they change it? When I first signed up 10 years ago, if you played in college you were automatically a 5.0.

      There is tons of gaming the system for sure. But I’ve always tried to just try my damn best and see how far I could go. The feeling of getting to 5.0 at age 37 is a priceless feeling.

  16. Great job on hitting 5.0. I found the key to serious improvement was training 80% of the time and playing matches 20%. You can raise your red line and discover new patterns of play (and shots) that you would have never tried, when playing “safe” in matches.

    I like to change speed, spin, trajectory and angles, on a regular basis. And I really raised the bar when I decide to define 9 spots that I could hit on the court and train…to hit those spots.

    I cannot take the credit for my court coverage, as God blessed me with the speed to turn defensive positions into real opportunities. That is the place where I need to tell most students “don’t do what I do there, play the percentages” But they usually try stupid stuff (like me) anyway. :-)

    Good job hitting 5.0 and remember to smile in those matches, as this is a great game and we are all lucky to be able to enjoy it.

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  19. Good work Sam! At 38 no less! If you’re ever in Seattle, I’d love to play a match against you. Sounds like it’d be a competitive one.

      1. I just played USTA league this year for the first time and I feel I’m a solid mid to upper 4.5. I’ve been competitive with high 4.5 to lower 5.0 from practice and tournament matches. I’m just always looking for fun matches!

  20. “Some things money can’t buy…”

    Money may not buy the talent or perseverance to work toward a goal, but it did buy the time to train/practice to get to the goal and pay for the equipment and facilities that were used in the process. My guess is that the struggle would have been much greater if you were still working 70 hours a week….

    Somebody who is all the time to train with maximum effort should (within their natural abilities) beat out the person who has similar natural abilities but doesn’t have similar time or resources.

    As such, money did buy your rating IMO and the true success/accomplishment was working your ass off, building a stash, and knowing when enough is enough.

    1. True. It’s never good enough, which is why I need to train harder!

      I need to also work harder in order to build enough wealth to ensure financial freedom and the ability to practice more.

      Thanks for the motivation!

      What are some things money can’t buy for you?

  21. Great stuff, Sam. I felt like my tennis was improving drastically in my 20s and made 4.0 in one of the corporate leagues my previous employer had a team in (and played USTA for a season at 4.0 as well).

    Not to call you old at all, but even at my current age (30) I’m afraid and unable to push myself too much…I had a few episodes of ridiculous pain in my spine sporadically while playing (after I stopped playing consistently) – it just didn’t feel worth it at that point to risk anything. I haven’t played at all in over a year…hopefully can get back on the court little by little.

    Sounds like you’re at a great place with your tennis – all I can say is keep it up. Stopping even for a bit was probably the worst thing I did for my tennis.

    1. Congrats on making 4.0! Isn’t it fun to play in the corporate league? Bond with colleagues, make work life better, and build a network for promotion!

      Any idea why the spine would start flaring up? See the doctor at all? Maybe the form or fitness needs work? Keep at it if you can!

  22. takeadropshot

    A 5.0 rating is very very hard to achieve and I would say impossible for most of people who have a knee issue. It’s probably harder to do that than to get into a Ivy League school. It’s amazing!

    1. Man, that’s pretty cool if that’s true! I never would have gotten into any Ivy League school because my SAT score wasn’t high enough, and my parents didn’t have lots of money to help buy my way in. State school represent!

      Due to your comment, I did some research to find what the distribution is of players between 2.5 and 5.5. I found the chart and added it in the post! Check it out up top.

      1. takeadropshot

        Thanks for the chart. Is that for both men/women?

        I know someone who played a junior slam and is not a 5.0. To be a 5.0 at 35+ with an injury and isn’t coaching is very very rare. I am just a 3.5 and I get killed by good 3.5s.

        1. It’s for both men and women I believe.

          You gotta watch out for those tricky self-rates players. If you are getting killed by a 3.4S more than 6-2, 6-2, chances are high the person is a 4.0!

  23. loved the post, probably my favorite!

    Congrats on your tennis success! sounds like we’ve got similar tennis career…I’m also a former junior player, grew up in WV and played lots of USTA back then. I briefly considered trying to play DIII or weak DI, but decided to go to a better academic school as well (you know those asian parents, haha).

