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 pro/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.

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What is the New Normal?

By Rod Heckelman


First, the expression “The New Normal,” is way too overused.  Largely because it is an easy line to fall back on when so much is unknown.   It has become catch-all for defining the most uncertain and precarious times that most of us have ever experienced.  So, before we find several ways to define what has happened to the tennis world and where our great sport is going, let’s start with the obvious…what was normal?  In the tennis world for the last few decades, we were already experiencing tremendous changes.  It’s possible that we were already experiencing the new normal little by little.  Think about it, was it normal to have maybe three of the best players in the history of men’s tennis competing for over a decade to see who was the best and none were Americans?  Was it normal to suddenly shift from tournament play to league play?  Was it normal to see players emerging from so many different tennis programs and different countries? Was it normal to see tennis shops disappearing right and left as internet sales exploded?  Was it normal to see the popularity of our sport dwindling gradually over the last couple of decades?  The fact is, we may have been living in the new normal for some time, we just didn’t or wouldn’t recognize it. We were getting beat up daily with a small hammer, now we’ve been struck by a gigantic wrecking ball. 


Bad news, right?  Wrong, good news, because the slow deterioration was never enough to motivate change, now the problems of the sport are on the front burners.  We, the industry, and many of the organizations were struggling, some could say even failing, and real solutions were working.  All the numbers would show that, but we were dying from a thousand razor cuts, bleeding tennis participation little by little…now someone, or better put, something, has struck an artery and we are finally be forced to take on a total overall.  So where do we begin, maybe best by seeing where the greatest damage has been done.


Start at the top, the big tennis organizations took it in the kisser.  Forced to lay off thousands of people due to lack of demand and possibly over staffing.  So, questions had to be both asked and responded to.  Do we really need player development?  Has it proven to be that productive?  Do we really need so much administration?  Were many of these organizations created to prosper off the sport and create meaningless jobs? This is a good time to thin out the jobs that were created to channel the extra cash.  This, by the way, is not just a tennis problem, this is a common corporate problem.  As financially successful corporations morph trying to find their new mission, instead of laying people off, they redirect or reassign those who are no longer relevant or productive to positions with titles, not purpose.

This could also be a great time to bring in new blood and new ideas.  Another common problem with large organizations is that they feel a sense of loyalty to those who have been in the system for some time.  New blood means new ideas and it goes without saying, often less cost in payroll initially.

League play based largely on doubles was also hit hard.  The leagues are great programs, but we may have become too dependent on them.  Not just for participation, but for income.  We need to set up safeguards to handle any rapid change.  Much like a stock portfolio, maybe we should consider diversifying?  More use of the internet to connect players and more ways to increase participation through programming.  Programming that may not bring entry fees and such but helps grow interest and introduces players to the game as well as get players to find other players of their same level, interest, and schedule.


We should all take note of how local “Find a Partner,” or “Drop-In Tennis,” is becoming more and more popular.  This new normal, and especially with the younger generation, does not sit well with time commitments, location commitment, and opponent commitments.  It does work well with spontaneous play and the ability to access on short notice, both court time and opponents.  Both tennis facilities and tennis pros should dial this new wave in.


Speaking of tennis pros, sadly many lost jobs and clients.  Hopefully, they can weather the storm and come back.  If so, many may want to reconsider their employment relationship.  The long-time favoring of being an Independent Contractor has been truly challenged.  No question that there are several drawbacks to being an employee, but job security is not on that list.


Pros will also need to find new approaches to coaching that will include internet relationships and the need to find new clients through advertising or marketing.  That has never been a strong suit for many teachers, but when the customer base thins, you need to find more creative ways of finding and creating new clients.  Tap into your community…instead of having a program that will attract new students, find sources of congregations, and invent new programs that will fit the needs of their group.  Don’t believe that social media or the press will connect you to the potential student in all cases.  Sometimes it takes a person to person interaction, even with the current distancing required.   


Finally, as for the clubs, this is an opportunity to expand through others' misfortune.  There are several businesses that were providing services similar or peripheral to yours.  Cannibalize them.  Small boutique health ventures are a good example…i.e. Fitness Studios, Spin Bike Centers.  Reach out to those other small businesses in your community and team up to increase your contacts.  You have a café or restaurant, offer your facility for a night to the Head Chef or owner of a local restaurant to help them get the word out that they will be back in business soon.  Just take a moment and drive through your community and see those places that have been hurt and see if you can use your membership as a positive influence.  Everyone needs a haircut, how about that place down the street that was so popular and asking them to give your members a 15% discount?  Or the theatres?  Offer ticket sales at your club when they start to get open and running again…of course at a discount for your members. 


The new normal will also mean that tennis facilities will need to do more on their own and have less dependence on the big tennis organizations.  At the same time, the big tennis organizations will desperately need to make a much stronger play for a positive relationship with the many clubs throughout this country.  They will need their support to rally the troops and help with participation in their programs. Wait a minute…that’s not new, but like mentioned, we may have been living the new normal for quite some time.