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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.


Didn’t See It Coming

By Rod Heckelman

It’s apparent that the pandemic is slowly fading, and we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.   But what is also apparent, is that this shining light is helping us see several new realities.  Most of these changes we never saw coming, and rightfully so, we’ve never walked this path before.  To add to our difficulties, there have been an unusual amount of speculation from an equally unusual number of experts,  or so they say.  Since most learning is based upon answering our needs and preparing us for a future in our industry based on facts, this speculation captured our attention, but was not necessarily helpful in preparing us for what we would eventually be our real challenges.  So, it is understandable that we should expect a few surprises. 


Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

With our return to running on all cylinders, here is a list of questions that might help put us back in the driver’s seat…questions that we all need to consider going forward.  Hopefully just the asking of these questions will be helpful in preparing us to go forward.  

1. With so much recent growth due to recreational tennis, will competitive tennis reemerge as popular as before, or have we discovered a new pathway for successful growth?


For players not to evolve into competition goes against the very essence of an athlete.  But on the other hand, having seen the game grow tremendously with recreational play at the top of the list, maybe our history of catering to athletes needs to be reevaluated…maybe it’s time to embrace our sport as a great pastime, and not a test that mandates rating, rankings, and results?


2. Are We Going to Continue to See a Shortage in Teachers?


“Not enough court time or teaching pros,” that’s the new wailing from the industry. Music to the ears just a few years ago when demand had considerably dropped. To address this question and concern, don’t we first need to know where historically our teaching pros came from?  Did they come from the list of top players that transitioned into coaching, or have they been former students that graduated from programs or institutions that evolved into great coaches and teachers? 


Looking at the rosters of the USPTA and PTR, it seems that many of our coaches came from being avid tennis enthusiasts.  The people that fell in love with the sport and just didn’t quite cut it in the competitive world or really felt competition wasn’t their thing, so they jumped into coaching to stay relevant in the tennis world.  What’s the saying, “those who can’t do, teach.”  Now before many teachers become offended by that statement, in the tennis world that statement is more accurate as “those who are passionate, love to help others learn.”  These passionate tennis lovers are great for the game.  They may not hit the perfect forehand, or have had a high ranking, but what they lack in playing skills, they make up in effort and motivation. Are organizations such as the USPTA and PTR going to cater to a more structured program to help develop teachers and coaches, or embrace a pathway for these types of tennis enthusiasts to get into teaching?


Photo by Yoav Hornung on Unsplash

3. Can New People in the Game Find Others to Play With?


We just brought into the sport a ton of new players; do we have in place programs to connect these players with others?  Will technology or new tennis sites on the internet solve this problem?  We may discover that drop-in tennis, challenge courts, pop-up events are going to continue to come back strong.  We will find that magic we had during the tennis boon of the early 70’s that got new players, especially beginners of all ages on the court enjoying the sport.  Don’t look for organizations to help here, there’s no money in it.  The same can be said for many of the companies that have match-making software…no money, no motivation.  It’s likely that it will come from individuals that know that this issue is best resolved hand-to-hand, one person at a time, or in the case of clubs, one member at a time.  Our sport is not like a dating service, we can’t afford too many bad connections and they are not looking for a mate, but rather an occasional hit.  Will we have enough of these apostles of the sport that enjoy and see the value of helping new players find others to address the increased number of new players?  



4. Will League Play Become More Localized?


Travel, no matter how far, is still going to be an issue for some time.  It could be just fear and concerns, or it might be based on certification of having a vaccine, nonetheless, league play that had that carrot of being able to go to district, then sectionals and then nationals, may not have the same glamour or draw for some time.  In addition, because so many new people got into the game, there is a wealth of people now available locally, who needs to get in a car and drive when you can just walk or ride your bike to the local courts and find good tennis?


5. Do We Really Need Great American Players to Grow the Game?


That’s always been the agenda pushed by those in marketing, not just in the USA, but for most countries.  With spectators diminishing, and T.V. ratings dropping, it might be wise to harvest the personalities and level of play, more than their nationality.  The new world of marketing, as well as the bigger economic picture, is headed towards a global solution.  Maybe popularity by borders is a thing of the past?


Photo by Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

6. Will Multi-purpose Facilities Embrace Tennis Again?


These facilities may have put too much money into the fitness arena.  With so many new companies providing at-home products and exercise equipment that can perform via the internet, clubs will need to find activities that require interaction and social exchange.  Wouldn’t tennis be at the top of that list for some time to come?

7. Will Public Courts Continue to Prosper?


Most hope so, but the lack of funding may be a concern.  Not so much funding for the physical venue, but for providing the staff that have a great understanding for the organization and development of programs.  When will these people be more rewarded?

8. What Role Will Technology Have in the Future of Tennis?


It will have to be part of the full equation.  Helping organize events and how they are played will be important, along with the future impact of social media.  Especially now with so many new young players coming into the game, their tech savvy will help build the influence of the sector of our industry.  But technology for the study of play and using it to help either analyze players or evaluate statistics, may work it’s way into the world of competition, but for most other recreational tennis players, video replay or recording instruction has been a one-time entertaining event. The bigger question, will some of this analytical software companies end up yielding to the multitude of personal smart phones that can produce unbelievable recordings?


Some, but not all of these questions we saw coming. Now we are asked to navigate these unfamiliar waters, and it’s fair to say, probably on our own.  There are consultant companies, organizations and many more experts out there to provide answers.  But likely, the answers to these questions and more, will come from a new group of experts, people who have special insight and firsthand knowledge.  It will be ups to those on the ground/court, plugging away daily, not just to come back, but to advance forward in response to this new growth. They may not have seen most of these challenges coming, but then again, who did.  Being right in the mix of things could mean that they may be the best people to both ask the tough questions and provide the best answers.  


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