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.”

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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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Are You Ready for the Renaissance of Tennis?

By Rod Heckelman

 

First, a little history about pandemics.  Not always, but many times they have been followed by an era of great social expansion and creativity.  Some say, maybe the most euphoric times in our history.  Take for instance the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic, the country experienced the roaring 20’s…a good time had by many, and a time of social indulgence.  Makes sense, after all, when people have been greatly deprived of their most precious basic characteristic…the desire to be gregarious and tribal in nature, when the opportunity to let loose finally comes, they indulge.  This could very well be what will happen with tennis, once this is all behind us, we may create our own version of the roaring tennis times.  In fact, we may already be seeing some of the beginnings of that surge, much like we experienced in the tennis world in the late ’60s and early ’70s.  That was the heyday for the tennis industry, and there’s a good chance it will happen again.

The similarities to that time are three-fold.  First, an enormous interest from new players, not just the children, but also the parents.  Remember how we were lamenting over the fact that tennis was not attracting the NextGen group?  That seems to have gone by the wayside and people in their late 20’s and 30’s are taking up the game for the first time.  If you don’t think this is the case, just listen to many of the teachers these days, they are returning to the need of teaching the basics, like how to keep score, or court etiquette.  New students are baffled by this 15, 30 AD and Deuce stuff once again.

The similarities to that time are three-fold.  First, an enormous interest from new players, not just the children, but also the parents.  Remember how we were lamenting over the fact that tennis was not attracting the NextGen group?  That seems to have gone by the wayside and people in their late 20’s and 30’s are taking up the game for the first time.  If you don’t think this is the case, just listen to many of the teachers these days, they are returning to the need of teaching the basics, like how to keep score, or court etiquette.  New students are baffled by this 15, 30 AD and Deuce stuff once again.

Although the trend in the past has always been the parents having some background in tennis and then leading the children in that direction…now we are seeing new players come into the game and bringing their children of all ages with them.  The natural distancing, the healthiness of the sport, and once again, just the joy of sharing now and long into the future a common game, is a strong draw.  Could it be because they were locked down with their family that reignited a need to create a common interest?  It beats playing board games.

Instruction is also changing, it’s not just teaching many of the basics to the newbies, it’s also many of the former league or senior players looking to get back into learning the fine art of the sport.  That was always the sad reality with competitive league play or tournaments…too much emphasis on results, not enough on the journey.  Now the club and recreational players have time to learn new spins on the ball, drop volleys, chip returns, and heaven forbid, the value of a quality lob.

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We also are naturally getting away from the stigma of ratings.  Players that are learning the game have far less concern about whom they are playing and their ratings, it’s back to the value of sharing a common interest. 

Instruction will also have to recognize the importance of adjusting their teaching technique to the athletic ability of the player.  No more teaching “how the pros play,” more teaching the students, be they older, less athletic, or weekend warriors, how to best play their game and not try to emulate those on the tour.

Parents also have latched on to the particularly important aspect of having their children master a sport that does not necessarily yield instant gratification.  They are realizing that the process of learning can be translated into many future tasks and challenges.  Same could be said for many of the millennials, they are finding the time now during this Covid19 period, to pick a musical instrument, learn a new language, and, yes, learn a challenging sport like tennis.  We’ve got time now, no more hurrying around to do the next thing on your list.

And what will be the new role of the USTA?  Leagues may not recover, if at all, for some time.  Tournament play will also have to be adjusted.  There is also a new player in town called the UTR.  Looking back at the heavy growth period in tennis during the late ’60s and ’70s, the USTA had three especially important roles.  First, overseeing the rules and regulations of the game, second, determining the rankings, and still back then, overseeing the US Open, otherwise known as Forest Hills, and the USLTA National Championships.  Other than that last responsibility, not much money to be had and earned so adjustments will need to be made.

Since the new roles in the tennis world will be focused on developing more players in general and building social participation, it’s likely the local venues will end up becoming more independently responsible.  When the numbers surge, the local tennis communities will have the volume of players to meet the needs of many fun and social events, along with ample enough competition when wanted.  They will go back to having Calcutta’s, Round Robins, Ladders, or Drop-in fun events.  Public courts that prospered by having these venues in the past, will do fine again, so will the private clubs.  The key at that junction will be the teaching pros, and the organizations that support them.  They will need to work together to find ways to bone-up on how to best run programs and integrate all levels of players.  It will be a change and a challenge but put your money on these people…they’ve been there, done that.  It seems so ironic, and sad, but the pandemic might have been the cure for the tennis industry.

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