Tennis, as any avid player will tell you, can be one of the most satisfying games in the world one minute and one of the most frustrating the next. It’s hard to beat the triumphant feeling of a well-struck passing shot down the line for a winner as your opponent charges the net in vain. On the other hand, nothing can be as deflating as a straightforward groundstroke hit inexplicably into the net or a foot or more past the baseline. What explains such a disparity in performance from day to day and even from game to game? The answer may be simpler than you think.
Having proper mechanics is, of course, a prerequisite to success in any sport. If your techniques and movements are fundamentally sound, you will have (barring total strategic foolishness!) a solid and respectable game. So then, one key to a consistently good game is figuring out why those proper techniques and movements sometimes disappear and taking corrective action. Assuming you know the fundamentals of serving, groundstrokes and volleying, here is one of the simplest reasons your game fails you at times.
Success in Real Estate, it is said, depends upon three things: location, location, location. In tennis, simply substitute position, position, position. In addition to possessing proper mechanics, an absolute essential of good tennis is a player’s movement – the actual physical positioning of one’s body – on the court. That is, getting to the ball on time and then assuming the proper posture to strike it. This requires relatively good mobility and a wide range of body positions, depending upon the shot. All that said, too many players I know arrive at the court, do a few side-to-side stretches, a deep knee bend or two and maybe a couple toe-touchers then jump out onto the court and start swinging away. Since the margin for error is greater in a sport in which an extension of the body is being used – i.e., a bat, a hockey stick, a racket – why handicap yourself further by not being physically prepared to use it? In other words, the more limber your body, the more physically capable you will be of running to the ball, bending your knees, swinging with a full range of motion and thereby executing a proper shot.
Tennis is generally a very unforgiving sport. If your knees aren’t flexed quite enough on a low return, or your arm is not properly extended and firm on a volley at the net, or you reach down for a shot instead of bending at the waist and knees, the results will be both undesirable and frustrating more often than not. When frustration begins to negatively affect your focus, all is lost. If you haven’t experienced that firsthand, listen to any tennis commentator when a player starts to lose his cool on the court. Fundamentals go out the window and lead to poor shots and poor decisions which lead to…more frustration. Those of us who take the game seriously and enjoy good, competitive matches at our local clubs or parks have all experienced that vicious cycle. Just watch a pro tournament and see how many times even supposedly composed professionals yell at themselves or bounce their racket off the ground in frustration due to an errant shot. And they practice their mechanics for hours a day! They have consciously reminded themselves of proper positioning of their bodies for a shot for so many years that they reach a point where it has become unconscious. Whatever point you are at along that continuum, consider the fact that these tour players, as great as they are, don’t just blow in from off the street, change clothes, and head on out to the court. They realize the importance of warming up their bodies to the point where they can bend or stretch to any position dictated by the shot they must make. By way of analogy: If I swing a baseball bat harder than any major leaguer in history, it does me no good unless my body is in the proper position to precisely execute that swing upon a pitch.
So do yourself a favor. Prepare your body to execute some of the strenuous and precise movements you’ll be asking of it once you’re on the tennis court. Take extra time to stretch leg, shoulder, arm and back muscles. Take a lap or two around the court or run in place. This will not only increase your flexibility but will raise your body temperature and prepare your cardiovascular system as well. Swing your racket for a minute or two using the motions of serve, forehand, backhand and volley and remind yourself of the proper mechanics as you do so. Do these motions slowly with the cover on for a minute or two then again at your normal swing speed with the cover off. Open and close your racket hand thirty to fifty times then grip and release the handle of your racket several times as you would a stress ball in order to warm up hand and forearm muscles. Preparing your joints and muscles can make a significant difference in performance. A few additional degrees of knee bend or a full arm extension can make all the difference in striking the ball well. Be ready to bend low for that half-volley or to fully extend for that overhead. You’ll find that the shots you anticipate hitting in your mind’s eye will be realized much more often. Moreover, post-match effects – soreness and even tendonitis – can be avoided or lessened by preparing the joints and muscles for the stress and shock it will receive over the course of several sets of tennis.
Of course, all the stretching in the world won’t do any good if your muscles aren’t properly nourished. Do all you can to keep your energy up in a healthy way. Be sure to hydrate yourself with water or, preferably, a good-quality sports drink at least a half hour before you play and keep some on hand while playing. Or bring freshly squeezed orange juice along and take a few sips during side changes. Eat a modest amount of a potassium-rich food, such as a banana, at least an hour or two before playing to help avoid cramping. Help your body maintain its energy and strength as long as possible on the court. Remember, fatigue is the arch enemy of good mechanics and mobility.
This preparation doesn’t take long but it will be invaluable to your game. Ask yourself: Is 5-10 minutes of warmup excessive if it means reducing potential injury and improving performance? And if your partner stands on the other side of the court impatiently tapping his or her foot as you prepare for this demanding sport, suggest that they take some practice serves or, better yet, do some extensive warming up of their own!