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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CAUGHT IN A PICKLE

Tennis and Pickleball will have to coexist

By Rod Heckelman

As the expression goes, if you are caught in a pickle, you are stuck between two opposing forces.  If you know baseball, when you’re in a pickle, either direction you take may or may not work.  The choice your make will depend on the judgment as to which way provides the greater opportunity and the least opposition.  The new sport of Pickleball may seem to be stuck in that quandary with many tennis clubs.  No one to blame here, many racket sports have entered the scene, some have made it, some haven’t.  But Pickleball is here to stay if it can navigate a few issues.

Pickleball is easy to learn and can provide instant fun.  It has been especially successful with tennis players who had shoulder issues and difficulty with the overhead serve.

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But, like similar recreational activities that are quick to enjoy and easy to learn, i.e., biking, walking, rolling skating, they struggle to create an income for any hosting facility.  Sports like tennis, golf, skiing, or swimming, have a long learning curve and need a lot of real estate.  Those sports often get income through lessons, dues, and usage fees.  So yes, Pickleball is sort of caught in the middle, as many tennis facilities are finding out that the participants at not comfortable with paying for play.  The fact that they are fortunate to have the alternative in most areas of free public facilities contributes to that mindset of having “free” usage is the norm.

With tennis clubs, this has become an issue that needs to be addressed.  The facts are, that they don’t use as much real estate and usually take up less time, so they should pay less, but policing that can be a nightmare, just ask the folks at Disneyland. In the beginning, Disneyland provided five tickets…A through E.  As the letter progressed the level of entertainment and the thrill of the ride also progressed.  After a while, collecting and determining which ticket to collect from each customer, was too much, even for one of the best-run businesses in the world.  The result is that they elevated the overall cost, and just let people go where they please.  No more cheap visits to the magical kingdom.

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This issue will never be a problem in areas that have mostly good weather all year.  Plenty of time to get out and enjoy the sport, and usually plenty of real estate.  

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In these areas, there will be dedicated facilities for Pickleball, and they should thrive.  Start to go north and hit areas that have more rain, snow, or just cold days, and the sport will want to go indoors.  That’s going to be more of a challenge. Experience tells us that will be a problem.  Remember the organization called WallBangers that featured only racket ball, it was big and then it was gone.  The same fate can be seen with ice skating rinks and bowling alleys that have great overhead because of the need for land.  In areas where the weather is tolerable throughout most of the year, people will tend to go outside and recreate for free.

What some tennis clubs are finding to be a happy medium, is taking a few of their tennis courts and putting in pickleball lines, using portable pickleball nets, and converting them for temporary use, even having designated times.

Although some of the pure pickleballers are not that fond of this conversion, it seems to provide a happy middle ground…but again, the players are sort of caught in a pickle. 

Here is the reality, the two sports will have to coexist in some facilities, especially facilities that are large enough to allocate enough court time for both groups.  Facilities will need to engineer in a means of monitoring and charging appropriately.  The noise factor of a wood paddle hitting a plastic ball will be at first an issue, but most likely will eventually be tolerated.  Answering the ongoing demand to add more courts, and where possible, bringing the game inside, will also be an extended and contested dialogue.  But if you think that is going to be an isolated challenge, check out the new popular wave of racket sports, Padel, Pop Tennis, or Spec Tennis, just a few that are going to come on to the scene.  It’s more and more likely that many new facilities, or old facilities that can modify their facilities, will become general racket sports facilities, featuring many different choices.  In fact, the passion of hitting a ball back and forth is an addiction that goes way back and now hosts 35 similar sports…just look at this list, it makes you wonder what will be next.

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Badminton, Ball badminton, Basque pelota, Beach tennis, Crossminton, Fives, Frontenis, Hardball Squash, Jai alai, Matkot / Frescobol, Paddle Tennis, Padel, Para Badminton, Pickleball, Pitton, Paleta frontón, Pelota mixteca, Platform Tennis, Qianball, Racquetball, Racquets, Racketlon, Real tennis, Road Tennis, Soft tennis, Spec Tennis, Speed-ball, Squash, Squash Tennis, Stické, Table Tennis, Tamburello, Tennis, Tennis Polo, and Xare. 

No question, we humans love the passive aggression of fighting with an opponent using a flying object.  Probably a lot better than many of the alternative ways of fighting.  But let’s also hope that these racket sports compete within themselves and not with the many other racket sports for space and popularity.  It’s fair to say that most coaches and managers do not want to be caught in that pickle.

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