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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.


A Tennis Pro is a Facilitator on a Mission


By Rod Heckelman

Despite some of the naysayers, tennis is still a healthy and viable business.  The demand for lessons, equipment, and court time is still growing, slower than in the past, but still growing.  The number one concern now is with all the new racket sports coming into the scene, we tennis pros, just like on the competitive court, must raise our games.  With these new upstart racket sports, the competition for the customer is on, and those who will come out on top are quickly learning that the overall value of their service is premium. 

Because of this new competition, the cost to the customer to access tennis venues, or discover quality coaching, may no longer be at the top of their list.  To find a complete quality tennis experience, they are now seeking help in connecting with others to enjoy the game.  Considering how personally and socially disconnected people have become these days due to technology, finding others to play with may be the most valuable asset of our sport.  The only question is how we implement that value.


For that answer, like in most services, we need to recognize the goals and real needs of the customer.  What are they looking for that will give them the best bang for the buck?  Is it a competition, recreational play, or people to find as either social partners or playing partners?  These questions and more may be answered by observing and watching some of the most successful teaching pros at facilities.  These pros are helping organize tennis events and facilitating putting players together on and off the court.  Although many clubs often have a social director or a social committee to provide this gateway, they are not as capable as an experienced teaching pro.  The teaching pro is on the front line and knows best how to match up these tennis players.  Quality coaches recognize this need and step in to facilitate that process.  These actions will be very impacting and long-lasting for both the student and the teacher, but they also may be the most important action taken by a tennis pro in helping them become instrumental in growing the game. Here is why.

We have made some fundamental mistakes in believing technology would help us in getting people together.  The dating services, created from new technology, engineered a method of connecting people, but it was not enough.  The old idea of blind dates through technology and the internet did not fly well with many users, which is why many of these services altered their method of connecting people by using a matchmaking system.  This style of service has proved to be far more successful statistically.  Tennis should take note of that because just like the dating game, those who signed up for that service usually had very high expectations along with a very defined criteria for the perfect mate.  Sound familiar?  Tennis players are much the same in their search for partners. 


This process of getting people together and enjoying the sport in a venue they prefer is not just beneficial in growing the game, but also in sustaining a player’s interest in the game.  Again, just like dating, if you can find the perfect match or matches, it’s much more likely a new player will stay with the sport.  As an example, if the only gateway you provide is competitive play, some may eventually burn out, or maybe get injured, or just come to a peak in their playing skills and possibly leave the sport. This is especially true if they got into the sport in hopes of building some sustainable social connections.  This is why so many love Pickleball, it has become one of the best social exercises available, but at the same time, has found a place for competition for those who prefer that type of enjoyment. 

The obvious next question is how we accomplish this goal of processing new and current players into a more enjoyable tennis venue.  To be fair, this is often not an enjoyable or comfortable task for many teaching pros.  As their title implies, they came to teach and focus on developing a player’s game, not becoming a matchmaker.  Getting players together will require additional work off the court, and often without any direct financial rewards.  Some facilities might compensate, but at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the teaching pro because they usually know how best to match up their tennis students.  There is more to it than just getting the level of play compatible.  You need to know when a player likes to play, do they want doubles or singles, are they seeking competition or just practice partners, but most importantly, will their personalities match up.  That last criterion is crucial, and again, much like the matchmaking dating service, if the personalities, especially in this day and age, don’t jive, the practice or play will probably not be sustained.  It’s a tough task, especially because it is often hit-and-miss.  You do your best and have to take satisfaction in making the effort. But at the end of the day, the more times we pair up players, the more likely we will find success.


There are a few options that may work.  For some clubs, especially member-owned, having a long-time member mentor, someone into becoming familiar and comfortable with the facility and other members. Maybe having drop-in programs, like a free clinic, a rapid drill session, a structured and marketed program like Conga tennis, or maybe an aerobic tennis program like Cardio Tennis.  All of these will create more possibilities where players can strike up a new friendship or find someone with common goals.        

It’s important to remember that you are basically a facilitator on a mission, you don’t have to always be an expert in partnerships. 

The realistic way to look at this endeavor is to appreciate the value of the work that is being done because when you are successful, your impact is two-fold…the players will remember your effort for a great deal of time, but maybe more importantly, you become a very high valued employee.  Not only will your superiors recognize your contribution and hopefully reward your efforts, but you will also be leaving a legacy of loyal players and students who will continue to be a great supporting cast. In fact, you might refer to this endeavor as a strong step towards job security and potentially greater income.   


So as to value, it is obvious that finding compatible players for your students will also provide great value for the student but will also be an add-on to your teaching skills. It only makes sense, the more your students play and practice, the better they become as players, which in turn is a good reflection on your teaching skills and resume.  So, it is safe to say, that if it’s a question of value, becoming that tennis pro that can provide the full package of instruction, entertainment, retention, and enjoyment, maybe the very definition of real value.   

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