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What Kind of Shape Can Tennis Get Me In?

That Andre Agassi certainly looked great in a pair of shorts

It’s the day after Christmas, and you once again find yourself sitting around in a dazed stupor, sipping fully-loaded eggnog while thinking about creative ways to turn your annual New Year’s weight-loss resolution into a promise that you’ll finally be able to keep. That’s when it suddenly dawns on you that fitness might become a more achievable objective if it came wrapped in a fun-filled package with a sporty bow around it. 

Seizing upon your rare moment of inspiration, you begin to mentally sift through the sports you’ve seen your adult friends involved in. You don’t see yourself running outside for any reason whatsoever unless someone is literally chasing you. Swimming is out of the question since you never learned how to do it, and bowling and golf don’t exactly scream “fitness.” 

It’s at this moment when you’re reminded that you know plenty of adult tennis players who are in phenomenal shape, and chasing around a fuzzy green ball and whacking it as hard as you can seems like a far more stimulating activity than jogging aimlessly on a treadmill and waiting for each agonizing second to tick past.

But is your perception accurate? Will playing tennis actually enable you to get in better shape?

For an answer, I turned to Rachael James-Baker. After a stellar tennis career in which she played for North Carolina State University, Baylor University and the University of North Carolina, James-Baker is now the head tennis coach at William Peace University, and instructs aspiring tennis players privately through her Durham-based enterprise, Bull City Tennis. She also recently found the time to provide me with a detailed explanation of just how quickly a couch potato could train their way into a state of respectable court readiness.

If someone who has never played tennis before walks up to you and tells you that they want to play tennis because they want to get in shape, what do you say to them?

I’d say, “Great! It’s really going to help with your cardio and your agility. You’ll get in great shape playing tennis.”

How long would it take a person who is starting from scratch to learn the tennis skills that would enable them to burn some serious calories through training?

If you have an hour to train, it would really depend on what you choose to do during that hour. For instance, if you’re getting out there and you’re playing a match and neither of you knows how to be consistent, you’re going to hit the ball, and then someone is going to miss, and you’re going to walk to the next ball. But if you’re doing something like cardio tennis, you’re going to burn way more calories. 

What’s cardio tennis?

Cardio tennis is an hour-long clinic that’s geared toward high-intensity intervals that incorporate movements that are all tennis specific. We use stepladders, hurdles and weights, and we hit tennis balls as well. We do drills. We do four sets of 30-second-to-one-minute rotations, and then you grab water. 

That’s something that beginners can do, and I’d highly advise them to do it. It helps them develop their conditioning, but it also helps them develop court awareness. When you’re a beginner, sometimes you have no idea where you’re standing on the court after you hit the bell. It helps beginners to develop that awareness a little better, and the drills help to reinforce tennis technique. It builds the muscles that they’re going to be using in tennis in a very tennis-specific way.

What do you do to maintain your conditioning to compete?

I don’t have the time to be as dedicated as I was in college, but I still try to do the same things I would have done when I trained at NC State, Baylor or UNC. My dad is a strength and conditioning coach, and he gives me workouts. He worked at some well-known tennis facilities in South Florida. He was also the head track coach at the University of Toledo and coached some Olympians.

I’ll do sprints and fartleks. I’ll do two sets of six sprints that are like 100-meters long. So I’ll sprint 100 meters and jog back. Then I’ll do a medicine ball exercise. Then I’ll do a sprint, jog back and do another medicine ball exercise.

Do you do any sort of distance running?

Maybe on recovery days or days I have off I’ll do a 10-minute jog so that I don’t get too sore. When I played in college, we did other things to develop our cardiovascular systems. Like the last-man-up run. It’s when you have a line of people jogging, and the person in the back has to sprint up toward the front. So you’re always jogging at a minimum, but then there are sprint intervals built into it.

What would you say are the main skills, in addition to conditioning, that someone needs in order to become a great tennis player?

Your tennis IQ needs to be pretty good. That’s developed over time. Some people naturally have a higher tennis IQ than others. They just get it. I was going to say hand-eye coordination, but typically everyone who plays tennis develops good hand-eye coordination after about a year or so. 

I’d say another thing that really separates someone is discipline. There are levels of discipline, and you need to stay disciplined to do the right techniques, strategy or footwork that’s going to eventually help you to become the best player that you can be. 

Have you personally witnessed people work their way into shape solely through playing tennis?

Of course! But I feel like it all depends on what being in shape means to you. For some people, being in shape means they’re at a healthy weight and able to be out on the court for two hours playing a match. For someone else, it might mean getting more cut and playing longer points; it’s not just being at a healthy weight. But, yes, I do see people getting in better shape just from playing tennis. They’ll be able to stay on the court for a long time. They’ll be able to go out on jogs and feel better about themselves. They’re going to feel better with their legs. In tennis, you have to use your legs a lot, but also your upper body and core to swing. It works all of those major muscle groups so you’ll feel better all the way around.

Tennis is a sport that can get almost anyone in shape. You just have to keep sticking with it. It may get hard because it’s a technical sport, and you’ll have to develop your technique. But it’s a sport that you can keep for life that will keep you in shape for life. And it doesn’t matter what age you are. It’s a sport that anybody can do and have fun doing for the rest of their life.