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 Greatest Veteran Tennis Teacher Ever
By Rod Heckelman
Okay, that might be a bit much as a description, but once you hear his story you might agree. He was barely over 5 foot 5 inches, grey hair, mostly wooden teeth. Seldom raised his voice and never ever showed any anger. It’s 1959, and this very soft-spoken and gentle man would teach a few hours every day after 3 pm, on the Applegate Park two tennis courts in Merced, California. During the day he worked as a bank teller. He charged three dollars an hour for a private lesson, and if you took a package of 5, you got a discount of $12.50 for five one-hour lessons. Most young students, like myself, figured him to be about mid-seventies, but he seemed to be surprisingly in physically good shape for someone of that age.
His teaching was pure and very absolute, but still, he could be flexible and allow some students to take on their own path of learning and playing. Grips, preparation, and footwork were first to be learned. He used several analogies, like thinking of the forehand as rolling a tire, or a backhand as pulling a sword from a sheath. Almost always he referred to the forehand and backhand as a drive, not a hit. When he would guide your racket through the motion of a stroke, every time the racket would reach the proposed point of contact with the ball, out his mouth you would hear, “boom, boom, boom.” Never one boom, always three. As he said, you needed to get the full loaf of bread, not just a few slices. He always carried around a book written by Mercer Beasley called How to Play Tennis: The Beasley System, which was one of the first tennis books published that had pictorial sequences of all the strokes.
On weekends he would help others find matches and teach a few lessons. He was the only person for miles that sold rackets and strung them…only gut was available. The trunk of his car was essentially the first Tennis Pro Shop I ever knew. Once a year he would hold a junior tournament in his hometown of Le Grande, a small town a few miles away from Merced. He lived there in a trailer park by himself. His tournament was the first I played in and the first I won at the age of 10. I had to play in the 14-and-under (that was the youngest age group), and in return for winning, I received a large cherry-flavored sucker shaped like a tennis racket and nearly as big. Took a whole month to lick that into oblivion.
Also, as a young player and feeling my new sense of worth and credibility, I figured, although I had never seen Fred compete, that I could probably take him. After all, I had at least 60 plus years on him. Time passed and nearly every day I would walk past those courts, help him pick up balls after the lessons, and for that get a few tennis tips, or hit with his students. Not too much tennis to be found at that time in Merced, but occasionally, we would have a good player come around that had been temporarily stationed at the nearby Castle Air Force base. One day I saw a tall man hit with a woman, which I assumed was his wife, and he looked pretty good. She could at best keep a rally going, so I never really had a chance to see his best tennis. I finally asked him if he wanted to hit, and a few days later we did. He was better than pretty good; Eldon Roe was a tremendous player who could match up with some of the best in the country. I was lucky and extremely fortunate to have him to hit with for a few months. My game really elevated with this new competition.
After a few weeks, sitting next to Eldon on our court bench and watching Fred teach a lesson on the next court, I mentioned to Eldon that I would like to play him, never saw him play but thought I could take him for the aforementioned reasons. Eldon sat me down and asked me if I knew anything about the history of WWII, specifically the Pacific Theatre. I blurted out a few facts, most stuff I got from John Wayne movies and such. That’s when, the first, of many life lessons, came my way. Fred had more history than most people knew, except maybe a fellow military person like Eldon who had special insight.
The story goes, Fred, like many young Americans that were 16 and 17 years old, enlisted in early 1942 to join in the campaign against the Japanese. The strike on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 set the fuse for many new patriots to enlist hoping to save our country for a great cause. After only nine weeks of training, he was shipped out in late March. No sooner was he in the mix of combat in the Philippines when he was captured and taken to the village of Bataan to be part of the Bataan Death March. He was about18 at the time, which meant that when I came across him teaching in Merced in 1959, he was ONLY 35 YEARS OF AGE. The rigors and unbelievable pain, both physical and mental that were inflicted on these captured men took its toll. It would be hard to describe or even believe how horrible this experience was for these POWs. Most died and those who lived watched their fellow soldiers die a slow painful death. The wear and tear on Fred was very visible, but his quiet and calm demeanor was obviously a result of spending so much time being beaten into submission.
Nearly three years later after Fred’s capture, enduring this cruel and inhuman punishment, General McCarthy kept his promise and returned to the Philippines where he put an end to this inhuman treatment of these prisoners of war.
The sad irony is, if you were to ask any tennis enthusiast today, to provide you a list of top premier tennis pros in the history of this country, they most likely would give the name a pro that has had a great deal of media exposure. That’s just the way the world works. So, teaching pros like Fred go unheralded. So many young men took a detour by choice to defend our country, right or wrong. But despite that, when he returned, he just kept passing on his passion for the sport day after day, asking for little in return after giving so much for his country. The choice he made at a very young age, possibly robbed him of a great tennis future, let alone a better and healthier life. They may have pounded much of the life out of Fred’s body, but not his passion for the game, nor his desire to pass on his knowledge to mutts like me.
With Fred, his quiet and reserved behavior kept him from ever telling his story…he never complained or was in any way bitter. He like many came back to this country and continued to give. So, when I found out that he gave so much for his country, on top of being this giving teacher of the game, it redefined what a great tennis teaching pro was made of. In my mind, what he gave to me, thousands of other learning students, and to this country, makes him one of the greatest tennis teaching pros ever.