    Since graduating in 1999, I’ve just hit a few times a year. I’ve wanted to try to get into leagues, but always too busy with school or work. I was at UVA for grad school a few years ago, and watching their college team got me back into it. Also at age 32, i finally joined some clinics. I self rated 4.0, on the advice of a local teaching pro, but I now realize that everyone wants you to rate low so you can play for their USTA teams! I’m now playin 3-5 times a week. My 4.0, 4.5 teams, and 8.0 and 9.0 mixed are going to sectionals in a few weeks, I can’t get enough, haha. Expecting to get bumped up any day now…I hit with some 5.0 guys and have won some singles matches, but I think our ratings are weak here in my area.

    Playing again has made me feel that I finally have some work life balance. I regret missing out on playing in my 20’s, but I’m grateful to still be able to play this well, I didn’t expect it when I started playing again. I’m looking forward to playing as long as my body lets me. It truly is a sport for a lifetime.

    If you’re ever in Omaha, Nebraska let me know and we’ll hit!

    1. It’s all about sandbagging your rating to kick some ass during the season! It happens on every team, and it’s so comical. At 4.0, I was a sandbagger that got DQed, but I didn’t know better as that was my first year playing.

      At 4.5, I’m right in line.

      There’s always our 30s, 40s, 50s, +! I don’t think I’ll ever be in Omaha, but good to know I got a hitting partner out there!

  24. Your site is really good. I read it everytime now and added it to my RSS Feeds. What money can’t buy I face at the moment is , the time I waiting for the documents from another country that my girlfriend and me can marry. It takes up to 1 year now until all is finished. After we accomplished that we can live together and build our dream live. Waiting for documents money can’t buy a shorter time period or something. Also money can’t buy less stress if you have trouble in life. That is what I learned recently. So it’s important to live as good as possible, enjoy every moment and plan well for the future and have big dreams. Money also can’t buy motivation, focus and discipline in life. It’s all we need work our self on. Cheers and a happy day!

  25. “The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I’ll never be as good as a wall.” – Mitch Hedberg

    Congrats, Sam! Am recalling you setting that goal, and your apprehension. Really admire your perseverance, and the work (both quantity and intensity) required for you to achieve your goal. Just read a great piece on “playing up” and thought of your 5.0 self-challenge. Maybe you will find it of interest. Way to go!

    1. Thanks mate. Will read the post on playing up! Soon will be 9.5 combo season. Let’s see what happens. You still whacking the ball here and there as an ex college player?

      1. Haven’t played in 25+ years, it is too much effort just to wind up disappointing myself. Hey! That club in the pic is awesome! Old-school traditional facility and heritage, I played a tournament there when I was in college. Good luck this season, continued success and keep playing. Hall of Famer and Grand Slam champion René Lacoste competed well into his 70s, and was asked how someone could become a national champion in the 75-and-overs. His answer…“Don’t ever stop playing!” – René Lacoste

  26. David Michael

    One of the problems of working my way through college is that I had little time to join sports teams. I did make the Track Team but ran mostly in the local meets rather than Madison Square Garden. Never had the time to try out for football or baseball during high school because of three hours homework in a Jesuit school with an hour commute each way.

    It wasn’t until I retired and went back to graduate school at age 65 after ten years off, to start a new career that I realized one of my dreams. The only sport at this small college in Vermont was soccer. Always wanted to play it, so I pleaded with the coach to let me join the team as a sub. I promised I would do anything to help the team including carrying water to each game. He reluctantly agreed and said I’ll probably never get to play in a league game. I worked out with the team and did lots of butt work behind the scenes.

    I learned and practised with the team and in the first game I did play a few minutes, much to my surprise. About five minutes in the second game. By the third game, the younger members in their 20’s and 30’s started to get aches and pains and some became lame. By the third game it was 20 minutes, by the fourth, half the game and then nearly full games from then on. It was the most fun I ever had in a college or university setting and loved the entire process, even though I was lame for a week each time and healed just in time for the next game.

    The lesson I learned from that experience was just how important it is to participate and go for the dream. It was not about being the best, it was just about PARTICIPATION and living the dream. At age 65, I didn’t give a rip as to what people would think or whether I would succeed or not. At graduation time, I felt like a hero and winner when I received my MA (third one), not because of the degree but because I played on the soccer team. No amount of money could have purchased that achievement.

