New to Tennis? Prevent Injuries and Play a Tight Game with These Tips
If you’re new to tennis, you’re probably looking forward to the day that you’re able to lob the ball over the tennis net with Federer-esque speed and Serena-esque accuracy. Unfortunately, without proper guidance and form, the ball is more likely to sail over the tennis court windscreen or, if you’re playing indoors, hit the gym divider curtain . . . or the players in the next court.
By the end of the twentieth set or so, your forearm will ache with the first twinges of tennis elbow (be sure to lock your wrist next time to prevent hyperextension). You will have hit more balls over the tennis windscreen than you have over the net. You will sweat profusely in your attempts at a forehand or backhand, while your opponent will remain more or less stationary, waiting impatiently for the ball to make it over the tennis net into his or her swing zone.
Of course, I speak from personal experience. But whether you play as badly as I did during my first match (in which I lost, to my great and lasting humiliation, against my older sister some decades back) or manage to save some shred of dignity, you should know that you aren’t alone . . . and you will improve in time, gaining both experience and accuracy. While only time will help you with the former, a decent amount of research and preparation can help with the latter. When it comes to tennis, nothing trumps experience (not even youth), but determining your comfort zone and abilities will help you to strategize more efficiently, even when playing against seasoned opponents.
To shorten the amount of time it takes, you should test out your tennis equipment, determine your hitting zone and swing radius, test out different grips, and practice, practice, practice.
Test Several Rackets Before Settling
The right racket can make the difference between a good player and a great player. Of course, if you’re just starting out, you’re probably more concerned with the difference between hitting tennis ball into the net and over the net. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend one brand over another because everyone has a different playing style and preference. You’ll be able to find online reviews for most rackets, but unless the person has your exact build and your exact technique, they won’t necessarily apply to you.
I will say that you should test out your racket in the store and only buy a racket that you feel completely comfortable with. Rarely, stores will set up tennis curtains to protect the rest of their customers from testing zones, but you probably won’t have this luxury. Fortunately, you don’t need to practice with real tennis balls, but you should try moving with your racket.
Try a few forehands, backhands, volleys, and serves, even if you look foolish doing so. Ask an experienced player (a family member or a friend is fine) to watch your form and recommend different stances.
There are a number of different considerations, but you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your hand fit around the grip, or do you need a smaller/larger grip size? An improper grip can cause blisters and tennis elbow, so your comfort is important.
- Do you feel good moving with the racket, or does it seem cumbersome and heavy?
- Do the strings provide sufficient bounce?
- Does the length of the racket feel like an extension of your arm, or does it feel unnatural?
Tennis rackets start at around thirty dollars, and while experienced, dedicated players can spend thousands on customized rackets, you’ll probably want to keep your purchase under two hundred. You can always upgrade when you’ve refined your game and form. If you are comfortable with your racket, you can also pay to have it restrung and to replace the grip.
Identify Your Hitting Zone
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have longer limbs have a natural advantage at certain sports. In tennis, a person with longer arms has a much wider hitting zone, meaning that they can hit balls from a greater distance. They would also have a longer swing radius, which often helps them to hit the ball further. However, there is no reason why a person with shorter limbs can’t keep up with the competition. Tennis involves a number of skills—quick thinking, form, speed, strength—and a shorter player who is more experienced can easily make a tall newbie feel like hiding beneath the tennis court covers in shame.
No matter what your physical attributes or shortcomings, you should work with an experienced player to identify your hitting zone. This will help you to better position your body toward the ball. Instead of simply running up to the ball, you’ll know which way to angle your body, whether to volley or lobby, and so on.
From there, do a little experimentation to assess areas that need work. When you hit a forehand, does the ball tend to hit the tennis net, or does it go further, perhaps over the windscreens into the next tennis court? Does your backhand fly over the net, but land outside the boundary line? Only practice, experience, and muscle memory will help you to perfect your form, but you should also experiment with different grips to determine which gives you the most control over the ball in any given situation.
Know Your Grips
As shown in the diagram above, there are four primary grips used in tennis: continental, eastern, western, and semi-western. Players adapt these grips depending on their movement, but the hand position remains more or less the same. The ideal grip will vary from person to person, so I can’t offer suggestions as to which grip will work best for you. You’ll notice that all professional players use different grips for different moves. The eastern grip is the most versatile, but most players prefer the continental for backhand strokes. The western grip generates more topspin, while the semi-western lays between the eastern and western in terms of hand positioning.
Again, try the different grips before settling. You may find that you need to change your grip depending on the angle of the ball—really, whatever gives you the most control, speed, or spin is fine. And if a certain grip makes the ball veer off into the tennis divider nets on a regular basis, either it doesn’t work for you or you’re doing it wrong.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Now comes the fun part—and I’m not joking there. If you don’t find practice fun, you should quit altogether or at least play with different people. I’ve seen promising players quit for several months because they didn’t enjoy the company.
Remember that as a beginner, your priority should be improving your game. This will inevitably involve a bit of competition, but if you feel your fellow players are being too demanding or disrespectful, you should play and train with someone who is willing to accommodate your skill level. You shouldn’t have to put up with a workout partner who mockingly walks over to the tennis windscreen every time you’re up to serve. There is plenty of time to be competitive—just train for at least a few months before accepting any major challenges.
Tennis elbow is common among new and seasoned players. I find that locking my wrist prevents it from getting worse (especially in the continental grip), though I’ve suffered it on and off since my mid-twenties. A lot of new players have a habit of flicking their wrists as if they were playing ping-ping. This can lead to pain in the long run, so avoid it if at all possible. (Sometimes you’ll feel the need to break all the rules to get a shot in. In this case, I say go for it, though I’m sure my doctor would disagree.) Note that some gyms cover floor exercises like yoga that can increase your overall flexibility and balance, leaning to an improved game and, in my experience, a decreased rate of pain and injury.
If you are in abject pain, have some common sense—rest until it feels better and see a doctor if necessary. I see a sports specialist every two years or so to make sure it isn’t getting worse. Ibuprofen and time do wonders.
But I digress. One thing I’ve found that helps to make practice exciting is to learn at least one new move with every session. Ask local experts to teach you new forms and foot movements to help you build your skill set. Practice will help you to build your muscle memory and introduce you to new situations that call for quick thinking.
Once you’re ready, you should start playing against players who are just slightly better than you are. You may lose, you may cover the tennis court with your tears, but you’ll also be able to observe their form, their strategy, and other skills to emulate in practice. Tennis is a sport that involves the constant accumulation of new knowledge, and practice is the only way to turn that knowledge into talent.