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.
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.
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
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
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)
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