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. 

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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.

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LIKE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

If there is anything we learned from the last few years

is that the old traditional approaches may have run their course. 

By Rod Heckelman

Tradition…some see it as the backbone of consistency and stability. Others, a logjam stalemating progress, and change. These two views meet head-on in the world of tennis on a daily basis. Both points of view claim their approaches to problems are more righteous. Unlike the classic movie Fiddler on the Roof, the process in the tennis world is seldom resolved, and the tennis players, clubs, and organizations pay the price.

There are many serious issues needing attention and resolution, but it all begins with the ongoing acceptance of the status quo. That includes seemingly trivial issues that demonstrate an unexplainable fixed mentality. No better example than net straps…for as long as most players can remember, the middle of the net has been thirty-six inches high, yet the net strap is built and produced to be adjustable. Any engineer could easily design a buckle at the point of attachment that would be set in a fixed position to set and secure the height.

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Or balls that land on the line that tend to skid, yet a small application of sand to the white paint would eliminate this annoying issue. Are we afraid the longtime traditional call, “it skidded on the line, must have been good,” will fade away in our array of unique judgment calls? Last example…why do tennis balls only number from 1 to 4? Some may have a superstitious issue with seven or even six as it could be misconstrued as a nine, but with so many facilities having large events with courts side by side, how hard could it be to add a few extra numbers to help identify whose ball is whose.

                The hurdle in creating change is that traditions are easy to embrace. Not much will be challenged, and the process is easy to replicate. Take for instance the scoring system. To beginners it may seem odd, but if you follow the proper method, knowing who served first and on what side, you can do the math to find the correct score. But in conjunction with this traditional scoring system, why not add an innovative approach to the start of a match? Why not have the choice of serve or receive determined by the ball can when it is opened. It wouldn’t be that hard to have the can tops randomly stamped on the inside as either up or down, making the decision as to which side and who serves decided before even a ball is hit. Saves time and creates a more memorable start in case the scoring is lost. To that point, anyone announcing, “First serve in,” should hear from the other side of the court,” First return back,” just for equality and fairness.

These few minor traditional examples are tolerable, but the bigger questions leave us with great concern. At the lead is how we are going to capture and hold the new players that got into the game during Covid. They are largely made up of younger players and many returning to the game. Our problem is that there are way too many 50-plus people running the show. Will this group be able to represent the newcomers to the sport? Some traditional thinking will not sit well with this new Covid generation. They may assume that the old format of tournament play and leagues will be the perfect fit for these new additions. After all, it seemed to work before and brought in a ton of money. But telling this new group when, where, and whom to play, just wasn’t part of what attracted them to the game. Especially the younger crowd whose lifestyles are based on the spontaneity of internet life.

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They also live in a global world, not a patriotic bubble. They have no understanding why every time they turn on the T.V. only their country's players are the focus. Wake up traditionalist, international borders have been nearly eliminated in the sporting world. Quality of performance doesn’t need a flag behind every name. If someone is a great player, who cares where they come from. Look at the Davis Cup, the format is old and difficult for the players, but the fan base has dwindled steadily over the past few decades. The one weekend venues that have emerged in the last few years are far more popular and fun to watch.

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Will Ferrel (Getty Images)

Along that entertainment path, it was nice to see new faces during the broadcast of the Miami tournament. The regulars do fine, but we could do better. Look what the Academy Awards did for tennis. That was probably the greatest P.R. our sport has had in years. Whoever thought we would see two tennis players open the Academy Awards ceremony? Another great example was when Will Ferrell stepped into the broadcasting booth during the Paribas tournament for twenty-plus minutes a few years back.  He made watching a high-level match a real treat and offered a new perspective. It was both entertaining and provocative. For that matter, bring in some coaches that work with the 99% of the tennis population to provide insight for those who don’t’ make a living off the sport…essentially, the majority of the audience.  Telling this majority of tennis players how they can hit a ball like a touring pro, is like explaining the mechanics of a dunk in basketball to a 70-year-old person who is only 5 and a half feet tall.

If there is anything we learned from the last few years, is that the old traditional approaches to how tennis is organized may have run their course. You think not? Ask the simple question, why did participation in the sport grow so much during the pandemic? It wasn’t just the spacing of the sport or that it was played outdoors, it was because many traditional methods got pushed aside and a new agenda emerged. It was and is, an agenda focused on the improvement of all players, any age, any size, and for that matter, any level of play. A few years back B. J. King made a remark that inadvertently summed up the mentality of many. Remember, “Pressure is a privilege,” which is a great slogan for those competing, but for those living under stressful circumstances, especially with all that is going on, IS Pressure a privilege. or something most people these days would like not to add to their already very stressful lives.  Seems tennis became a release…an escape, just what the doctor ordered for that 99% of those playing tennis.

Will many of those get back to competing? Who knows? But what we do know is that the growth of the sport is directly related to the fun of the sport, now we just need to define how to achieve “Fun.”   Sure, it would be great to see some of that money that is being used for player development or competitive events get shifted to human development and health. Programs like Cardio Tennis, Live Ball, Drop-in Tennis, and Challenge Courts should be both promoted and financially supported.

The redirection and focus on fun play and social recreation have again come to the forefront for most players. Tennis clubs and recreational facilities are once again thriving and growing, and along with that, the participation in the game. Business will thrive, sales will go vertical and court time will become very demanded. Like the movie Fiddler on the Roof, where the three daughters chose love over tradition, if we truly love our sport, let’s follow that example.

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