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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SHOULD WE TEACH THE EVOLUTION OF TENNIS?

Evolution is a long journey, impacting only a few but thankfully appreciated by all

By Rod Heckelman

Not that long ago, we had great role models like Ken Rosewall, Maria Bueno, Rod Laver, and Chris Evert that we could use as examples for just about any student that walked onto the coaching court.  Their smooth, lengthy drives made it seem like they were playing underwater.  Then rackets changed, strings changed, surfaces slowed down tremendously, add to that a new level of athleticism, and players today hit the ball so violently, it’s a wonder that the balls can hold up.  It seems every year their striking of the ball increases in topspin and speed accommodated by their enhanced movement and coverage of the court.  

The evolution of the game has been amazing, but in this change, we lost those beautiful strokes that served as great examples for so many students learning the game. Coaches in recent years have been caught in this contradiction. 

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Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Of course, there are many new players or existing players that will be able to use these new extreme grips and rip their groundstrokes.  But it is fair to say that there is a strong majority of students that have physical limitations.  Could be age, physical skills, physical condition, or even goals that are less lofty and are not focused on competition.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn and enjoy the sport, just means that most likely they will not have highly touted role models they can imitate.

This is the area of most conflict with today’s teachers.  When a less athletic and capable player wants to hit a kick serve, or an exaggerated topspin groundstroke, it’s not easy to say, “Sorry, no can do.”  How do you explain the physical risk and potentially the lack of ability for that student to produce what they are seeing on T.V.  All of this is even more complicated when occasionally a new student to the game, with an aging body and athletic limitations, takes a stray lesson and is told that the only way to play tennis is just like Nadal or Serena. That will not be a fun or comfortable conversation to navigate, especially if this person is a customer and source of income.

Other individual sports seldom have these issues. Swimmers have limitations that are easily recognized yet performance styles that are still quite common. The same could be said of golf, biking, running, or even skiing. But racket sports in general are different animals. There are four different moving parts to these games…the racket, the ball, the opponent, and the player. That by nature requires much more timing and variations for a successful and improving performance. There is also an opponent providing the unknown; unlike the individual sports mentioned, with racket sports, you have someone you are in direct combat with during the execution of play. 

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There is an irony to all of this. Despite this obvious discrepancy in the professional level of play with the average tennis player, they share a common bond in the emotional impact of competing and the level of enjoyment. For that reason alone, it is imperative that coaches avoid teaching tennis, and learn to teach any player how to play their best tennis to optimize their performance. In that task, a more practical goal can be reached.

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Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

In fact, there are several common learning goals that can be learned from watching today’s modern tennis players.  First, conditioning is important at any level, it’s just a matter of a program that is adjusted for that person’s physical limitations.  By limitations, we are not just talking about the physical condition, but also the amount of time they can invest, as well as their age and durability.

Second, it should be noted that even the top players these days are using a great deal more finesse in their style of play. Drop shots and touch volleys are having a renaissance on the tour. Even the recreational players' greatest nemesis has come to be on the tour…the lobber. Many of these shots are totally within the skill and athletic ability of all levels of play.

It's not just the style of play that is transferable from what we see on TV, it is also some of the more esoteric factors that are similar.  For instance, the tactic of learning how to transition from trying to beat your opponent to engineering a game that will allow your opponent to lose to you is a very coachable tactic. As we compete at any level, the greatest threat to consistency for any player is the brief flirtation with excellence.

At the end of any lesson, we judge the success of that lesson by how much we have improved OUR game.  Doesn’t matter what level of player you are, but all players will have that one goal in common.  

As I said, there are a lot of characteristics we can take from today’s great tour players, least likely, at least for the majority of those learning, is how they execute their strokes.  Sorry to break the news to many of today’s coaches and players, but the truth is, good or bad, evolution is a long journey, impacting only a few but thankfully appreciated by all.

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