How to Play Tennis: Tips for Getting Started

Young woman with racquet and ball on tennis court

Getty Images / Tony Anderson

If you’re looking to try a new sport, tennis is a fantastic option. Not only does it burn substantial calories and improve overall health (including improved cardiovascular health, weight loss, and increased range of motion), but it’s a great way to learn a new skill, develop camaraderie and a competitive spirit with others, and enjoy the outdoors—or the warmth of an indoor court during chilly weather.

Gary Kushnirovich is a former professional player with a world ranking who has taken his passion for the sport into coaching. “Players who are just starting out with tennis should really become familiar with terminology and the scoring so that they can compete,” the USPTA Certified Elite Professional, USPTR Performance Professional, ITPA Tennis Performance Trainer says.

But, let's say that you'd like to take a less competitive, more casual approach to trying tennis for the first time. It's completely fine if you'd prefer to simply volley the ball back and forth with a friend. You'll still get exercise and enjoy those associated health benefits. In fact, Kushnirovich believes that as a beginner, you should have "no expectations" when it comes to your ability.

"Tennis should be fun," he says. "I am a strong believer that expectations at any level of play can be crippling."

It's the kind of sport in which you can dial up or dial down the intensity, resulting in people of all ages being able to play. Let's take a look at what you should know or do before you head out to the court.

Basic Rules and Terms

Tennis is a game that's played and scored from right to left on the court, with goal of staying within the lines of the court, which is split in half by a net. One person serves a ball either over or underhand diagonally across the court.

You'll get two chances to hit the ball, staying behind the baseline when it's your turn to serve. Tennis can be played as singles (one person on each side) or doubles (two people on each side).

Matches are typically played best two out of three sets. A set is played as the first of six games, and the winner is required to win by two games. Scoring is defined as the following: 15, 30, 40, GAME. If the scores go to 40-40, this is called a "deuce." When the game reaches a deuce, a player must win by two points. If a score is zero, it's called "love."

A rally is a mix of forehand and backhand strokes. A return of serve is a stroke that's either a forehand or a backhand.

Clothing and Gear

For beginners, start with a tennis racquet that is appropriate to your age. Younger players will naturally play with smaller racquets and lighter balls. As an adult, Kushnirovich specifically recommends starting with a “rec-friendly racquet” like the Wilson Clash.

You’ll of course need some tennis balls to get playing, too. Kushnirovich’s preferred tennis ball is the Wilson US Open tennis ball.

“New players should also wear appropriate tennis shoes that have good ankle support,” he says. Look to these recommendations for men's and women's tennis shoes.

When shopping for tennis-ready clothing, shorts, skorts, shirts, and dresses should be of a dry-fit material so that they are light and comfortable to wear. Remember to find attire that has pockets that can comfortably hold two tennis balls. And don't forget water bottles and a small towel.

How to Get Started

“The United States Tennis Association (USTA) is trying extremely hard to make tennis more accessible as well as safe,” Kushnirovich says. That’s why he recommends USTA Net Generation, a search engine that will help you find a certified professional in your area who has undergone SafePlay training, USTA’s
athlete safety program.

Lessons can be a fantastic way to build a foundation if you'd like to pursue tennis further. An instructor can help you avoid bad habits and injuries in the long run as well. It's also an effective way to master the rules of the game.

Where to Play

No matter where you live, the chances are good that you’ll find a place to play tennis. It's fairly easy to locate local clubs, public courts, or even a high school or middle school where you can play.

You also have the option to practice solo, without a court. You can hit a tennis ball against a wall to get a feel for rallying, or head to a handball court to prevent running after the ball.

Stretches and Injury Prevention

As with any sport, it's imperative to warm up properly before hitting the tennis court, or, it can be beneficial to spend time in the weight room. Some of these stretches and movements can include:

YouTube can also be a good resource for learning how to do these stretches and movements. Kushnirovich even has a YouTube video that goes through dynamic warm-up exercises for tennis.

In addition to warming up, if you want to prevent injuries, be sure to start slow and stretch after you play.

“The most common reason players get injured is from rushing the warm up, moving and swinging too aggressively as they begin play, or allowing their body to get super stiff after they finish playing by failing to properly stretch afterwards,” Kushnirovich says.

A Word From Verywell

Tennis can be a great hobby to pick up with a friend or partner and an excellent form of lifelong exercise. Just remember to start slow, practice good safety, and most importantly, have fun! If you're enjoying yourself, consider taking some lessons to really start to understand how to improve your game, perfect your form, and start keeping score.

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