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Rod Heckelman's career started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California. Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona.

In 1976 he took over as head professional/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. 


In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference. Rod has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013, and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.”

He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.


Which feeds the ego is a difficult drug to give up

By Rod Heckelman

Most everywhere you go today, you will find someone who has started up a new tennis academy for juniors.  If that is the case, this tennis model must be doing something right.  They are located anywhere there are tennis courts, private, clubs, and public courts.  So why are they so popular, but equally important, do they have the ability to stay viable going forward? It should be pointed out, this article is not a criticism of tennis academies, but rather an observation of the business model. Because tennis needs both growth and sustainability, we need to continue to evaluate high-performing sectors of our industry that have become very successful.

Maybe the first academy for junior tennis was John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch.  His summer program hosted three, three-week sessions every year and could accommodate 40 boys and 40 girls, ages 8 through 16.  This all started in the late 50’s, and by his fourth year of operation, he was booked solid with a waiting list.  On top of that, it was very expensive in those days, which was not an issue with families who wanted their children to master the game of tennis.  A few years later the famous Bollettieri Academy came to be, and with his success, the junior academy business took off.  


It was obvious from the get-go, that there needed to be a quality promoter, a frontman or woman.  This person needed to create the image, then the environment to attract the best of the best.  If that person, had the necessary promotional skills, the academy would become successful.  When these camps transitioned from a summer excursion to a high-level playing group, the first step was to attract the best players.  This would of course get the attention of the very involved and goal-oriented parents.  If you could accomplish that task, you could pick up the momentum to make the academy grow in leaps and bounds.  It’s always been obvious that the parents play a key role in the development of their children’s skills.  So impressing the parents, was the perfect gateway for recruitment for many years. They are all hungry to find some way, someone, and someplace where their goals can be best fostered. 


Any coach who has a fair knowledge of the sport, from coaching to the industry itself, can format a sales pitch that will attract these families.  The importance of this skill should never be underestimated.  But the image can only go so far, at some point there has to be product and success in the players.  This is where the academies make it or break it.  The big name or personality can attract, but there needs to be some quality teachers, trainers, and coaches as part of the package.  Without these skilled people, the players often hit a wall, lose their upward success, and the parents begin to look elsewhere. 


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So what is the weakness referenced in the title of this article?  Let’s go back to the first reference, John Gardiner, when he passed away in 2000, it was only a matter of time before the Ranch and the programs would also pass away.  This is their great weakness, once these academies lose the key person…the person who sold and promoted the product…the alpha person, the motor behind the engine, they will struggle to stay viable. As to which academies are most vulnerable…most of the time is it those that have the name of that person in the title of the academy.   


So how does this dynamic impact the growth of tennis?  This also has a simple answer.  When any part of an ongoing developing organization has factions that become very important or relevant, their demise or sudden absence negatively impacts those valuable customers who are usually the most dedicated and emotionally connected to the game. 


When any strong business model transitions from having one single entity be the voice for the entire program…the person in the photo shoots or takes all the interviews…if that person allows others to enter that scene, or more importantly, allows the product to become the focus, that organization is more likely to continue to be successful. 

This action will also impact any other organization that provides a similar service, in this case, the tennis coaching industry.  The bottom line, it is always a better operation, for that individual academy, and for the industry as a whole, to create a team effort to produce a product.  The idea of competing, which would include the USTA, for the attention and development of a top player, has never been healthy, and actually not as effective as sharing and working as a whole towards a common goal.

Best example might be Walt Disney and his transition.  Few know that in his closing years, he handed off many of his responsibilities as well as making the image of Disneyland and other parks be the most important message.  It was a great example of how parents, looking for what was best for their children, kept loyal to his theme parks.  In addition, he paved the way for many other theme parks to be successful.  Again, an example of how one segment of an industry can help grow the entire industry.

What is also interesting about this, is despite many realizing that the consequences of losing a key person may end the business, seldom is a succession plan put into place.  Not surprisingly, when egos are involved, the transition is challenged.  Especially these days with so much attention via technology, giving great power and control to the name on the billboard.  It’s just how fame works, that which feeds the ego is a difficult drug to give up.

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