I took up tennis when I was 29, and have been playing for four years now. I’d been told a number of times in the past that I had the body type for tennis (I’m 187 cm tall, and weighed about 92 kg at the time; now I tip the scales at about 87 kg). So I did some research, and it turns out I’m roughly the same size as some of the top tennis players in the world: Roger Federer is 185 cm/85 kg, and Rafael Nadal is 185 cm/85 kg.
Big Brother had taken up tennis as a kid and grew up receiving proper instruction—so much so that in his early twenties he worked as a coach at a resort in Hawaii. By NTRP guidelines, I’m a currently a 3.5, while BigBrother is a 5.5.
BigBrother reassures me that getting to 3.5 in four years is pretty quick. (“Of course," he adds, “that’s what a good coach can do.")
If I had started playing tennis in middle school, I should be right around the high school freshman level, but I feel confident I’m a little more advanced than that.
The other day, at a tennis court in Yokohama, I had a chance to play a friendly match with a college friend who had belonged to tennis club throughout six years of middle school and high school. I ended up winning 6-2, 6-1.
In any case, today I’d like to talk about tennis tips—and trivia—I’ve learned from BigBrother.
If you decide to take up tennis, the first dilemma every player runs into is what kind of gear to choose (I know this from experience).
But BigBrother began by asking me about my intentions. Did I want to play maybe once or twice a week—lead a normal lifestyle (one without serious training) and just enjoy a bit of recreational tennis with former high school tennis player types (men and women)? Or did I want to become the kind of player who entered tournaments and did battle with opponents I did not personally know?
Not being the type to do something halfway, I said in no uncertain terms “I want to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics." Big Brother nodded and said, “Then let’s get started."
From that day forward, he gave me tennis lessons—and training sessions—almost everyday.
When deciding to take up tennis, the most important things to consider are age, stamina, body type, and the level you plan to attain.
3.For Junior Players
From here on out I want to talk about the path to becoming a competitive tennis player. For a kid taking up tennis in kindergarten or elementary school, I recommend buying a kids tennis racket that fits their physical frame, and taking kids lessons at a proper tennis school.
A capable parent may feel qualified to teach their children, but they inevitably become too emotionally invested, and end up teaching from a place of anger or frustration—and the kid ends up despising tennis.
Kids also benefit from taking up other sports in addition to tennis—baseball, soccer, swimming, gymnastics, etc.—in order to start developing a well-balanced physique and athletic ability.
For middle school age teens taking up the sport that intend to play competitive tennis, do not under any circumstances take up what the Japanese call “soft tennis". (Soft tennis is a variation of tennis that developed in Japan, and is played using softer rubber balls and lighter rackets.) Regulation tennis (hereafter referred to as tennis) and soft tennis appear similar but are very different, and soft tennis players develop very distinct soft tennis habits. It becomes very difficult for them to learn how to swing a regulation tennis racket properly.
To be more specific, in soft tennis you swing through using your shoulder, elbow, and wrist in a whipping motion; in tennis you use your hips and lower body to transfer weight and crush the ball. So the motions involved are decidedly different.
The body of a middle school teen is constantly changing, growth spurts and all, making it difficult to make generalizations, but I recommend purchasing a mid-range racket with specs in that “golden" range: 100 in² headsize, and 300 g swingweight.
For girls, I recommend looking into Yonex rackets, which are great for developing a natural swing through the ball. For boys, Prince rackets offer good stability and plough through.
The important thing when it comes to a player’s first racket is actually to buy two—two different models from two different manufacturers.
Tennis rackets have completely different characteristics depending on the grade and the manufacturer, and to truly understand this it is best to have two different rackets.
Regarding strings, at the middle school level I recommend buying monofilament strings—a good bang for your buck—and stringing the racket at less than 45 lbs. The strings should be changed, if possible, every three to six months, even if they do not snap.
When you restring the rackets, try using different strings of different gauges (thickness) from different manufacturers and stringing them at the same tension. This will help you get a feel for the different types of strings that are out there.
For teens who hope to become competitive players, it’s a good idea to upgrade according to level with two new rackets every year.
Rackets may look fine on the outside, but like all things they degrade over time. The secret to improving as a tennis player—and preventing injury—is to replace your strings and upgrade your rackets sooner than later. (Overgrips, for that matter, should be replaced at least once a week.)
●Recommended Monofilament Strings
4.Taking up Tennis in High School
For high school teens taking up tennis for the first time, I recommend buying two intermediate rackets of different weights.
