(Photo: iStock)

    Game, set, match: how to improve your tennis

    1 June 2020

    “I might have a million things swimming round my head, but when I step onto the tennis court, it’s just me and the ball. It’s almost like meditating,” says tennis pro turned coach, Jo Ward. The former British number two has been entranced by tennis since her first lesson at the age of 13. “I went home that evening and I thought of nothing else. I’ve been that way ever since.”

    Describing tennis as “the full package” Jo explains: “The physicality is exhilarating – we’re running, jumping, diving, sliding, and the whole thing is happening at such a quick pace. You’re smashing the ball 100 miles an hour, but then there’s the finesse of playing touch shots, so it has everything.”

    For Jo, competing on the iconic courts of SW19 was petrifying, exhilarating, and magical. “If you love tennis, then by default, you love Wimbledon, because the two are synonymous. First and foremost I consider myself a fan, so the opportunity to play at Wimbledon, and in some small way feel you’ve been a part of the history of the place, is really special.”

    With outdoor tennis courts offering us a reprieve from the restrictions of lockdown, who better than a five-time Wimbledon doyenne to get us out of our pyjamas and into our tennis whites? Here are Jo’s tips…

    Respect the warm-up

    People are so keen to get going, they want to start running round like lunatics, whacking tennis balls about at 100 miles an hour, as soon as they come on court. But it’s so important to look after your body, and if you go in too quickly at the beginning, you can get injured. The first ten minutes of your session should enable you to sustain the other 50 minutes at full speed. With a car, you wouldn’t try to drive at motorway speed as soon as you start the engine. So get your body going slowly – warm up with gentle, progressively intense activity like dynamic stretches, and ease your way into full throttle.

    Bottoms up

    Make sure you’re ready for the incoming ball. A lot of players look like they’re waiting for a bus rather than a tennis ball. You see their feet too close together, their legs too straight, and their weight slightly held back – it’s such a difficult position to start any movement from. If Usain Bolt started his 100m race in that position, he’d come last, despite being a phenomenal athlete. Whether you’re on court at Wimbledon, or knocking about in the park, tennis is a challenging sport – that’s why it’s so important to have a good “ready position”. Aim for that classic Wimbledon position of bum out, swaying around, looking like you’re ready to pounce on the ball.

    Are you being served?

    The most important thing to get right for the serve is the ball toss. It needs to be directly in front of you (no more than a foot forward of your front foot) and high enough for you to hit at full stretch. You get unlimited attempts to get it right before you strike so be sure to take your time.

    One way you can practice this is to stand under a basketball or netball hoop and see if you can aim your ball toss up through the hoop. Kids can also try this using a hula hoop held up high by a parent or coach. This will help you consistently place the ball in the right place before hitting your serve.

    But don’t forget, if you’re really struggling, you can always use an underarm serve instead.

    Roger Federer’s fastest recorded serve is 143 mph and he has an average speed of 128.5 to 130 mph (Photo:Getty)

    Beginner’s Luck

    If you’re a beginner, get a racket that isn’t too heavy, and tennis balls that aren’t too bouncy, then get on court and have a go, starting close to the net. Don’t try to go full on Serena Williams – just tap the ball and try to get some gentle rallies. Start with three, then four, then five, with both of you taking a step back from the net as you progress. That’s a nice way of getting on court and learning it. To fast-track your improvement, book a lesson with a coach (they’re available on an individual basis during lockdown).

    If the shoe fits

    Tennis involves a lot of lateral movement – it’s nearly all sideways. You need a shoe that supports you laterally, not just in a linear movement. Running shoes aren’t ideal, Converse won’t give you much support, and cross trainers can be too grippy – the friction with the court can jar you when you change direction. If you own more than one pair of fitness shoes, take a couple of pairs with you and see what works best. If you’re playing regularly, get your feet measured, and get tennis shoes that fit you properly. Some are better for a wider foot, while others are better for a narrow foot, so find what’s right for you.

    Eye on the ball

    Improving your reading skills (aka your ball tracking skills) will help you anticipate where the ball’s going to bounce, making it easier for you to position yourself when it’s coming in to you. The better you get at tracking the incoming ball, the quicker you’ll master tennis. Practise by placing a water bottle in the middle of the court, and working your eyes to track the incoming ball. If you think the ball is going to bounce shorter than the water bottle, shout “short” and if you think it’s going to be longer, shout “long.” You can also do this with left/right and high/low, but it always has to be binary – don’t call out multiple things or you’ll get brain-fry.

    Raise your game

    Take your game up a notch by watching a video of yourself, to understand your tennis identity. You want to know who you are on a tennis court, what your skills are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what your game style is. Once you’ve got this information, you can use it to your advantage against your opponent. For example, if you notice your forehand is much better than your backhand, you might stand off centre to make more of the court your forehand space, and less of the court your backhand space.

    Find an LTA tennis court or coach near you:

    Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.