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.
The U. S. Open with An Asterisk
By Rod Heckelman
It looks like the pro tour has a window of opportunity and they hope to take advantage of it by presenting the biggest event possible...the U. S. Open. It’s still on a day-by-day evaluation of the safety of such an event, but so far, it’s a go. They may pull it off, but it will have to go down in history with an asterisk. No audience, limited support teams for the players, otherwise known as an entourage, and distancing where needed. After such a long time off, there must be some very thirsty players looking to get back into competitive play. For some, it may be their time, the moment they have trained for since they picked up a racket. For others, it provides an opportunity to possibly reach a milestone before father time takes its toll on their body. Players like Nadal must be chomping at the bit knowing that he is just one Grand Slam away from tying Federer for most slams won, especially after missing his main course…the French Open.
So just for fun, what can we expect under these new conditions. First, the Open in the past has had the pleasure of being the main attraction for all sporting fans during the end of the summer. It had the sporting stage to itself, little competition from baseball and football, and none from basketball and hockey. Currently, it seems that all the sports are looking to get back into the game, either trying to end an abruptly shortened season or kick off a new season. This means a little more competition to steal television time and headlines. Tennis may not get the attention of the casual fan that is attracted to the sporting drama of a Grand Slam. We will see for the first time, just how well the tour can attract those types of viewers.
Another great question will be how prepared and ready are the touring pros for high intensity three out of five-set matches? It’s been quite some time since their last big event. Will they be physically ready? As most serious tennis players will testify, competition can bring into play a very strong surge of adrenaline, and as a result, the strain and stress on the body is maximized. All the practice in the world can never prepare you for this kind of high-level competition. And it’s not just the body, it’s the mind. Will they be able to achieve the level of focus needed to perform for an entire Grand Slam event? Will they be able to find their game and then turn that switch on to help implement their tactics and strategy? With all that in mind, it begs the next question, who should they bring along to help them through the event? From the last press release, it was said that they were allowed to bring only three people to be part of their entourage. Whom do they pick?
Logic would say, coach. But considering their hurdles, maybe also a trainer and sports psychologist. Also, they need emotional support, so how about the family members? You definitely want someone there to cheer you on, and considering the fact that there will be virtually no audience except the opposing player’s entourage, maybe you need that family member that can cheer or clap the loudest. To make matters worse, which family member do you choose, especially if one of them is a parent that has been involved in coaching you for many years. This dilemma is both a problem but also a fascinating study. We may find out just who the players feel are the most important, and maybe more important, the most influential. The answer to this question will be answered, and any long-time secret will be exposed, which could lead to some fascinating reporting for the news world.
Then there is the broadcasting of the event. In lieu of having a live audience, there will be a tremendous need to have commentators that can escort the viewing audience through a match without having the influence and impact of an engaging and reacting crowd. This could be the litmus test for many of these broadcasters of tennis…will they be able to carry the day? Will they throw in little vignettes of the player's background, or maybe some tennis instructional tips, and run the risk of losing focus on the live play? Will there be some fresh new faces that steal the show, and will the veterans be willing to share the stage? Probably most important, how will they handle the current news dominated by the pandemic and properly and respectively weave that into the overall broadcast. No doubt there have been some exceptionally long meetings and research involved in answering these questions.
Ball boys and girls, lines people, the umpire, all will have to work with the new guidelines. Will the players only use their own set of tennis balls, and will they find a way for the ball kids to not touch the balls and yet get the right ones back to the proper player? Some of those guidelines are required of most amateur players throughout the country, so one would assume it would be the same for the players at the Open. Imagine the fun that would be for doubles play...each player with their own balls identified by the number. This could finally result in the ball industry going crazy and actually making tennis balls that are numbered beyond #4. Fact is, for those helping run this event, on and off the court, they have some major hurdles and challenges. It would only take one person to contract Covid19 from the event and then sadly not survive, and it would be deemed an unnecessary indulgence by the pro tour and the USTA. What a tough responsibility.
But the biggest change may be that the Open will need to adapt from being a shrine built by man for the purpose of hosting one of the world’s greatest athletic venues, to being a temple built to display the purity of the sport and the athleticism of the players. It will be a transition that will measure the skills more than the entertainment value. If you were to add canned applause or try to somehow manufacture a fake audience, it would minimize and diminish the presence of the players. This new adventure will only happen through the magic of those who have conquered the mastering of their rackets, the unbelievable control of a tennis ball, and all within the space of a tennis court. That alone will have to be everything to everyone for those few watching in attendance and those watching electronically. For that reason, this may be the most memorable U. S. Open ever played, which is why if there is an asterisk, it will have a special meaning appreciated by those who were fortunate to witness this moment in sports.