So, you’ve finally decided to buy that racket that you’ve always wanted, put on your favorite pair of tennis shoes to help you navigate the court, and pulled together your most comfortable t-shirt and shorts. Now you’re ready to hit the court. You’re excited but can’t help but wonder how hard it will be to pick up tennis.
Tennis is a relatively difficult sport to learn as a beginner. It can take many years of practice to get good as a player. However, that shouldn’t hold you back. Remember that all players, from recreational to professional level, started out as beginners at some point and struggled just to make contact with the ball and get it over the net.
Learning tennis can seem frustrating at first, mainly because it requires a combination of good hand-eye coordination, timing, precision, and feel. These are all things that require extensive practice and plenty of repetition to master. It can take years to get to a level where you are able to confidently maintain rallies and serve with consistency.
While this often puts people off, if you are willing to put in the required time commitment and practice regularly, you can eventually learn to play tennis well, regardless of your level of athleticism. If you are naturally athletic, of course, you will likely pick up the sport more easily. However, this is not a requirement. Regular repetition, good mobility, and conditioning are the keys to becoming a good player.
Let’s take a look at what makes tennis challenging as a beginner and, along the way, explore ways that you can make the learning process a bit easier. While you may find the first few times you play to be discouraging, keep at it and you will improve, even if it’s just in small incremental steps.
One mistake that beginners often make is trying to play full court immediately. This will inevitably lead to frustration as it is much harder to do than it looks. Instead, start out by playing on a small court, within the service boxes.
This setup is easier to grasp initially and is a great way to familiarize yourself with the game. Stand just behind the service lines with your opponent on the opposite side of the net set up in a similar position. You can hit the ball in either service box or limit it to only one box in order to fine-tune your aim and control.
Start with forehand groundstrokes as they are easier to execute and, once you are more comfortable with your forehands, you can begin to mix in some backhands. Eventually, with enough practice, you’ll be able to volley back and forth without letting the ball bounce.
Work on bending your knees and initiating your strokes with a unit turn. Start your strokes in a ready position, holding the racket with both arms extended in front of you. The unit turn is performed by turning your upper body around your torso as a unit as soon as you know which side the ball is coming to.
Develop a Feel for Your Strokes
Playing on a small court will help you get a feel for the ball on the strings of your racket as you make contact. You’ll realize that swinging too hard can result in loss of control, hitting too softly will land the ball in the net and that you need to aim above the tape to get the ball over.
After you get to a certain point where you are more comfortable hitting the ball, you can begin to work on topspin and develop a sense of what that feels like as you brush up on the ball. Alternatively, you can also practice underspin to get a sense of what slicing the ball feels like.
These may seem like small steps, but these are principles that you will take with you as you begin to grow as a player. When you are ready to play full court, you will need to adjust, but these same concepts will apply. Part of what makes tennis difficult is the feel for when you are hitting too hard,
Small court play also allows you to develop your hand-eye coordination. Advanced players will often begin their matches by warming up in the service box, not only to loosen up the arm and leg muscles but also to get the eyes used to focusing on the ball.
Good eye contact is critical in tennis. Whether it’s the serve, volley, or groundstrokes, keeping your eyes on the ball through contact plays an important role in the effectiveness of your shots. Learning to keep your eyes fixed up until contact takes time, it is not immediately intuitive.
While maintaining eye-contact, you’ll also be more aware of what your arms are doing. Are you extending your arm in order to create proper spacing? Are you using the non-hitting arm as a guide to help you better gauge the distance to the ball?
Timing and Precision
Mastering timing and precision takes time. When first starting out you will find that your timing is off. Either you are getting to the ball too early or too late. This results in hitting the ball either too far in front of you or too far back. Ideally, you want to make contact just in front of you at an extended arm’s distance.
Your precision will also be off in the sense that you will not be getting the balls where you aim. You’ll probably be happy to just get the ball over the net. This is perfectly normal when starting out. With time, you’ll learn to adjust the angle of your racket and adjust the pace, or speed that you swing with in order to get the ball to where you intend it to go.
It will take a lot of repetition and practice to get both your timing and precision right. And even after you do, there will always be the need to improve further. Small court play can help you start to develop your sense of timing before you move onto the full court.
Take Lessons from a Tennis Pro
A professional tennis instructor can make a big difference in your development. If at all possible, take lessons with a tennis pro in order to learn the fundamentals and ensure you pick up the right technique from the start. If you develop your game on your own, it is likely you will pick up some bad habits that will need to be corrected eventually.
While you can read about technique, watch tennis on TV, or view instructional videos online, nothing will match a good pro observing your individual strengths and weaknesses and helping you target those areas of your game that need the most work. A good pro will be able to pick up on your technical flaws within minutes of watching you play.
This combined with regular practice is the best way to learn tennis and develop into a solid player. Of course, tennis lessons can be expensive. If you find that pro lessons are financially out of reach, there are other options. However, you might at least consider taking a few lessons to get you started in the right direction. Let the instructor know that want to work on your overall technique but can only do a few lessons.
