A Driving Force
After 30 years at the helm of the USPTA, Tim Heckler’s departure leaves some impressive tennis shoes to fill.
When Tim Heckler leaves the U.S. Professional Tennis Association at the end of December, it will bring to a close 30 years as chief executive officer of one of the world’s largest teaching pro organizations — an era that has seen impressive growth for the association.
In 1982, when Heckler was offered the CEO spot, the organization had four employees and was located in about 1,000 square feet of space at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort in Sarasota. “All the USPTA was in those days was a magazine, which was outsourced, a yearly directory, and, its biggest claim to fame, three shoeboxes with about 1,800 three-by-five membership cards in them,” he says. “That was it. That was the USPTA.”
Over the next three decades the USPTA says membership grew to more than 15,000 members in 66 countries, operating on an annual budget of $6.5 million. The association’s equity grew from $60,000 in 1982 to more than $4.2 million today, including owning the income-producing 80,000-square-foot Houston building that now houses its nearly 30 employees.
“Our total income in 1982 was below half a million dollars,” Heckler says, “and it eventually exceeded $7 million. We went from a negative cash flow to a good cash flow now with a very substantial set of assets, so the organization is safe and can sustain any ups and downs that may happen. That is more of a legacy than anything. But it was greatly helped by many of our presidents.”
But there are other things Heckler could well point to as part of his legacy, starting with the membership records in the three shoeboxes. “In 1981, [board member] Mike Eikenberry came to a meeting in Sarasota and said he had just been reading about computers on the plane,” Heckler says. “He suggested they be applied to the USPTA, to help teaching pros with their business, and said, ‘Let’s get Heckler to do it.’ So we got in early computerizing our records.”
That led to continued expansion into using technology, the internet and email-based communications and education for USPTA teaching pros. “I credit our computer technology and growth in that area for being our biggest asset,” Heckler notes. The USPTA started to expand its mailing list, which led to securing endorsements. (Heckler has presided at negotiations that have led to more than $40 million in endorsements.) As the organization grew, it also started to expand its conventions in scope and attendance.
“Membership started to grow by leaps and bounds. The tennis boom had something to do with that, as did the way our board ran the USPTA,” he says.
Raising the Level
Heckler’s leadership of the USPTA also helped to change the tennis teaching industry.
“Tim has singlehandedly raised the level of the teaching pro in the U.S. with his work ethic, passion and dedication to the game,” says Ron Woods, a past USPTA president and a longtime friend of Heckler’s. “He has really been a force in bringing the tennis pro into the realm of being recognized as a true professional in the community.
“Tim modernized the teaching pro,” Woods continues. “He brought us from just being a ‘glorified ball boy’ who feeds tennis balls, to being looked at as a professional. The business aspect of it — technology, sharing ideas, the divisions, the world conference — a lot of that was through the efforts and imagination of Tim, through his vision and determination.”
Current USPTA President Tom Daglis also praised Heckler’s role in advancing the USPTA. “As CEO, he raised the USPTA from childhood to adulthood,” Daglis says. At the recent USPTA World Conference on Tennis, held in Monterey, Calif., Daglis and the USPTA Board of Directors presented Heckler with an award for his service, and the retiring CEO also was honored by the past presidents.
“Tim was a true pioneer in a lot of areas, and he definitely elevated and expanded the role of the teaching professional in this country,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis, and a past president of the USPTA.
“Our job,” Heckler says, when asked if he had any words of advice for incoming CEO John Embree, “is to try to find a better way of life, a better income, a better working environment for tennis teaching pros. We’re a trade association, and a lot of people think we’re a delivery force. But the delivery aspect can’t be more important than our pros making a living. You need to have great empathy for the pros.”
Playing on the Tour
Heckler started playing tennis at age 3, in his native South Africa; his mother and father were avid club players. Before age 16, he was winning tournaments for 18-year-olds, then at age 17, he went to England and Europe and played on the tour. He had wins over top 50 players, including the No. 10 player in the world, and was able to enter Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships (later called the US Open) without needing to qualify.
