Posted On Oct 03, 2016
Tennis is a fun and effective way to stay fit for decades to come. You’ll look great in tennis whites.
My husband really loves playing tennis. He’s not a big athlete or even a sports fan, but he plays tennis every chance he gets. I find this fascinating for many reasons—not the least of which being that I am terrible at tennis. Always have been. I took lessons when I was 14 years old and it was quickly evident that there was nothing natural about me swinging a tennis racket. In all my adolescent wisdom, I gave it up and never looked back. However, the thought that my husband and I could potentially stay fit and engage in some loving competition through the game of tennis has enticed me back to the court. I’ve even scheduled a trial lesson at our gym.
According to Dr. Carol L. Otis, former chief medical advisor to the Sanex Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour, I’m going about it the right way. “Tennis is a technical game. It’s important to take a lesson when starting out,” she says. My instructor, tennis pro Jake Agna, agrees. At the start of my first lesson, I expected a historical rundown or some demonstrations. Instead, he shook my hand, gave me a racket, and said, “Hi there. Let’s hit a few balls.”
Though it was somewhat intimidating at first, I quickly realized that it was the perfect approach. By attempting to play the game I gained a clearer sense of what I needed to learn. Both Agna and Dr. Otis speak about the need to develop a smooth stroke if I want to play well and avoid injury. Dr. Otis refers to this as developing the proper kinetic chain. “It’s important to look at the total body so that it’s linked together as a smooth force to hit the ball,” Otis says. “Muscling it through or trying to hit with just your wrist actually causes imbalance over time.”
I felt the effects of imbalance firsthand right after my lesson. It was my dominant shoulder, a common injury site, and it was such a specific kind of soreness that it had to have a name. Dr. Otis informed me it was my rotator cuff muscles crying out in pain. Dr. Otis includes this muscle group in her list of the “big three” that are important to strengthen if you’re planning on picking up a racket. The other two: core (ab) muscles and the tibialis anterior muscles on the front of the shins. As a frequent shin splint sufferer, I was happy to hear Dr. Otis bring attention
to this group of oft-ignored little workhorses. One simple way to strengthen this group is to sit in a chair with your knees bent and tap your toes while keeping your heels on the floor. “After about 25 or 35 reps you’ll start to feel a burn. It’s just amazing,” says Dr. Otis. “We don’t train them very much and it’s pretty easy to strengthen them.”
Sticking with the balance theme, Dr. Otis stresses the importance of stretching a triplet of complementary muscle groups: the front part of the shoulder, or pectoralis major muscles; the muscles of the lower back; and the calf muscles and achilles tendon. All of these can and should be stretched in a dynamic way, meaning that you get blood flowing first through some light jogging or skipping around the court. “In a way, you’re simulating the movement that you’re going to do while playing tennis and gradually getting those muscle groups warmed
up and recruited,” says Dr. Otis. This makes the stretch more effective.
Caring for your body in these ways can make tennis a lifelong sport. “You can play at many different rates of movement, if you’re willing to adjust,” says Agna, 60—a tennis pro for 41 years who has played with people in their eighties and nineties. In my new quest to be a person still hitting the ball well and looking cute in my tennis whites at age 80, my focus comes back to the here-and-now: my beginning. “Tennis is complicated,” Dr. Otis says. “You’re using a lot of systems together that have to be integrated. But if you put in the work at the beginning and really learn the correct stroke, it stays with you.”
My teenage self wasn’t so keen on putting those hours in, but the late-thirties version found a ton of enjoyment in the complications of tennis. So I’ll be out there on the court, aligning my kinetic chain and hitting ball after ball in the name of lifelong fitness. And, it turns out, having a bunch of fun at the same time.