I’ve played six sports in organized settings: baseball, football, basketball, softball, ice hockey, and tennis. In terms of regular physical exercise, I’ve also done a fair bit of bicycling, jogging, and weight training.
Tennis Stands Alone.
Only tennis demands strength, speed, agility, flexibility, endurance, both large- and small-muscle skills, mental toughness, courage, complex strategies, and in-the-moment problem solving.
Only tennis opens doors to people across the globe. It is truly an international sport. I guarantee you that if you travel with a racquet handle poking out of your backpack, people will come up to you and befriend you whether you are in China, Croatia, Mexico or Mozambique. Tennis players quickly recognize and honor each other with hospitality and a good game. You only need a few words in common: “out” and “good shot.”
Tennis transcends age, gender, race, and culture. A ten year-old girl can enjoy hitting with her 80 year- old grandfather (I’ve seen this first-hand). Young men and women can enjoy fierce mixed doubles. National championships are held for wheelchair, age 90-plus, and a myriad of other divisions. The sport’s top players have championed human rights simply by playing with grace, excellence, and integrity (see Arthur Ashe, Martina Navratilova).
Once considered a country club sport reserved for the wealthy, the profile of tennis has been forever changed. Venus and Serena Williams arose from public courts in Compton, CA to become the best players on the planet, and, thanks to Li Na and Shuai Peng, millions of tennis racquets are being sold to new players in China. Tennis is now universal and accessible to nearly everyone.
With a racquet, balls, and a friend (or even a backboard) you can play tennis on a regular schedule, or on a whim. Public courts exist in every neighborhood and town providing free access provided the weather is decent. We get about 7 decent months in Minnesota, though some years I’ve been able to play as late as Thanksgiving and on early Spring’s warm days in March.
High school tennis has its unique rewards: Fun outdoor exercise, team camaraderie, a special bond with your doubles partner or favorite hitting partner (it doesn’t matter whether you’re great friends off-court), and, most importantly, sensing the improvement that comes with every week. This is the best part of being a young player— improvement comes rapidly, and the sport begins to offer up its possibilities: Clean ball- striking, passing shots, deft lobs, overhead smashes, spin, weapons, tactics, guile and mental toughness. It only gets better the more you play.
Learning tennis builds character. A poll taken by the U.S. Tennis Association showed that millions of Americans tried tennis once or twice but found it too frustrating to pursue (the very common and worst possible way to try tennis is with another beginner and only 3 balls). It takes many hours to attain the skills needed to maintain a medium pace 5-ball baseline rally. It takes most people hundreds of hours to make good serves at a medium pace 60 percent of the time. My rough estimate is that it takes about 2,000 hours of playing time to be among the best players in the Northwest Suburban Conference and at least 5,000 hours of playing time to be among the best high school players in the state.
Players who stick with it learn the values of persistence and patience. Better players discover that courage is needed to get to the next level. It takes real courage to give up a comfortable habit and commit to a difficult-at-first technique knowing that the payoff may be weeks away. Better high school players learn a profound life lesson —improvement is directly tied to purposeful effort.
But enough philosophizing. Tennis is about having fun. I believe the fun factor increases as skill level increases. Because of the nature of longer rallies and point construction, higher levels of tennis unlock new heights of creativity and enjoyment. There’s nothing more fun than using new-found skills inside long points with a worthy opponent.
Entire books have been written about playing “in the zone” (see The Inner Game of Tennis). The more one plays, the more one can access this incredible feeling. All tennis players have been there for atleast a few minutes. It’s really special when it lasts for a whole set! The challenge and lure of tennis is how to regularly find “the zone” and experience exquisite, unconscious shot-making that leaves your opponent saying, “Wow, you were too good.”