    Now as I approach age 80, this is one of my most coveted accomplishments in the world of academia. (I was a chemistry instructor at a community college for 20 years).

    1. AMAZING! I know exactly what you are talking about, and I think you totally get what I’m trying to convey in this post.

      Even if you made mega millions, I bet you will still look back at your participation in soccer at age 65 and view it as a much more rewarding moment.

      Wonderful comment. I might have to spotlight this in a future post. Thanks.

  27. Ali @ Anything You Want

    “Instead of letting detractors get you down, use detractors as motivation to succeed!” Whenever anyone indicates that they don’t think I can do something, it is motivation for me to try twice as hard and show them that I can. I’ve had this experience recently with workout goals. I set a frequency goal and others questioned if I could do it, and I wanted to show them that I could!

  28. I went over to the richest poorest friend article and really enjoyed that article. For me, the time to enjoy friends and family is something that money can’t buy. Time in general, but time for the people that are most involved in your life.

    Also, is it possible to buy money with money? Is this passive investing stated in a completely stupid way?

    Have a good day and congrats on your 5.0 rating.

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  30. Hey Sam, awesome that you’re a 5.0. Next time I’m in San Francisco we’re gonna hit the courts. I’m around a 4.5 and mostly teaching these days. If you’re in Montreal anytime this summer, let me know. We’ll play some tennis and I’ll show you around a very cool city with a ton of interesting real estate opportunities.

    As for your question at the end of the post, money can’t buy that awesome feeling when you finish writing and recording your own music. Also, the satisfaction of seeing my young tennis students improving on a daily basis. Hitting winners left and right!

  31. The Alchemist

    I always feel that way when I top out on a rock climb, or win my age group in a running race, or reach an especially cool, remote location on a long hike in the mountains. Money cannot buy what it takes to do those things. Similarly, qualifying for the Boston Marathon— money definitely couldn’t buy that! It required a different sort of “payment” altogether. And the satisfaction of success was priceless.

  32. Congrats on your tennis achievements! I am probably a 2.0 level tennis player at best so I give you mad respect. One of the reasons I have failed to get better at tennis is the amount of consistency and stamina required. I tire way too easily and have no control over where I hit the ball. Excuses – yes, guilty.

    As a clutz, I have never really achieved anything in the world of sports/athletics. The closest I got was making the cut into an intermediate tap dancing class a few years ago after only have one summer camp of training as a kid. Being able to master a routine or technically challenging steps is incredibly satisfying to me now and I don’t think that will ever get old.

    Congrats again and best wishes for your knees. It sucks how our bodies get old!

    1. 2.0 whoo hoo! :) I get tired easily, but not in tennis, but in running and so many other exercises mainly b/c I’m not interested. The key is to find an activity that’s so much fun, you forget how exhausting it is!

      I’m always crashing a little earlier, or waking up an hour later if I play tennis the day before. But the exhaustion feels so good!

  33. Congrats, I am a former tennis player (elbow can’t take it anymore) and played some college tennis. I can attest just how hard it can be to reach that 5.0 rating.

    3.5 to 4.0 isn’t a big step, but going to 4.5 is huge… then… another huge (bigger than 4.0-4.5) step to 5.0.

    1. Hi Eric,

      I had tennis elbow for a couple years and then golfers elbow for a year. After I left my day job, it all went away. Please check out this post for some solutions!

      There’s still this impostor syndrome I’m dealing w/ at 5.0 b/c I practice with a lot of good 4.5s, and wonder “am I really better than them?” or “why aren’t they 5.0 as well?” Our minds have a funny way of boosting or deflating our confidence.

      But, I’ll enjoy the level while it lasts!


    2. I enjoyed reading this … I got bumped to 5.0 at age 45 and many years playing college kids in USTA 4.5 level in 1 singles slot … Laughed at reference to Winning Ugly .. I read that too at age 35 and realized how mental this game is … I was a hockey player growing up and then focused on tennis at 32 … Never felt like a 5.0 player and I can feel it slipping away every year .. So many great players out there … Congrats to you … It does require perseverance

      1. Great job getting bumped to 5.0 at 45! That is truly impressive! Actually, are you my teammate named Marco? That is what he did this year.

        I’m certain (80%) chance after two years that I’m getting bumped back down after my winless record this year. I played with a 4.5 doubles partner and we went three sets a couple times against two 5.0s but could get it done.

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