A tennis match, even played between friends, can and should be an intense workout that conditions the whole body. Yet, players often turn tennis into a game of strategy, and the physical conditioning suffers as a result.
“Tennis isn’t a mental game, it’s physical,” says Bill Wright, former men’s tennis head coach at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Arizona. “If you want a mental workout, go play a game of chess.”
Wright should know. The longtime collegiate and junior’s tennis coach had an epiphany during his 12-year stint at Cal State. Players were often over-coached and the spontaneous, physical nature of the game was lost.
Don’t Let Your Mind Get in the Way
In tennis, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the mental strategy and forget that your body is supposed to do all the work. “Your mind plays tricks on you,” Wright says. When that happens, “the physical part suffers, and before you know it your body is fatigued.”
If a player isn’t in shape—a goal they might reach by turning tennis into a workout—then they will likely become fatigued sooner than expected.
Wright’s advice? Acknowledge that fatigue and then turn your attention to your body. Focus on actually getting to the ball.
“Instead of thinking about where you want the shot to go, first relax, move to the ball, bend down and complete the stroke,” Wright says. “It’s about hitting the ball correctly and using your body to accomplish that. Not worrying about hitting it to the wrong spot.”
Involve Your Whole Body
Watch how a top-tier tennis player moves. They don’t just run. They use their entire body to react quickly, jump, stretch, reach, sprint and make sudden changes in direction.
When their racquet connects with the ball, they’re not just using their arm. They take the racquet head back with their arm, elbow and body. Meanwhile, their body has turned; and they’ve shifted their weight to the rear leg in the backswing. And they explode forward with their legs and reach and stretch towards their target.
The end result is an aerobic tennis workout. By letting your body loose on the court, you can get a better workout and ultimately improve your fitness level and game, Wright says.
Get Away From the Ball
Most players, sitting back on the baseline, will move right or left in a straight line to the ball. And why not? It’s usually the quickest path; it’s efficient and seems to save energy.
That might be true, but when a player gets to the side of a ball, they can get too close. The stroke becomes awkward and power is lost.
Instead, once a player sees where the ball is going, Wright suggests running behind it and then moving forward. From there, the player has the momentum and power to hit a better shot, and they will likely get a better workout.
Standing stock upright, knees barely bent with the weight on the backs of your heels makes it nearly impossible to hit the ball correctly. And yet, so many tennis players are engaged in this very practice.
Instead, players should feel the court beneath them, move and bend low before pushing forward toward your target, Wright suggests in his book Aerobic Tennis. This is an especially effective workout method when a player is volleying at the net.
At the net, players should focus on picking up their feet and move. A player should hear their forward foot hit the ground as they move ahead and get low. If you do, you know you’re transferring your weight.