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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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Growing the game by creating retention

By Rod Heckelman

The leading message coming from the USTA is “Grow the Game.”  Everyone is on board with that, but there is another message that needs to become part of our mantra, “Create Retention.”  The number of players coming into our sport is still growing, but the factors that impact retention are becoming equally important.  Our future will need to pay more attention to the issue of attrition as potential new customers find alternate recreational sports. For that reason and more, retention is becoming more relevant.  Here are four issues that we need to better understand in order to evaluate why players are leaving or will be leaving the tennis industry.   


1. Injury, which we can do little about, except possibly to coach people to perform in a way that is more compatible with their physical nature. Teaching some players to hit like the pros they see on television could be a more risky approach for many older and those with limited physical skills.  Also, poor footwork that results in harsh starts and stops should be addressed. This is especially true on abrasive hard courts.  We really need to find more forgiving surfaces. 

One of the biggest issues is poor equipment choices.  With so many boutique tennis shops no longer available, many players are not getting the right information concerning size and weight of a racket, especially grip size.  They also are often stringing their rackets way too tight when using poly strings, which for top players is great, but for most very hard on the arm. Lastly, serving is often taught in ways that is again, not compatible with their individual motion. Pros need to remember that the throwing motion for some can be very difficult to properly execute, so it is often improperly executed under very stressful conditions. Note that is one of the few sporting movements that takes place where the participant cannot see what they are doing. The result is that many players have shoulder injuries.  It is one of the main reasons so many tennis players have been migrating to Pickleball, that sport has no serving involved.

2. Level of play has too big an influence on the enjoyment of the game. Tournaments and leagues are mostly responsible for this.  Although they do provide a great venue with challenges, they can also result in many players leaving the game because they can’t keep up with their competitors or their league teammates.  Think about this…a player joins a team and for several years develops a relationship and hopefully lifetime friends.  Nothing bonds people more than a common goal and achievement.  For one reason or another, their game does not progress, or maybe actually diminishes a bit, and then these close compadres gradually disappear. Why continue with the sport at that point?  Sadly, the league agenda has never engineered any segue for these players.  Why can’t there be a format that allows these players a new venue that continues the pleasure of finding compatible opponents along with the development of new friendships?  Why does all league play have to focus on who is better and who is best?  With UTR now getting into league play, the USTA will need to consider that this competition might be savvy enough to see this, address this issue, and become a real factor in league play.


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3. Access in some locations is diminishing. It’s been a growing concern for some time because tennis facilities that were initially located in affordable areas, have now escalated in value and as a result, cannot provide enough financial return to rationalize staying open.  Real estate investors are gobbling up these privately owned venues and optioning them for more profitable developments.  The only tennis clubs that are immune are the membership-owned clubs.  The problem with that is they are not so inclined to provide openings for those who are not so financially capable of paying the fees, which directly impacts the diversity tennis has been so successful in creating.  Recreational and public venues are still open, but funding and support have also been gradually declining.  The solution to this problem is both challenging and very complex.  Somewhere along the chain of influence, someone will need to sacrifice income to be able to fix this problem.  

4. Lack of teaching pros that are invested in retention.  To survive, most pros have been focusing heavily on growth and new customers.  It’s understandable because fresh new customers usually mean fresh new income.  They take more lessons and are usually more steady customers in the early development of the game.  The time needed to put together new programs and oversee existing programs is consuming and often not that financially rewarding.  The powers that be, especially with privately owned or corporate-owned facilities often do not see this programming as beneficial, at least not enough to properly compensate the tennis pro. History is also an issue.  Many years ago, when the cost of living and expenses were not such an issue, pros commonly would put aside time to help players meet others, put together social or fun events, do free clinics or match analysis…even provide a free evaluation of a player’s game.  It seems more and more “time is money,” the less there is an investment focused on sustaining a player’s interest in the game.  There is also just the mere fact that the entire industry lacks new and fresh teaching pros being certified and choosing coaching as a career.  That problem could be helped by having only a single gateway or organization as a gateway for new young candidates.


It needs to be pointed out, that attrition is definitely not the result of our sport not being both very enjoyable and entertaining. It remains one of the few activities that participants can play for life, play at all levels and ages, and also provides a great social venue. Those qualities have been and will always continue to provide ongoing value for all participants. For retention to be our focus, we will need to continue capitalizing and highlighting on those qualities.

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