Soon, though, Heckler decided to go to the U.S. for college. He ended up at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, on a team that, in 1960, “beat UCLA, Stanford, USC and all the big powers,” Heckler says.
Heckler eventually received a degree in biology, with plans to go to medical school, but he took a job at MD Anderson, a top cancer research center in Houston. “I started working in the animal lab and became a senior lab technician, and for seven years did surgery on animals. I enjoyed it, and kept putting off medical school. Then, I was invited by Dr. Jonas Salk [who discovered the first polio vaccine] to come to San Diego to work in his institute. I had established a very powerful research lab at MD Anderson, and Salk had gotten a grant and needed to establish a medical lab in San Diego. I went there for three years and established the lab.”
In 1971, Heckler ended up back in Houston, and learned of a tennis pro job at Westwood Country Club. “I got the job, and fortunately for me, the tennis boom started. What I had predicted I would earn at Westwood quadrupled overnight.” Heckler became well known in Houston, and as the area grew, he began working as a tennis consultant, traveling the country and helping to establish facilities. In 1973, he was the consultant and tennis director for the Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King “Match of the Century” in the Houston Astrodome. One project in the Houston area eventually hired Heckler as general manager. He stayed there for eight years and was a part owner.
During that time, he became involved in the Texas Professional Tennis Association, a division of the USPTA. He worked on several committees, joined the national USPTA board, and moved through secretary-treasurer, vice president then president in 1980-’81. He applied for, and received, the CEO job in 1982.
Passionate About USPTA
There’s little doubt of Heckler’s passion for improving the lot of teaching professionals and his devotion to the USPTA. “Tim was the No. 1 ambassador in protecting the interests of the USPTA,” says Jim Baugh, former tennis industry executive, TIA president and USTA board member who now runs a sports consulting business. “He was a great business partner,” Baugh adds, referring to when he was head of Wilson tennis and worked with Heckler and the USPTA.
“Tim was very passionate about USPTA,” adds Dan Santorum, CEO of the Professional Tennis Registry. “I’m sure he’ll look back on his accomplishments and take great pride in the fact that the organization came a long way under his leadership.”
When talking about Heckler, many industry executives choose their words carefully. While lauded for his devotion to the USPTA and the teaching profession, he’s often been criticized for that same characteristic, which some cite — off the record — as possibly having a stifling effect within the industry.
“Tim is one of the best ‘wartime generals’ I know, and when he was at war with the USTA, he really waged war all-out and effectively,” says Alan Schwartz, former USTA board member and president.
Kamperman echoes the “wartime general” reference, citing Heckler’s “analytical approach and the time and effort he put into preparing for all possibilities.”
“Tim is so well respected in the industry, although he may get at odds with others at times,” says Woods. “But it’s because he speaks out for our industry and teaching pros. When you’re wearing that hat and stand tall in the crowd, that’s when people start throwing snowballs at the hat.”
But, “as passionate as he was for the USPTA,” Schwartz adds, “he has an overriding passion for the game of tennis.”
“Tim has always been a solid rock that we could count on to share his opinions and provide input for industry efforts,” says Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the Tennis Industry Association, of which Heckler has been a longtime board member. “He recognized early the importance of getting kids playing tennis, which led to his passion and promotion of USPTA Little Tennis since the 1980s.”
Heckler, a USPTA Master Professional, was honored in 2000 as a grand inductee in the association’s Hall of Fame. He also received the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Tennis Educational Merit Award in 2002 and was inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2008 he received the highest honor awarded by the USPTA, the George Bacso Lifetime Achievement Award.
“My future still lies in tennis; I’m not sure how much I’ll actually retire,” Heckler says. While his agreement with the USPTA includes a non-compete provision for a year, “I do have some things I’m considering, but I’ll definitely be in tennis.”
“Tim thinks differently, and he always thinks big,” says Woods. “So many tennis teaching professionals, whether members of the USPTA or not, have benefited from what Tim has done.”
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.