If the player has been playing school sports (baseball, soccer, etc.) throughout middle school or took up tennis in middle school, I recommend buying three to four rackets for advanced players—all different models from different manufacturers.
The player will be developing both physically and in terms of their playing style throughout high school, so if possible they should exchange rackets with friends or otherwise find ways to try out as many different rackets as possible in order to find the one that best suits them.
And added bonus, using a variety of rackets tends to smooth out a player’s tendencies and swing habits.
Regarding strings, I recommend multifilament strings strung between 42-47 lbs. Multifilament strings cost more than the aforementioned monofilaments, but in the end they will better accommodate a player who is still developing physically.
Assuming that the player practices for over four hours a day, strings should be replaced between every one to three months. Once the strings have lost tension or have otherwise begun experiencing wear and tear, you’ll find yourself having to swing harder and harder in order to get the ball where you want it, and you run a higher risk of injuring your wrist, elbow, or shoulder.
For players who hope to become competitive players: if your high school tennis team isn’t at the level to compete at national tournaments, I recommend joining a reputable tennis school—preferably one that has a proven track record of training players from the junior level.
●Recommended Multifilament Strings
5.Investing in Your Tennis Game
It’s important to keep in mind that compared to other sports, tennis requires a significantly higher financial investment. (Golf, even more so.)
With sports like soccer, basketball, and volleyball, all you really need are shoes and a ball. With baseball, gloves can be a little expensive, but a good one will last you five to ten years.
However, with tennis, each racket costs between 20,000 and 40,000 yen (roughly $180-$350), and over the span of a year strings will run you between 10,000 and 20,000 yen ($180). Shoes also wear out quickly, and you will likely have to replace them more often than you would in other sports. And balls will cost you (as they should—balls are an important investment).
In a professional tennis match, balls wear out so quickly that the 6 to 8 balls being used will be replaced with new ones every 7 to 9 games (basically every 30 to 40 minutes). (It depends on the tournament.)
Advanced players will likely use up 3 to 4 balls in a two-hour hard court practice session. (On omnicourt surfaces—synthetic grass infilled with sand—the balls will be way past their prime in about 3 to 4 hours).
Using battered or dead balls will lead you to adjust your swing by clenching and using extra effort when your arm should be relaxed, meaning you run the risk of injuring your arm.
There are also players out there who opt for non-pressurized balls—which seemingly give you more bang for your buck—but again, you run the risk of injury.
Non-pressurized balls are suited for drills where you’re being fed many balls, or for practicing your serve; they are too heavy and hard for full-on rallies.
Personally, I like to use Wilson Championship Extra Duty balls, an industry standard worldwide (although Penn Championship Extra Duty balls are said to be the best-selling tennis ball in the U.S.). At amateur tournaments in Japan, Dunlop Comfort balls seem to be popular.
To state the obvious, a good coach is indispensable if you truly want to improve.
In tennis the importance of a coach cannot be understated—and that goes across all levels, from new players to the top pros. The rise of Japanese player Nishikori Kei attests to that: it was in grade school that he came to the attention of former Japanese pro Matsuoka Shuzo, who helped cultivate the young talent, and at 14 he moved to Florida to join the IMG Academy, which would turn him into a world-class player.
Nishikori would ultimately reach the top tier of his sport under the tutelage of former world No. 2 Michael Chang.
So to reiterate, it’s unfortunate but true—improving your tennis requires a significant financial investment.
6.Taking Up Tennis in College (for Real)
In the world of top tennis pros, most players show signs of the extent of their talent by the time they’re 20.
For that reason, most top-level tennis players in Europe become pros right out of high school. In contrast, college tennis in Japan and the U.S. is thriving. It is not unheard of for a player to take up tennis in college and go on rank among the pros. Nevertheless, I would say new college players should come to terms with the fact that they will likely never become a top-level pro.
For a player who has been playing in some capacity through grade school, middle school, and/or high school, now is the time to decide on one pro-level racket and buy four to ten of them, possibly in various swingweights. In terms of strings, I recommend going with polyester strings or a hybrid setup of polys and multifilaments.
Players should try out as many different strings from as many different manufacturers as they can. New polys hit the market on a yearly basis, so if possible try various string combinations.
Tennis and golf are sports that are particularly popular among the well-to-do in Europe and the U.S. because they are sports that require more than stamina or pure athletic skill. In tennis, possessing technical knowledge and experience regarding rackets and strings puts you at a marked advantage in terms of results. In golf too, knowledge about balls and clubs is ultimately reflected in your score.
In other words, those who have the wherewithal to try out a variety of rackets with a variety of string setups are better situated to achieve good results.
