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.


If a Tennis Ball Could Talk

By Rod Heckelman

Last month’s recorded statistic of an 89% increase in the sale of tennis balls in 2020, should have gotten most everyone’s attention.  Think about that number, if that were about your stock portfolio, you’d first party and then start planning your retirement.  If it were your percentage of first serves, you would watch your ratings or rankings increase dramatically.  The point is, this was a major stat to be recognized and invites much more analysis and understanding. But as everyone has learned, currently, there seems to be an overwhelming number of experts in line to predict the future, so with that in mind, thought it might be best to interview the main character in the stat…the tennis ball.


First, understand that the tennis ball has a very up and down life…no pun intended.  A tennis ball starts its life by popping out of a can, full of bounce and healthy pressure.  After being knock about for some time, it quickly fades from having an intimate relationship with the users, only to be discarded.  At that point, it’s best hope is a ball machine, but more likely it will end up in the mouth of a dog or maybe even hanging on a string in a garage with the sole purpose of guiding someone parking their car. But during that journey, much has happened, especially if that journey took place last year. 


It had a rugged start last year, misunderstood from the get-go.  Told by many that it was a courier of the virus and that you couldn’t even be touched or shared. Even so, there was big demand, pandemic lock down and all.  Many have contributed this surge in ball sales and popularity to the fact that tennis was the perfect sport due to the natural safe distancing of the tennis court and that it could be played outside.  

There was also the fact that many other team sports were put on hold leaving individual activities the only choice, but that was only what was behind door #1.  Behind door #2, is the fact that tennis was the perfect fit to the many people seeking fun and enjoyable exercise, a major emotional and physical need during this last year.  As it turns out, there was plenty of court time and plenty of tennis balls.  Families were attracted to idea of sharing time together in a safe and healthy environment. With leagues put on the backburners, exclusion, so often the natural product of ratings and competitive, was no longer the leading agenda.  The tennis ball rejoiced in being part of a happy moment when everyone was a winner by just taking part in a fun recreational sport.  But the tennis ball knew more and reminded us to look behind door #3.


Behind that door was the realization that many people have adopted a new mindset about self-improvement.  Suddenly, with more time to enjoy our recreational escapes, we no longer needed the quick fix or, to see it another way, we could enjoy just rallying and keeping the ball in play.  The fast and furious need for exercise and stimulation was replaced by long-term investment in one activity.  Everyone had more time and in turn, more patience with the process of learning.  There was a conscience redirection for seeking out activities or sports that provided instant gratification.  For years that was one of the great stumbling blocks for tennis.  It wasn’t just up against alternative recreational choices; it was up against alternative quick fixes that could provide instant physical rewards and instant competitive stimulus.


The league programs and Net Generation became the poster child for the sport, and there was great merit to that promotion.  Especially Net Generation, a message that was heard by many but not as promoted at the ground level as hoped.  The problem with both venues, they always seemed to have an alternative agenda that stemmed from those organizing looking for financial rewards and as usual, with large non-profit organizations, people positioning themselves to push their personal agendas.  The tennis ball didn’t want those goals, it just wanted to be hit, and hopefully hit well.  The response from the organizers of tennis was always…” we are just trying to meet the demands of the customers.”  One problem with that, when you start programs with an alternative goal of creating more and more competition to make more and more money, be it for adults or juniors, you may end up creating competition junkies.  So as far as feedback goes, much like what a drug dealer might hear, they are not likely to have their users ask them for less, and those who are not addicts, will likely not be heard from and probably become alienated from that activity.  Take note here, becoming a trend or becoming popular as an activity, may by more organic than given credit. Sometimes it’s just hard to see when so much effort is being directed towards organizing and controlling.   


So, if a tennis ball could talk, it would probably tell those decision makers, that the reason it was so popular last year, is because the sport is fun for everyone.  People just like hitting them back and forth.  Combat without contact.  Natural social distancing and yet extremely social.  After that, the tennis ball would be very happy to pass on and be part of the recycle world.  Maybe if it is lucky, it can come back as a Pickleball, and pass on that lesson to another fun and growing sport that might fall prey to the same issues. 

P.S.  A few insights, there is a new organization called that will recycle old balls and cost nothing, even can be a tax write-off.  Great cause and worthy of noting.  Also, a few other purposes for tennis balls many do not know. Senior homes with those needing to use walkers, love to have old tennis balls to put on the bottom of the legs of their walkers as to not scratch the floors and also be more quiet moving about.  You also can use tennis balls as insulation in attics that have a small crawl space.  They self-level and are not flammable.  Lastly, although mentioned earlier, normal tennis balls are not good for dogs, the felt has very coarse and durable materials that can wear down the teeth of a dog and negatively impact their health by impairing proper digestion of food. I don’t think you would get this information from a dog.  You might know all this if a dog could talk like a tennis ball.


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