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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. 

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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.

THE MANY FACES OF A TENNIS COURT

The tennis industry will need to find a way to create a better playing surface for everyone.

By Rod Heckelman

There are at least 12, possibly more global sports that host international competitions.  You would be hard-pressed to find any of those sports that are performed on a variety of surfaces, except for tennis.  Over the years we have taken this challenge for granted, but it is an extremely impacting condition for the pro tour to adjust to.  They do a great job, and the results create some wonderful entertainment.  But that is the pro tour, how does this unique characteristic filter down and impact the rest of the tennis world?  Or maybe more important, does it?

First, for the most part, almost all recreational players, juniors and adult competitive players, play their tennis by choice or by location, on one type of surface.  Some of that, as mentioned, is the result of location and weather conditions.  But there are many locations where a choice of surface can be available.  Why is this important to recognize? Because those living in those areas, have a choice, and if they have a choice, they almost always migrate towards the surface that they perform best on, and then, with age, the surface that is the easiest on their body.  That surface is most often a clay, composite or some type of soft surface.

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Much of the western part of the country has at some time tried to find ways to introduce and develop soft surfaces.  The same can be said about many of the indoor facilities in the East.  The problem with the various clay or composite courts has always been maintenance and durability when stressed by either long-term wet or dry conditions.  Water is a key component, but water can be an issue.  Not only can there be a limit in water availability, but also it may be very expensive for both installation and operation.  Add to that some environmental issues, such as underground watering systems that need to be kept clean using chemicals and require capturing that run-off, and H2O is a concern. 

A while back, a new type of soft court began using layers of rubber before adding the top colors.  For a while, it seemed like a good answer.  It was, and is an expensive alternative, but at least it provided a little give for the players.  The problem with this surface was that after several resurfacing jobs, the court's softness faded a bit.  Now the search is on for finding new materials that can be soft and yet durable.  It is almost a mandate for this to happen for the aging population of tennis, or we will lose that market.

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In addition, different types of clay courts, or composite courts, are in the works.  To this day, still quite expensive, and still requiring extra maintenance at some facilities, but they are starting to pop up more frequently. 

One of the misconceptions that many tennis enthusiasts have about clay courts, is that the main reason they are easier on your body is because they are softer.  That is true, but much of the wear and tear that the feet, knees, and hips take when playing tennis is from the starts and stops.  

If you play on these various types of clay or composite courts, starting and stopping will require a smoother movement to avoid slipping.

This result is less physical initial action to get started and more gradual deceleration to stop.  This type of movement plays a big role in the wear and tear on the body.  To better understand the impact of this movement, imagine if you had to run on ice.  This may be an extreme example, but you can just imagine what your starts and stops would look and feel like.  In fact, many people who enjoy ice skating, (if they can avoid falling) enjoy that sport well into their senior years without having physical issues that the senior tennis player often experience.

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But the search for a new soft surface is not just for those many senior players, it is also for the top young players and tour players who now hit the ball much harder than in the past.  Just do the math, if a player 50 or more years ago hit a hard forehand or backhand, they would be thrilled to hit over 60 miles an hour.  If you don’t think so, just pull up a video of players from the 60’s and 70’s, you’ll think that there is something wrong with the video as the ball seems to take forever during each flight across the net.  To really get this understanding, watch the video of the famous King vs. Riggs match…you will swear it is happening in slow motion.  So again, do the math, if a ball is traveling nearly twice as fast, it means that the players need to move…including the start, running, and recovery, twice as fast.  This acceleration hasn’t happened in most other sports, but in tennis, it could be the reason so many of our top players are getting injured and being challenged by the long tennis season and the history of the three out of five-set matches during the Slams.  And again, the whole dynamic has filtered down to the everyday player, they too are hitting the ball harder and needing to move much faster.   

At the end of the day, many older players have the choice of moving to locations with composition courts or maybe taking up another sport that has less wear and tear on the body.  Not such a luxury for those on the tour or for many living in areas where only hard courts are available.  For that reason, the tennis industry will need, if it hasn’t already, to find a way to create a better playing surface for everyone.  By better, I mean both softer and more forgiving to the body during the stops and starts. 

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