Even at the top level of professional tennis, whether or not a player’s racket and string setup is a good fit makes a big difference when it comes to performance in tournaments—and thus rankings.
This is not to say that talent and hard work are not the main reasons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been able to remain at the top of their sport for so long—but a big part of their longevity has to do with the fact that they use rackets and string setups that compliment their respective playing styles.
●Recommended Polyester Strings
7.Taking Up Tennis as an Adult (for Real)
In Japan, most students involved in school sports up through college will give sports up cold turkey when they enter the workforce.
In contrast, in the U.S. it’s not uncommon for someone who grew up poor and without the luxury of playing sports in school to take up a sport later in life, after they’ve started earning a living.
That, to me, is one of the best qualities Americans possess.
In any case, back to the topic at hand. For someone taking up tennis as an adult, my number one piece of advice would be to buy shoes fit for whatever surface the player will be playing on. (That goes for new junior players too, of course.)
Omni-court tennis shoes—which are suited for artificial grass—have an outsole with good grip, while hard court tennis shoes have outsoles that allow for a little bit of sliding. If the soles on your shoes and the playing surface don’t match, not only will it stand in the way of progress, but you also run the risk of injury.
Depending on where you live, you may play on clay courts—in which case you should wear clay court shoes.
Also worth mentioning: I often see players wearing their tennis shoes on the way to the tennis court, but compared to running shoes or walking shoes, tennis shoes have less cushioning around the heel and a flatter sole. They are not suited for long-distance walking—more strain on the knees and hips. (Side note, those Adidas Stan Smiths that you see everywhere these days were originally tennis shoes designed for clay courts.)
If you’re serious about becoming good at tennis, I recommend getting a racket suited for advanced or professional-level players.
Of course, in terms of string setup, you should start with multifilaments, and once you’ve built up your body strength, move on to polyester or polyester/multifilament hybrids.
As I can attest from personal experience, it is possible to take up tennis around the age of 30, as long as you are ready to commit the time and energy to training off the court, namely, running, weight training, etc.
Tennis lessons are highly recommended—preferably from a professional coach in the 10,000 yen-per-hour-or-above range. That should be the easiest way to improve while staying injury-free.
Starting next time, I’d like to go more in-depth on the differences between well-known racket manufacturers and string types.
●Recommended Hybrid String Setups (multifilament×polyester)
Compared to other countries, Japan has a sizeable tennis player population, but the sad reality is that there are few truly skilled players coming out of the country.
The reason for that is crystal clear: compared to overseas, the coaching framework is, well, poor. Most Japanese tennis players take up the game through school sports clubs, where they are taught by advisors or upperclassmen—in other words, amateurs. Even at tennis schools, most of the coaches are likewise former recreational players from at the college level, and haven’t been trained as a professional coach.
Naturally, their students don’t improve so much as they progressively get worse.
If you look at the Japanese players competing on the world tour, many were forged at overseas training schools from an early age.
At tennis schools overseas, junior players first learn the fun of the game. They aren’t scolded if they don’t get it right off the bat. In Japan, on the other hand, junior players are berated on the courts—I often see players practicing in tears.
In terms of technique, Japanese players are overly attached to the idea of brushing up against the ball (and thus imparting spin). I’ve read too many blogs by braggarts boasting about how quickly they were able to snap their strings.
To put it bluntly: if your strings are breaking after several hours on court, you’re hitting the ball incorrectly. When pros break their strings, it’s usually because the player mishit the ball one too many times, or because there was some problem with the stringing to begin with.
Anyway, ever since Rafael Nadal rose to the top echelon of the sport, this tendency for Japanese players to brush up against the ball has only gotten worse.
But in tennis, the most important thing is to swing through the ball—you want to crush it. That means transferring your body weight properly and meeting the ball with the sweet spot of your racket.
However, most Japanese players—even at the pro level—are unable to do just that.
Up until a year ago, Daniel Taro and Sugita Yuichi would hit with all of their body weight on the heel of their right foot (both are right-handed), and brush their rackets up against the ball.
Starting around last year, however, both have begun hitting the ball out in front of their bodies, and seem to have learned to crush the ball. And that is reflected in their improved rankings.
At tennis schools overseas, players are given a variety of drills starting at the junior level to help learn how to crush the ball.
Transferring your body weight into the ball is something that’s also key to sports like baseball and golf.
So for aspiring tennis players in grade school and middle school, it’s a good idea to take up a variety of other sports in addition to tennis.
SPORTS & CULTURE #002
Tennis for Beginners (1) Some Words of Encouragement for Those About to Take Up Tennis