What’s your New Year’s resolution for 2023? Play more tennis? Win more matches? Serve faster? Hit harder? Improve consistency? How about one resolution that will help you achieve all of these goals? We’re proposing a commitment to getting into the best tennis shape of your life.
Talk about a win/win proposition. Becoming more fit is great for your overall health. Improving your strength, speed, agility and endurance will make you a better tennis player. While this may sound like a huge ask, it really isn’t. Focusing your workouts on the skills and strengths needed on court can be done with small changes that make a big difference. Keep in mind: The best players don’t play tennis to get in shape, they get in shape to play tennis.
First, Do No Harm
Enthusiasm is great, but don’t let New Year’s resolution fervor cause you to do too much too fast. The last thing we want to do is knock ourselves out of the game with a strain or pull. The injury-prone among us—and we know who we are—must be especially careful. That said, a careful commitment to overall tennis fitness should protect us from injuries in the long run. Smart start: Consult your doctor. Seek out personal trainers or gyms in your area that focus on functional fitness for athletes. These experts can help customize a tennis-enhancing workout. Your tennis instructor might also be able to point you in the right direction—no doubt he or she will be thrilled to learn of your fitness goals.
Fast and FierceTennis is a high-impact sport. We ask a lot of our bodies during a match— stretching for short balls, shuffling back to cover lobs, jumping for high overheads, running corner to corner to cover the baseline—sometimes all in one point. Practicing a variety of shots is important, but maximizing strength and agility will help us hit each one of them better. Improved athleticism is key to reaching an entirely new skill level. Becoming more balanced can also prevent the types of injuries that come from missteps and off-kilter shots—your feet will be under you when you need them. Targeting the many tennis muscle groups—arms, shoulders, core, back, quads, glutes—is best done with expert supervision. Good trainers will work with you, and help devise a workout that you can do on your own. If you haven’t been doing much strength training, start with simple exercises that use your own body weight as resistance. Then add weights and resistance—barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and/or elastic bands—to better work the upper body and add oomph to squats and lunges for lower body strengthening. Circuit training—working through a series of exercises (or weight machines at the gym) is perfect for a holistic approach—you don’t want to neglect a key area. Plus, it’s fast and effective—you don’t need to do tons of 'reps or sets’ to see results, as most trainers will tell you.
Core CurriculumConsider the unit turn. This motion involves a controlled turn of the body in preparation for hitting groundstrokes with proper technique. Supported by a strong core, it allows players to really unleash power into their forehands and backhands. Abdominal strength also enhances stability and enables us to reach up to hit better serves. Pilates classes are perhaps the gold standard of core strengthening methods, but more basic (and less expensive) methods work well, too— think sit-ups, crunches and planks. Add resistance to these exercises by incorporating a medicine ball or weighted plate into your ab routine—but play it safe and start small.
Having trouble closing out matches? Don’t blame your game. After two or three sets of tennis, you might be more tired than you know. Muscle fatigue and waning cardio fitness can lead to a loss of quickness to the ball, erratic serving, a breakdown of form. Errors might creep in, which opens the door to self-doubt. So don’t call the sports psychologist just yet. Hitting the gym regularly might be all the help you need to stay sharp throughout a match. Cross training by adding a variety of activities to your routine is an excellent way to increase endurance and improve your tennis fundamentals. Cycling, indoors or out, improves stamina and leg strength, and it’s easier on the knees than running. (Knees can take a pounding during long, hardcourt matches, so giving them a break makes sense.) Swimming and indoor rowing (on a machine) are both low-impact activities that enhance conditioning and work the shoulders. Boxing classes target endurance and with a focus on footwork. Jumping rope helps us become more agile, balanced and light on our feet, but, again, skip it if your knees have had enough. Tennis cardio classes often offer a nice mix of hitting and footwork drills—a game-improving twofer. Talk to your doctor about setting heart rate goals for your workouts—a more effective and mindful approach to aerobic fitness will help you make real progress and avoid plateaus.
The ‘best tennis shape ever’ has to include a mental component. Feeling more athletic during matches should naturally bolster our confidence. But we can also take steps to improve our mental conditioning—another win/win scenario. Experts say that tennis-centric yoga, deep breathing exercises, guided meditation and t’ai chi can all help us stay focused and calm on court. Yoga and stretching can also help us become more flexible, which might allow us to ‘get to more balls’ than ever before.
Drinking a large iced coffee on the way to a tennis match is not prepping for optimum performance. Most of us don’t have time to structure our entire day around tennis, but let’s not forget that food is fuel. Even if you’re already committed to a healthy diet, a few targeted tweaks could pay dividends. The key is to maximize energy stores in the body with simple carbohydrates and lean proteins and to avoid slowing down the digestive process with fatty foods. (Eat smart the night before a tennis match. A fatty meal could leave you feeling sluggish the morning after, while a carbo load will top the body’s fuel tanks.) The USTA recommends eating a meal of carbs, protein and healthy fats three to four hours before a match (think a turkey sandwich, hummus and pita chips, scrambled eggs and cheese), adding a light carbohydrate-based snack about an hour before it’s time to play.)
And hydration is key—start slowly and sensibly hydrating hours, if not days, before a match. Drinking water on court isn’t enough.
We know our New Year’s resolutions should start on January 1 (or shortly thereafter, depending on how heartily we celebrated). But how? The best way is to set mini-goals. Start by adding a few more minutes to your cardio sessions. Fit an extra short workout (or two) into your week, targeting arm, leg or core strength. Attend a new exercise class that focuses on an interesting cross-training activity—maybe your doubles partner will want to join? As your fitness level increases, the easier it will be to keep going with your commitment. And the easier it will be to play your best tennis yet.