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Improving Fitness Through Tennis

Sport combines fun, good exercise and social interaction.

Like the perfect service point that produces an ace and a match victory, the sport of tennis, while its overall popularity over the years has gone through its highs and lows in the United States, is an absolute winner when it comes to its fitness and enjoyment benefits.

For those, from youngsters to young adults to the middle-aged and beyond, looking to improve their physical conditioning as well as taking up a fulfilling sport, recreation or competitive tennis is almost a perfect solution. The enjoyment of successfully volleying the ball back and forth with a partner is a sort of athletic exhilaration, an instant gratification that if learned to achieve consistently can grow towards passion and perhaps a deep love for the sport.

“I think one of the things that draws people to tennis is that one can get a real good workout in an hour playing a game of singles with one other person,” said Hank Harris, director of the Hank Harris Tennis Academy, a summer program for youngsters ages 7 to 18 at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, where Harris serves as the head boys' tennis coach during the school year. “It's a sport that's all you — you can outthink your opponent [in a match] or [simply] work on your game.”

Harris, a former University of Virginia men's tennis standout who went on to coach former women's professional star Pam Shriver, said the fitness benefits of the game are a natural byproduct of tennis if one is taught how to play the game the right way.

Harris explained that a good tennis player is constantly moving his or her feet and body during a volley, anticipating where an opponent might hit the ball, getting into position to put forth a fluent swing on the ball, and always being prepared to move forward or backward, left or right in readiness to how an opponent might react and where the ball might be headed. For beginners, recreation players, or competitive players, the sound principle of constantly being in position to move and go after the ball is a key principle for any tennis player.

“If you're playing good tennis, you're always moving,” said Harris. “At no point should you not be moving. It's a game of movement, stopping and starting.”

PEOPLE LOVE TENNIS for the physical conditioning benefits, the social aspect of going out and hitting the ball around with a friend, the whole idea of improving one's game, and the opportunity of competing against another person in a match.

“Tennis keeps you moving and engaged and having a good time,” said John Kratzke, tennis director of the Highlands Swim and Tennis Club in McLean. “It doesn't matter if you're five or a 55-year-old.”

Kratzke, a former player at William & Mary College, has been a full-time tennis instructor throughout Northern Virginia for the past 12 years. At Highlands, he oversees a tennis program of which 175 youth and 100 adults are participants.

“People enjoy competing and that side of it, and others love learning something new and adding to their skill set,” he said, of the different mindsets his students have in regards to the sport.

He said he does not have one set teaching formula for all of his players or students, but instead tries to help individuals learn strategies and playing techniques best suited for their temperament, skill level, and goals in the sport.

“Having it being fun and fast-paced is what gets people interested in tennis,” said Kratzke.

Most seasoned tennis professionals or teachers believe it is imperative that individuals desiring to take up the game take lessons from a tennis professional at a local club or tennis academy.

“I would highly recommend taking a few lessons,” said Doug Kegerreis, president of Chantilly International Tennis (CIT), a tennis management service that helps create and provide tennis programs for clubs, youth organizations, and neighborhood associations.

Kegerreis, a physical education teacher at Oakton Elementary School in Fairfax County and the head tennis coach, along with his wife Karen, of both the Chantilly High boys' and girls' spring season teams, gives a tennis lesson through a media venue on YouTube. Individuals, after getting an idea for his teaching methods upon viewing the YouTube program, will sometimes call Kegerreis for personal tennis instruction.

[To view an example of Kegerreis' YouTube videos, go <a href="http://youtu.be/YD_Xa9dU-FQ">here.</a>]

“Tennis is a skilled sport but can be very difficult if you don't have guidance,” said Kegerreis, who said the primary goal of CIT is to give students a desire to play the sport throughout their lives. “If you go out and spend most of your time chasing balls two courts over, it's frustrating. I feel like you need some basic guidance. For some people that's all they need and want. They don't want to be tournament players.”

He said one of the first elements he teaches newcomers to the sport, both younger and older students, is to learn how to successfully volley or rally — hitting the tennis ball back and forth over the net with a partner. He said a key to good rallying back and forth is for players to execute easy, fluent swings and not try to hit the ball too hard.

“I don't care how much power you have, you have to learn to control your swing speed,” said Kegerreis, who believes consistent seven or eight hit rallies can develop good physical workouts for players.

He recommends that someone new to the sport purchase a mass merchandise tennis racquet at a place such as Wal-Mart for between $19 and $40. A more experienced player, or someone who plays 10 or more times a year, should look for performance rackets which, at close-out sales, can be as inexpensive as between $70 and $90.

GLENN ADAMS, the boys' tennis coach at Madison High for the past 10 years, tries to create in all of his team members — whether they are standout players on the Warhawks' squad or backup team members — a will to play tennis for years to come. He said he often, when talking to prospective Madison players coming out of junior high schools, notices a lack of true love for the sport. Adams believes youngsters who are taught tennis at a young age develop a lifetime love for the sport. For those youngsters who take it up during, say, their teen years, there is not that immediate passion.

“It just doesn't develop on its own or spontaneously,” said Adams, of rising ninth graders developing a bond with tennis. “When I talk to rising freshmen from [Madison feeder schools] Thoreau or Kilmer I don't sense tennis has become a passion in their lives. They have to be afforded a few lessons to develop a passion.”

Adams keeps a large Madison team roster during the spring season in hopes that his players will catch tennis fever for life. The benefits, he said, are so rewarding. A runner/jogger of 40 years, Adams said he much prefers the fitness routine of tennis to that of running, which to him is quite grueling.

“Tennis is a great cardio activity,” said Adams. “In tennis you get to exercise without the pain and torture of running. I always tell the guys to stick with the sport through the [beginner] frustration level.

“Tennis only requires one hour for a good workout for a singles game and, if you're playing doubles, and hour-and-a-half,” he said. “You can play a tennis game during a work break or in the middle of a work day.”

Adams said the first 6 months of playing tennis could be frustrating as one learns how to consistently hit the ball over the net.

“But get that first six months in and you'll definitely start to land those shots, whether they are lucky shots or not,” he said, with a laugh.

Harris, the Alexandria area tennis pro, is trying to spread the word about the sport he loves in Alexandria. He had two daughters who were a part of the T.C. Williams High girls' tennis team this past spring. While thrilled to have had his daughters a part of the Titans' program, he and others are disappointed that the school, despite massive upgrades and renovations to the campus in recent years, did not include outdoor tennis courts on the campus. As a result, the Titans play their home matches at Wakefield Park in Arlington or elsewhere.

Harris, at his summer camps and over the course of the year when he is teaching and working with young people and adults in the sport, makes it a priority to emphasize that first and foremost, tennis should be a fun endeavor.

“If it isn't fun, you shouldn't play,” said Harris. “We try to make it fun. You try to be encouraging to kids whether they make contact with the ball or not. You can't be disappointed with them but positive.”

Harris, like his colleagues, stresses lessons for newcomers to tennis. Some early success can breed confidence and the sky is the limit from there.

“Like anything in life, if you can do something on a pretty good level it improves your self confidence,” he said. “And the more steady and consistent you get, the more exercise you get playing.”