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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.


Gateway to the pro tennis tournament season

By Rod Heckelman

The BNP Paribas Open is about to take place, and tennis fans can’t wait.  This event has become the gold standard for how events should be run.  For those who don’t know the history of this tournament, it all started as an ATP fundraiser in Tucson, Arizona.  In 1976 it moved to its current location in Indian Wells, California, and with the help and direction of Charlie Pasarell, a former top ten player, it grew and grew to become one of the premier events on the tour.  Now sponsored by the deep pockets of Larry Ellison of Oracle, the 81 acres have been optimized to host two large stadiums (one of them being the largest outdoor-only stadium in the tennis world) and 27 other outdoor courts, along with multiple food and entertainment venues.  All and all, it has become to tennis what Disneyland is to the amusement parks.

But having a fantastic facility does not always make for a fantastic event, and like Disneyland, there must be some magic as well.  In this case, the magic is a combination of weather, community, and one of the few events that host both the top men and women on the tour.  Sure, there is big money and big points for a player’s ranking, but again, it’s never just one thing, these events must have the complete package.

If you haven’t been to the Coachella Valley area in February, it’s the perfect location for anyone who has been experiencing the normal winter cold weather throughout most of the country.  It also provides some of the finest scenery in Southern California, as well as some very well-known classy hotels and restaurants.  Add to that an airport that provides a number of suitable flights from just about anywhere and everywhere, and the entire experience is both simplified and enhanced.    

The irony of the ATP and WTA tours is that they both start off with a few smaller tournaments and then immediately have their players engaged in a Grand Slam event.  Many may forget that years ago, the first Grand Slam was the French Open in late May and the Australian Open was played at the end of the year.  Scheduling and politics changed that around.  Too many top players would not bother to go down under unless they were making a run at achieving a Grand Slam or closing in on the #1 ranking in the world.  That, combined with a substantial journey right in the middle of the holiday season, was for many, just too much.


In recent decades, players have had most of the last part of the calendar year to take time off, maybe rehab from some light injuries or redo their strokes while there was no competition.  Whatever the reason, we have the only sport where a major event takes place at the beginning of the season.  The results are that many players are not prepared or ready to provide their best tennis and we see several injuries every year at this Grand Slam.  Of course, some would argue that having a major at the beginning of the season is a good idea in hope that it will help stimulate interest in watching tennis.  But as we saw this year, the time difference and the competition with the NFL, NBA, and NHL proved to be a challenge trying to get a decent viewer share of the sports fans.  


All this being said, it has gradually become apparent that the BNP Paribas Open is more and more being considered the gateway to the pro tennis tournament season.  Just look at the numbers.  Total attendance for the Australian Open is about 840,000 over two weeks, and that event tends to attract spectators from all over the world.  The Indian Wells event, also running almost 2 weeks, is expected to reach over 550,000 this year, as an event that mostly attracts spectators from the states.  Numbers don’t lie.  This is not to say that the impact of winning a Grand Slam is less relevant than an ATP 1000 event.  But the concept of relevance can go beyond the money, points, or prestige, there is a strong argument that the relevance of an event should be tied to the spectator interest and attendance.   

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There is one more quality that exists at the BNP Paribas Open, that is not likely to be found at other tournaments.  No, it’s not the many celebrities from La La Land that are occupying the front row seats, nor is it the ability to see the players either warming up or practicing on the side courts, it’s the ease of getting to and from the event, as well as the parking.  Having that much land and an amazing amount of help, transportation, and parking is readily available.  Spectators can easily come and go with little issues and do not have to struggle with shuttles or long lines.


Considering all these factors, it’s conceivable that someday, much like the big events in other sports such as the Super Bowls, World Soccer Championships, The World Cricket Championships, and of course three of the majors played in golf, that tennis too will consider having the national championship/Grand Slam played at alternative locations, such as the where the Paribas is played.  The very thought of this brings New Yorkers to nearly having a nervous breakdown, but if they don’t find a way to make our national championship more affordable and accessible…you never know. 

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