How to Start Playing Tennis (Or Pick the Racquet Up Again)
Written in partnership with aSweatLife
In elementary school, I remember my dad begging, pleading with me to give some serious attention to tennis and golf. You and your friends won’t always be physically able to play soccer, he tried to counsel me—tennis and golf are social sports that you can play whether you’re 12 and have your ACLs intact, or you’re 34 and have to ice your knee for days after pick-up basketball.
I laughed in his face. I will be young forever, and NOTHING will make me play the sport that causes you to fall asleep on the couch every Sunday.
I did end up playing tennis through high school and recreationally through my post-college years, but in Chicago I often struggled with finding friends to play with. Many of my friends had never played before, and the ones who had, hadn’t played in years and were worried they couldn’t get the ball over the net consistently.
That’s one of the reasons we recently hosted a #Sweatworking tennis mixer at Midtown Athletic Club with the United States Tennis Association (USTA), bumble BFF, and Outdoor Voices—we wanted you guys to see that tennis is super fun, not intimidating, and a great way to socialize with friends new and old.
“Tennis is a great sport for anyone at any age,” says Jill Siegel, executive director at the Chicago District Tennis Association, pointing out that tennis is another thing that’s #betterwithfriends. “[It’s great exercise], but perhaps the biggest benefit is that tennis is fun and social – making it the perfect sport for families and friends. It’s a great way to forge relationships that will last a lifetime.” (She also validated what my dad tried to tell me as a child, noting that you can play tennis at any age—happy, Dad?)
We’re hard at work planning how tennis can fit into our future events, but in the meantime, if you’re dying to get on the courts for the first time ever or just the first time in awhile, we partnered with our friends at USTA to build a beginner’s guide to tennis.
“Everyone should try tennis!” encourages Siegel. “There’s a very wide range of very social to very competitive play options, so there is something out there for all kinds of active people. Tennis can be enjoyed by a wide range of fitness levels and can serve (pun intended) as a high intensity interval-like workout or a low key social outing.”
What do you need to play tennis?
At the most basic, you need a tennis racquet and balls. A court is ideal, but a wall next to a concrete surface can do in a pinch. Avoid a court faux-pas by wearing the right shoes to the courts: you want sneakers that provide good support and that do NOT have black soles, which can permanently mark up the court.
How do you choose a tennis racquet?
“The best way to find your perfect racquet is trial and error,” says Siegel, noting that most tennis centers or retailers (even online ones) allow you to “demo” a racquet at a nominal charge.
The USTA has this racquet guide to get you started. The main thing to think about is the size of the grip or handle. Choose a grip size that’s comfortable, but keep in mind that a too-large grip size will force you to squeeze the racquet more tightly, tiring your forearms.
New to the game and hesitant to spend big on a racquet? Ask a friend if they have a “retired” racquet you can hit with as you start working on your game.
How do I hold the racquet?
The three main types of tennis grips are the Continental, the Eastern, and the Western, with a slight variation called the Semi-Western grip. You can get a full rundown here, but beginners will probably rely on the Continental grip the most (which is akin to holding a hammer, at its most basic).
What are the basic types of tennis shots?
The ones you’ll use most as a beginner are the forehand, backhand, volley, and serve. Want more detailed instructions for working through these shots? Check out the USTA’s Tennis 101 section here, and look for videos on YouTube as well!
How do I keep score in tennis?
If you’re a true beginner and just playing for fun, it’s totally fine to score points as you would any other sport, awarding a point to the player who keeps the ball in bounds without hitting the net while rallying. But if you’re ready to level up and do some mental math, the USTA has a great resource on scoring basics here.
A helpful mantra to repeat is game, set, match. You’ll play one game at a time. The first player to win six games wins one set. The first player to win two out of three sets wins the match.
Other tidbits to know: it’s the server’s job to call the score before each point, and each player calls what they see as “out” on their side of the net. If the ball touches a line, even by the teeniest little margin, it’s considered in.
What should I avoid doing so I don’t look like a total newbie on the courts?
Don’t assume! Make sure to call the ball out—always after it’s bounced—so that you are on the same page as your opponent. It’s also important to make sure both players know the score.
Be strategic! Don’t try to hit the ball as hard as you can. Instead, just try to aim the ball over the net or place it strategically.
Know the court! When playing doubles, the entire court is at play. But if you’re just playing singles, the two “alleys” running along the left and right outsides of the court are considered out.
Get out and enjoy the warmer weather! Most cities and park systems have outdoor courts that are open and free for the public. (Chicago’s can be found here.)
I want to play tennis, but I want to ease in. What can I do to make the game a little easier?
At the end of the day, says Siegel, the ultimate goal of tennis is to outlive those across the net from you by keeping the ball in bounds.
“You can change how you start the point [taking out the serve if it’s intimidating], how you keep score, how many players are on the court, the boundaries of the court, even just playing on half of the court!” she recommends.
Okay, I’m getting pretty decent at this hitting-the-ball-over-the-net thing. How can I get even better?
Aside from just practicing more, Siegel advises studying strategy (especially if you play doubles) and practicing more advanced shots, like slices, overheads, lobs, drop-shots, and “tweeners” if you’re feeling brave.
Consistently hitting the ball well might be a sign you’re ready to invest in lessons or clinics. If you need help finding a provider, USTA Chicago is happy to be a resource. To find more opportunities to play, explore the page here.
Finally, Siegel suggests playing with people who are better than you AND people who have less experience than you.
“Playing better players is a great way to learn from someone else and improve your skills, but playing opponents with less experience or skill provides an opportunity for players to focus on an aspect of their game they want to improve. Regardless, any chance to play is a chance to learn and improve,” she shares.
I used to play tennis, but I’m afraid of being bad. What should I remember to get back in the “swing” of things?
“Don’t get frustrated or hung up on the level you used to be,” advises Siegel. “You can get there again (and beyond) with practice! Remember why you want to return to the game,” and dial in on the fun aspect of the game when you take the court.
Plus, people play tennis for their entire lives, so you may go through multiple rounds of picking the sport up and taking a break from it—and that’s totally fine.
My tennis game is strong—what can I do off the court to get even better?
Cardio, HIIT, and sprint workouts will be your best friend for building the quick, short bursts of speed that you’ll need on the court. Other group fitness complements might be Pilates (for core development) or yoga.
If you love sports, volleyball, golf, soccer, and basketball all have elements in common with tennis, whether it’s the high-low serving motion or fancy footwork.
And here’s one out of left field: tap dancing.
“Believe it or not, the footwork necessary to dance helps with tennis,” laughs Siegel.
Most important of all? Enjoying a post workout happy hour with your tennis companions.
“A beer after hitting balls seems to make everything better,” believes Siegel.
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