The reasons tennis is the perfect summer sport: You get to play outside in the fresh air. It requires minimal equipment. And—the best part—it’s inherently physically distanced, so you can still battle it out with friends right this minute. Is it any wonder the sport has seen a huge resurgence as people look to safely escape their homes? But even those of us who play often can use some pointers.
Enter tennis guru Adam Burbary, the founder and owner of Game-Set-Match, Inc. who has helped more than 50,000 Coloradans up their game. (The racquet sports mecca counts a Centennial store among its four Colorado locations.) Whether you’re getting back into the sport after a long hiatus or looking to boost your skills to Federer levels now that you’re rallying more often, here are seven ways to become a better tennis player.
Strings are like rubber bands: They begin to lose tension as soon as they’re attached to the racket, which forces you, the player, to work harder to hit the ball with the same power. “Restringing gives you the ability to enjoy the game a bit more,” Burbary says. “Just tuning it up is going to make a big difference.” If you play regularly—say, two times a week—restring your racket twice a year; at minimum, swap out your strings annually. Also consider cleaning or replacing your grip so you can grasp more easily.
YOU’VE BEEN SERVED
Your serve is the only aspect of the game that you have total control over, so take the time to work on your stroke. Burbary advises developing a few different serves (try varying the speed or placement just slightly) and practicing them over and over. “You’ve got to hit 10,000 serves to get that serve you want,” he says. But don’t forget: To win the point, your next shot—your “serve +1,” as Burbary calls it—can be equally important. So, instead of ogling at your serve, prepare for the return by anticipating where the ball is going and staying in motion (see “Fancy Feet”).
Improving your positioning can have a big impact on your time on the court, something that even the best of us have a tendency to forget: “Footwork is the skill that gets lost,” Burbary says. Taking smaller steps allows you to transfer your weight evenly and make adjustments more easily, he explains. This fluid footwork (remember to keep your knees in-line with your toes) also translates to a quicker first step, meaning you’re reaching the ball faster. Plus, “it’s a much better workout,” Burbary says.
PRACTICE YOUR ABCS
Ball tracking is vital in tennis, and a skill even an expert like Burbary continues to practice: By improving ball tracking, serves and shots will become both more powerful and more coordinated. Burbary runs through a drill called “letter ball” with his fitness and nutrition therapist, Missi Bantner. Here’s how it works: Write capital letters in five or six spots on a tennis ball so that you can see a letter from every angle. Toss the ball softly in the air and follow it with your eyes; pay attention to what letter you see as you catch it. (Play catch with a friend to make it a little more fun.) Toss in all directions and catch with both hands, being sure not to add too much spin to your tosses.
Once you tire of that, mimic your tennis serve by throwing the ball up in the air. Move through your normal serve progression—sans racket—and take note of the letter you see when you catch the ball with your arm fully extended overhead. Start imitating slowly and then pick up speed. Advance the practice by including your racket.
BUT ALSO: PERFECTION IS OVERRATED
One of the most important lessons Burbary has learned is to relax and stop trying to be so precise. “I was working so much on my form and technique that I ended up being kind of like a ball machine and hitting the perfect height ball,” he says. “If you change it up—if you’re OK with not hitting the perfect shot—it’s probably harder for people [to return]. … You’ve got to enjoy tennis and not take it so seriously.”
What’s on your feet? If they’re not court shoes, it’s time to go shopping. Tennis-specific shoes provide lateral support, which can improve your game and make playing much more enjoyable. Replace your kicks annually, Burbary says, or buy a couple of pairs and rotate between them. (Game-Set-Match sells about 40 men’s and women’s styles each.)
STRETCH IT OUT
If you really want to improve your tennis game, consider what you’re doing off the court. Burbary credits Pilates and stretching with helping him maintain his skills now that he’s in his mid-fifties. Everyone should focus on flexibility, he encourages, if they want to stay active at any age. These two stretches work in tandem to open up your hips and low back.
1. LYING SHIN BOX (pictured above)
FOCUSES ON: Mobilization of lumbar rotation, femur rotation and stretching the hip flexors.
HOW TO: Lay on your back and extend your arms out straight from the shoulders. Place palms down on the floor. Bend the knees and set feet hip-width apart on the floor. Exhale as you slowly drop legs toward the floor to the right—only going as far as you can without pain, force or discomfort. Keep the spine long and the opposite shoulder on the floor. Switch sides. Repeat one to two times per side.
PRO TIP: Holding the shin box position, focus on breathing deeply—down into the belly—for several breaths.
2. LYING TIGHT CROSS (pictured above)
FOCUSES ON: The deep glutes and hamstring muscles that aid in hip stabilization, power and gait.
HOW TO: Lay on your back, bend knees and set your feet on the floor. Cross the right ankle over the left knee and use your hands to first pull the right knee up toward the chest, then across toward the left shoulder. For a deeper stretch, lift the left leg off the ground to increase the sensation along the right glutes and hamstrings. Breathe deeply and slowly. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat on the other side.
PRO TIP: Customize intensity by pressing the right hip toward the floor as you hold the knee in position, an opposing action that will increase the stretch.
GO TO THE PROS