Consider Group Clinics
Another good option to learn to play tennis is taking group clinics. These are usually run by pro instructors but are less expensive than individual lessons since they involve a larger group. You will share court time with others which can have some added benefits.
For one, group clinics will allow you to meet other players. You will also have the opportunity to watch others and see how they perform the strokes. Some will likely pick things up more quickly than others, and you can focus on what they are doing correctly. You can also focus on some of the errors that others are committing in order to improve your own game.
Instructors will have less of an opportunity to focus on you, however, you are still likely to receive enough pointers to help you correct your form. As you meet people in clinics, chances are you’ll find others who want to practice with you or might even want to pair up with you for some doubles matches.
Repetition: The Key to Success
Whichever learning method or combination of methods you chose to pursue, the single most important factor in your development as a player is repetition. The more you practice, assuming your form is correct, the better you will become.
However, repetition is a double-edged sword. Consistent practice with good technique will lead to consistently good results. The opposite is true if the technique is poor. For that reason, it’s important to start out on the right foot and work with a tennis pro from the start.
Once you know the fundamentals, then it’s up to you to practice as much as possible to improve your game. The goal is to develop the necessary muscle memory so that as you play, you no longer need to think about what you are doing. When you no longer need to focus on your technique, when your body just reacts automatically in a fluid and effective manner, then you’ve learned to play tennis.
Practice Partners, Ball Machines, and the Wall
There are a few ways that you can practice on your own without supervised instruction. One of the most effective options is to practice with a hitting partner. Ideally, they should be about the same level as you or slightly better to get the most out of it.
If you don’t have a hitting partner, two other options available to you are hitting against a wall or backboard, or using a ball machine. Most tennis courts will have a backboard that you can use or handball courts which can also work.
Ball machines can be expensive, but they are a good way to imitate the patterns of play against another player and work on repetitive motions. You can focus on specific strokes such as forehands, backhands, lobs, and volleys or you can mix it up and set the machine to oscillate to vary the shots.
It’s worth repeating, however, that you should only use these practice methods once you have a good grasp of the fundamentals. Once you have a basic understanding of the techniques employed in each stroke, then you can practice them regularly to improve your form.
Do You Need to be Athletic to Play Tennis?
Good athletes have the ability to pick up sports more quickly, and tennis is no exception. However, it’s less important in tennis than in many other sports. Those who are less naturally athletic can still excel in tennis if they are willing to work hard and practice regularly.
While athleticism is not an absolute requirement, good conditioning and mobility can be important factors in your development as a player. Try to work on your conditioning as much as possible both on and off the tennis court. Jogging, plyometrics and other types of tennis conditioning exercises can help.
Mobility can be developed playing tennis regularly, but if you play other sports such as soccer or basketball, these can help you develop your footwork even further. Other racket sports, such as racquetball or squash, can also help you better develop your ability to move on the court and you’re your hand-eye coordination.
Watch Tennis Whenever Possible
Watching professional tennis can be extremely useful. You’ll get to see how the game is played at the highest level and possibly pick up some tips from the best in the game. While some of the techniques professional tennis players use are very advanced, there are also aspects of their game which are based on the same fundamentals you are learning. They have just perfected them.
Of course, you need to be reasonable with your expectations when watching the pros play on TV or in person. While they make the game look easy at times, it is anything but. You will not be able to do what they do when starting out, and this has the potential to lead to frustration.
But, remind yourself that to get to that level, they have had to practice for decades. And, only after putting in grueling hours of hard work every day for that period of time were they able to get to the level that they are at. If you are willing to put in the hard work over the years, then you too have the potential to become an accomplished player.
In addition to watching the pros, you have the opportunity to watch players at the college level or to watch local USTA tournament or season matches. Even watching your peers play can give you insight on things to do, as well as things not to do. Learn by watching others and try to incorporate what you learn into your own practices or matches.
Develop a Love for the Game
It goes without saying that to stay committed to any sport or activity, you need to love what you do. Tennis is an easy game to love as long as you don’t get initially frustrated. It’s an opportunity to meet others who share the same interests and share some words of encouragement during the learning process.
Those who are more serious about becoming skilled players will want to focus on practicing regularly and working hard on improving. However, for some, tennis can simply be an opportunity to go out and have some fun with friends and share a few laughs. There is nothing wrong with that.
How hard it will be to learn tennis will partly depend on how serious you want to be about your development and how high you set your goals. Someone who wants to become an advanced competitive player will find it extremely challenging to reach that level. Conversely, someone who is playing more to have a good time with friends can reach a level they are happy with more quickly.
Regardless of which path you chose, you should develop a love for the game. The more you play, practice, and watch tennis on TV or live, the more you will absorb and learn to appreciate the sport. Once you develop a love for tennis, it will become a part of you, and you will wonder how you managed to live so long without it.
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