The story behind tennis

In baseball, you may hear a player call out "I've got it!" as a fly-ball plummets toward the outfield. In golf, you may hear the yell of "Fore!" after a golfer tees off. And some French royal once called out "Tenez!" as they played handball. A form of the French verb tenir, which means "to hold," "tenez" roughly translates to "Look out! I'm about to whack this little ball!" Racquets were eventually added to the game, and the name tennis stuck.

Tennis and the various racquet sports actually go way back. The ancient Greeks played a tennis-like game called sphairistike. Shakespeare referenced the sport in his play, Henry V, and King Henry VIII himself had courts built in some of his palaces.

These days, tennis is played and watched by millions of people around the world. Whether you play on the ryegrass courts of Wimbledon, on clay or on plain old concrete, tennis is a high-energy sport that can build agility, strength, and endurance. And while it's challenging to master all the finer points of the game, tennis can be played for the pure joy of running around and whacking a little ball with a racquet.

The benefits of tennis

  • Do the stop-and-start: Tennis gives you the chance to do quick bursts of intense activity, like running for the ball, and then rest between serves and shots. In fitness lingo, this sort of thing is called interval training, and it's good for your heart, enhances muscle performance, and helps to burn calories.
  • Have so much fun you forget to count calories: Unlike a session on the exercise bike, a good tennis match won't have you watching the clock or mentally counting the calories you're burning. Nope, a good tennis match will have you caught up in the arc and fall of the ball, the chase to retrieve the ball in the backcourt, and the quick advance to the net. The benefit naturally increases along with the intensity of play, but you don't have to have a vigorous volley going to burn calories.
  • Net a better brain: Tennis challenges your reflexes, forcing you to act, to react, and to make tactical maneuvers. As that ball floats or hurtles toward you and your racquet, you have only a few seconds to think, plan, and position yourself to make the best return shot possible. Your brain-nerve connections may be getting as much conditioning as your muscles.
  • Get a grand slam workout: Tennis is one of those "all-around" kinds of sports. It works so many muscle groups and engages so many skills of dexterity, balance, and endurance. One study even revealed that people who participated in 3 hours a week of moderately vigorous physical activity that included tennis split their risk of death "from any cause" in half.
    If you play with good form, you can strengthen your muscles and increase your flexibility. All the sprinting and changing of direction required in tennis will tone the muscles in your arms and legs.

The warnings about tennis

  • You may need training: Running around, just lobbing the ball back and forth is fun. But proper training and good form could multiply your health benefits and decrease your chances of injury. Consider a coach for private lessons or look into classes at gyms and community centres. Some gyms even have group classes called cardio-tennis. These classes will get you moving and swinging, but probably aren't the place to learn grips and shots.
  • You have to warm up and hydrate: Stretching before you play is essential. Not only will it help to prevent injury, it'll get you loosened up and limber. Simple exercises like squats and lunges could also get you ready for a match. Keep water handy and take breaks whenever you feel you need it. Don't push yourself; even Venus Williams needs a water break and a breather now and then.
  • You should prepare to play fetch: Bring plenty of balls along with you during your first sessions. Until you get the hang of it, you'll be shagging (tennis-speak for "chasing") tons of wayward balls that roll into the backcourt, not to mention the volleys that bounce into nearby fields, streets, parking lots, or neighbour's backyards.
  • You may need to take caution on the court: Tennis is a sport that can be adapted to the needs and ability levels of any potential player. Injuries are possible if you're not careful, and tennis elbow can occur. You should check with your doctor before trying tennis or any exercise regimen if you:
    • experience chest pain or dizziness during physical activity
    • have heart disease, high or low blood pressure, or a pacemaker
    • have rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, joint replacements, or a history of chronic joint pain
    • have had surgery within the past year

What you need for tennis

  • Tennis balls: As mentioned above, bring lots of them! Those little balls of felt, rubber, and air can really bounce.
  • Racquet: Racquet choice is subject to personal preference. The size you choose may depend on your own size, especially when it comes to the racquet's "grip." Beginners often opt for racquets with a larger "head." A larger head offers you a larger "sweet spot," the name for that area on a racquet that gives you the best wallop and power. Smaller framed racquets offer more precision, while longer racquets give you more reach. The longer the reach, though, the tougher it can be to control the racquet.
  • Shoes: Tennis can be rough on your feet and on the shoes you choose. If you're simply playing for fun and fitness, just choose shoes that feel comfortable and offer some shock absorption and support to your ankles.
  • A court: Lots of public parks have tennis courts, as do gyms and community centres.
  • A partner: If you enjoy playing or practicing alone, you can always play or practice against a wall. Otherwise, true tennis takes at least two players. Grab three friends and make it a doubles match. The thing about tennis is you and your opponent or partner are in it together. Tennis is like dancing - it relies on the back-and-forth rhythm that you create with your opponent.

Inspiration to get you going

  • "A perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility." - Billie Jean King
  • "Tennis and golf are best played, not watched." - Roger Kahn
  • "The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight." - Arthur Ashe
  • "Sometimes you must make errors in order to make progress." - Justine Henin

Amy Toffelmire