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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.

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We hope to continue to grow and develop our skills, while at the same time enjoying
the time spent doing so.

By Rod Heckelman

Two unique aspects to this article. It is the first article I have written in the first person, second, as I recently retired from management, it is also the first article I’ve written under the title of only being the Tennis Director.  I mention this because after managing for over 47 years, a few members asked me why I would continue to teach tennis and not enjoy a full retirement.  The answer was simple if I truly wanted to enjoy a full retirement, I would continue to do those things I love the most…at the top of the list is teaching tennis, especially to the young new players to the game. To illustrate my point, I thought I would pass on some of my fondest memories and a few short anecdotes from the last 57 years of coaching.

This idea came to me a few days back when a five-year-old boy, just learning made an interesting and fresh response that I never saw coming.  We would play a game that we had done several times before at the end of each lesson, in which, if he executed and did not make errors, he would win.  On the fourth time through, he missed a few too many times and I won. I made a comment, which was intended to pass on a lesson about great sportsmanship. I complimented his reaction to this loss by pointing out how impressed I was that he did not show any anger or frustration, just took the loss, and wanted to move on.  I added that many children his age would have reacted poorly and be upset.  His response was, ”What are their names?” 

A 6-year-old girl had a lesson right after the finals of the 2008 French Open when Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic defeated Russia’s Dinara Safina.  Her mom said she was surprised to see her young daughter watch the entire match. I tried to follow up with that notable interest by asking the young girl if she would someday like to play like Ana, the winner of that Grand Slam event.  Her answer was, “Not really, all she got was some big bowl trophy that you really couldn’t use for any reason, Dinara got a large plate that you use anytime you wanted to eat food.” Actually, so practical and so true, seems she learned early on that many players see trophies as basically dust collectors.

After a ½ lesson when we were gathering the tennis balls, Liam, also 6 years old asked why there is no robot machine that could pick up the balls.  My response was, “Great idea, you should invent that, and I’ll be your first customer.”  His answer was, “I will, but you should know that you’ll still have to pay for it even though you’re giving me lessons.” to which I replied, “Maybe we can do a trade… lessons for the robot.”  I got an answer only a 6-year-old would say, “We’ll see, I obviously won’t need lessons forever, but you will definitely need the robot for as long as you teach.”


When I recently told a very young student that tennis was a great sport that you could play for life.  He asked, “How old are you,” to which I responded, “73”.  “Wow, you better keep playing, you haven’t got much longer.”

Speaking of age, when I mentioned that there were pro players in history that have played on the tour until they were 45 years old, the 7-year-old boy said, and maybe appropriately, “Why, do they still need money?”

Another young player, again about 7 years old, asked why we say “Love” for the score “0”.  I made the mistake of saying the old clever response, “Love means nothing in tennis.” Hoping that such humor would be understood and appreciated by such a young mind was probably bad judgment on my part.  A few days later his mother came to me concerned that her usual salutation when she dropped him off at school, “Love you,” was responded by her son with “It means nothing.”  Took a while to recover from that issue, but the moral of that story is that tennis humor often does not always, if ever, jump from generation to generation.

If you’ve taught long enough with many young players under the age of 10, you will notice that when you go to pick up balls, they seem to have a great affinity for collecting the balls on their rackets and almost always try to build the highest pyramid possible.  This is often best accomplished with their racket lying on the court.  They don’t factor in that eventually they will need to lift this fragile masterpiece and face the Jenga-like challenge of getting all the balls into the basket.  With group lessons, this often becomes a contest. 

Once again, I made the mistake of connecting this task in an esoteric way by challenging them to the equivalent of the strategic goal of making as few unforced errors as possible in tennis.  “Let’s see who can get to the ball basket first and make the fewest unforced errors by dropping the least amount of tennis balls before getting them in the basket.”  To my surprise, one of the boys quickly picked up his racket full of balls and recklessly charged the basket, dropping more than half of the balls.  My comment was immediately, “That was a lot of unforced errors.”  His response was, “You told me that good strategy in a match is knowing when to be aggressive and when to play defensively, I choose to be aggressive and get to the basket first.”  I guess a win is a win.    


Still to this day, one of my favorite memories of a young student’s comments was when I was working with a young 8-year-old who on his first lesson would hit two forehands, one with his left hand and one with his right hand.  I asked him why he choose this method and his answer was that “His parents told him that he was ambiguous.” I responded by telling him that I think they thought you might be “ambidextrous, which is where you can perform with either hand.  They probably just aren’t sure which is best for you.” His response was, “Then they got it backward, it sounds like they are ambiguous, not me.”

The fact is, there is not a day that goes by that I’m not treated to a unique enjoyable, and learning experience as a tennis teacher.  It’s an occupation that constantly reminds me that maybe the art of coaching is much like life itself.  We hope to continue to grow and develop our skills, while at the same time enjoying the time spent doing so.  In hopefully reaching that goal, I am reminded by these young students, if you love your job, you never work a day in your life.  

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