As infuriating as golf, as physical as squash, as rewarding as safe-cracking, tennis is not just for Wimbledon fortnight, but works just as well in the other 50 weeks of the year – providing you know how to keep it going and where to play…
1. Get on the track
It’s no use hitting like a monster if you lumber towards incoming shots like one, too. Work on your court speed with running repetitions – Andy Murray does them, and if it’s good enough for a Wimbledon champion, it’s good enough for you. A simple (to remember, if not to do) workout is 10 x 400m on a flat stretch of road or an athletics track. Warm up with a mile of gentle running, then blast out 10 repetitions with a 90-second recovery between each one, during which you can walk, jog very slowly or just visualise acing your way to a Grand Slam victory. Whatever works for you.
2. Hit the gym
A good tennis game relies on short, explosive efforts, running towards the ball, turning quickly, doing it again. And again. And again. Work on your explosive power in the gym with plyometric exercises – box jumps with increasing height as you gain confidence, split lunge jumps where you switch from one leg to the other, star jumps – jumps are all good. Rotational exercises are also important, as is core work, and a Swiss ball workout ticks both those boxes.
3. Lift heavy things
If you are aiming to be at your best for summer games, then consider the winter as the time you lay your foundations, building strength through the whole body. Squats, bench presses, lunges, shoulder presses, curls, cable wood chops – all using weight or resistance – will target the key muscles. As the spring approaches, build on that strength with increased weights, but fewer reps. Then, as your actual competitive season arrives, switch to your plyometric drills or workouts.
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Think of those pictures of Boris Becker flying near-horizontally through the air to make a winning volley. Then think of yourself, sitting on your arse at a desk all day. Not ideal preparation for an evening game. Try a regular yoga class – not only will it improve your flexibility but it’s also particularly good for helping tennis elbow. If you’re already a budding yogi, poses that are particularly good for tennis are Downward Dog, the Triangle pose and the oddly named Cow Face Pose, where your arms meet behind your back – ideal for stretching out overworked shoulders. The meditative and relaxation element of yoga could also help your mental game. Imagine what John McEnroe could have done, if only he’d signed up to Bikram.
5. Sharpen up the mind
Remember Jana Novotna’s famous collapse against Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final? Talent was not the issue – as Novotna was shown all too brutally, tennis can be a mind match as much as a physical one. So use the quieter months to prepare your mental game. “Tennis begins off the court,” says Brad Gilbert in his must-read classic, Winning Ugly. “Smart players observe what’s going on and analyse the information.” And when it comes to tennis shots, it’s not just about what you do, it’s when you do it.” Try visualising your best shots, and working out what went wrong when it all went pear-shaped.
6. Get matched up
The odds that you’ve got a mate at the same standard, who lives locally and is free at the same time, seem vanishingly small. Outsource the problem to modern technology, with one of the new social networks that aim to pair up people for a game. There’s tennispartner.co.uk and letsplaytennis.co.uk for the whole of the UK, openplay.co.uk just for London and localtennisleagues.com for ongoing competitions. And, of course, there’s an app for that – Tennis Buddy uses your location to find partners all over the world, so you can pack your racquet when you travel too
7. Find your kind of club
A lot of people are put off by the idea that tennis clubs are only for those rich in both cash and time. Certainly some – though not all – have prohibitive fees and waiting lists as long as Novak Djokovic’s reach. Do ask at your local one, though, because you might be surprised at how reasonable some can be, with off-peak reductions often available. Local councils also put on their own coaching sessions – as does Tennis For Free (TFF), a community sports charity. It has weekly, family oriented and coach-led sessions in parks around the country, as well as offering free court access.
8. Find a new toy
Many a tennis genius – Djokovic included – honed their game by whacking a ball against a wall for hours at a time. But don’t worry, you don’t even need to find exposed brickwork or a disused garage. Instead, buy a “tennis trainer” – a simple frame with a ball suspended on elastic in the middle – for £30 and spend those lonely tennis hours sharpening up your reactions. It’s the adult version of swingball.
9. Consider that coaching
It might not be the cheap option, but if you are really keen to improve your game, nothing can beat a good coach. The Lawn Tennis Association has a directory of coaches based across the UK and many of these will do group sessions, which would help keep your budget down. Prices do vary, but a rough estimate would be £30 for an hour of solo coaching – less, of course, if you share. On the other hand, you could also stay indoors, glued to your computer – there are some really good coaching videos online to help you master technical aspects of the game.
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10. Tough it out
Many park courts in the UK are made of concrete and are, therefore, better suited to ice skating than acing, come January. But few of us have access to indoor courts, and as long as black ice isn’t actually forming, there’s nothing to stop you playing. Dress warm in multiple layers that you can discard as you heat up, and remember to adjust your game: in really cold weather the ball will move slower through the air and have less bounce. The canny player can use this to their advantage, adding slice and perfecting their drop shot.
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Kate Carter is an experienced writer and editor, as well as a dedicated runner. Kate worked at The Guardian for 12 years, establishing and running the successful Running Blog. She contributed to Coach magazine between 2015 and 2016, and has also written for World Athletics, Runners World and Women & Home, among others. Kate has also worked as a presenter on The Running Channel. Kate holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon in a full-body animal costume (female), having run the 2019 London Marathon in 3hr 48min 32sec dressed as a panda.