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.

HEAD Gravity Tennis Racquet

WE BLEW IT

Over 100 High Schools Dropped More Than 500 New Players

By Rod Heckelman

Yes, WE blew it, not the USTA, not any of the other many tennis organizations that have input and influence on our sport…this was a collective mistake that the entire tennis industry needs to take responsibility for, especially if we hope to change the future to a more positive outcome.

This Fall, after nearly a two-year layoff, the high schools returned to having competitive tennis teams for the women.  This return to team tennis was received in the Bay Area and most of Northern California as a triumphant return to normality.  It was also highly anticipated, especially with so many new female tennis players between the ages of 13 and 17 having taken up our sport during the pandemic.  In fact, it is fair to say, this may have been the greatest growth in that sector of tennis that we’ve ever seen.  High schools that normally saw 15 to 20 players vying for a position on their respective teams suddenly had 40 to 50 show up.  But even though we saw it coming, we ran into the classic problem…too many wanting to play and too few courts or programs to accommodate.  As a result, nearly all these schools had to inform nearly 40% of these fresh, excited and anxious new players, that they weren’t good enough to make the team.

As mentioned, we saw this coming.  Countless articles and information from every media source and organization had recognized the tennis explosion.  But before we default to the company line, “Sorry, we just didn’t have enough courts,” did anyone put in place alternatives or options for these players?  Did local clubs/facilities contact the high schools to offer options?  Did the real powers that be in our sport provide any support or funding? 

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Photo by Braden Egli on Unsplash

Did the high school coaches reach out to their community tennis programs or facilities to hand off these extra players?  Seems that most of the decision makers were either asleep at the wheel or were just trying to do the best they could with an awkward situation.  No coach feels great about telling anyone that they are not good enough to make a team.  That alone should have motivated most coaches to seek alternative solutions. 

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...nearly all these schools had to inform nearly 40% of these fresh, excited and anxious new players, that they weren’t good enough to make the team.

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As it turned out, it was a double tragedy; not only did nearly 100 schools end up dropping possibly more than 500 new players to the game in the Bay Area alone, but the P.R. for our sport was terrible.  The message to these players and their families was that the tennis industry does not operate as a unified organization…we looked dysfunctional and disorganized…and yes, we were.   

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Fortunately, there were some real heroes around the country that deserve credit and rewards for putting together local programs that tried to set up play dates or organized times for these many players.  Usually these programs had both the support of their community and a person(s) that was willing to put in the time and energy to make it happen. These people are the heroes of our industry and hopefully will be recognized and awarded.   

There were probably many facilities that tried to set up a weekly venue, but those programs fall short of the high school programs that have five days a week of tennis. 

Photo by Valentin Balan on Unsplash

There have also been a number a new junior program that focus on the development of top players; they’re great, but, sadly, seldom ever help those that are in the early stages of learning.  Remember, these are players that are just getting started and are hoping for the simple goals of getting their serve in and being able to keep score.

What is also a concern is that this evolved out of an area, the Bay Area of Northern California, where there is a very affluent population.  Money was not a factor; it was all about access, instruction and organization…basically the infrastructure of the sport.  Are we providing more attention for those that are underprivileged and ignoring others that are basically on the same journey seeking the same goals?  This approach will never be able to grow the game, the access to tennis should never be impacted by any type of discrimination.

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So, going forward we will again face a similar issue.  This January, the men’s teams will be going through the same process of creating teams.  First, with that in mind, hopefully we can find a way to unite in order to find real solutions and answers.  Second, you would think that many tennis pros would recognize this low-hanging fruit and jump on this financial opportunity.  If any teaching pro approached any tennis facility with a way of bringing in this potential big source of income, they would be hired right away. 

So, if you’re reading this, this pot of tennis gold should be easy to find.  We have this great opportunity to grow the game in this sector.  Hopefully come January we will not repeat our mistakes and blow it again. 

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If any teaching pro approached any tennis facility with a way of bringing in this potential big source of income, they would be hired right away. 

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