This classic sport is a calorie-torching and body-toning workout but, above all, it's fun and social. Just grab a racket and approach the net.
Who It's Good For
Anyone who likes social, goal-oriented sports and appreciates a little friendly competition.
Who It's Not Good For
If you've ever had a significant health condition or serious injury, consult your physician before participating in a rigorous activity like tennis, says Nadine Waeghe, a licensed physical therapist and certified athletic trainer for professional tennis players on the Sony Ericsson Women's Tennis Association Tour.
How to Get Started
It's easier than you think: Just enlist a friend and have at it. (If your pals are being lame, find a flat wall or backboard to hit against.) The best way to learn proper form, however, is to take lessons, either privately or in a group (log on to usta.com, the United States Tennis Association's website, to find a local certified instructor). For many, a doubles class is the easiest way to get up and hitting. Usually you can sign up with a friend or be paired with someone at your level.
What to do Before
Warm up with a light aerobic activity, such as jogging around the court for five to 10 minutes. If you're starting to sweat, that's a good sign you're warmed up, says Kerrie Brooks, a licensed physical therapist who works with pro players. Don't bother with any static or held stretches; recent research indicates they do little to prevent injury. Also, drink a glass of water an hour or so before to stay hydrated, and bring a liter to sip between points. If you're playing outside, be sure to apply a water- or sweat-resistant sunscreen, such as Coppertone Sport Continuous Spray SPF 50 ($9, available at drugstores).
What to Keep in Mind
Getting good at tennis is a challenge, but the principles are simple. The most important thing is just to find the ball with your racket, says Bill Mountford, author of "Tennis: How to Master the Game" (Universe, $19). After you've drawn the racket back, focus on pushing the face of it toward the ball, keeping your wrist set at a right angle to the handle. Then start small, playing on only half the court: Hit the ball back and forth at the service line rather than the baseline. You'll learn how to control the ball by hitting in this small space, says Tina Hoskins, a former pro player and author of "The Tennis Drill Book" (Human Kinetics, $20). Later, move to the baseline and, to get into the rhythm of swinging, say to yourself "bounce (when the ball bounces) and then hit" (as you strike).
How to Act
Gone are the upper-crust attitudes and the stiff attire rules (these days tennis whites are mandatory only at exclusive clubs). But there are still a few traditions and courtesies worth noting. It's important to avoid walking behind a court when a point is in play, and you should always talk quietly when standing near one in use. To determine who serves first, spin your racket and have your opponent call up or down. Stop the racket and show her the butt of it to see which way the emblem is facing. When it's your turn to serve, make sure you have two tennis balls -- one to serve and one to keep in your pocket. Then wait until your opponent is ready and state the score before serving. Call your own lines loudly -- if the ball is close, it's in. For a refresher on rules and scoring, log on to usta.com.
How to Pick a Racket
Choosing a new "stick" from the dozens on the market can be overwhelming. Although you can pick one up at any old sporting-goods store, it's not the best idea. "You risk buying a racket that is too heavy or too big, which would set you up for injury," Hoskins explains. Instead, head to a pro shop or specialty tennis store, where you can get expert advice and try out several models to see which one feels most comfortable in your hands. You might have to pay a small demo fee, but that money often goes toward your purchase. Expect to shell out around $100 for a good starter racket. The Wilson "nFury", for example (below, $120, wilson.com for stores), has a stable, lightweight frame that's ideal for recreational players and beginners.
What to Wear
The right gear helps prevent injury, improves performance, and keeps you cool on the court.
1. A visor rebuffs the blinding sun. Nike Visor, $18, niketown.com.
2. This lightweight warm-up jacket features detachable sleeves that can be worn as a shrug. Nike Serena Convertible Jacket, $80, niketown.com.
3. With a built-in bra, this fitted tank supports and moves with you. Lululemon Deep-V Tank, $48, lululemon.com.
4. Another good all-around racket, with enough control for a beginner and power for advanced players. Wilson K Factor Zen Racket, $169, wilson.com for stores.
5. A band keeps hair (and sweat) off your face. Reebok Women's Reversible Headband, $8, rbk.com.
6. Tennis-specific shoes provide proper shock absorption. Diadora Speedzone AX W Tennis Shoes, $95, diadoraamerica.com.
7. These anti-blister socks are neither too thick nor too thin. Adidas by Stella McCartney Performance Liner Sock, $40 for two pairs, shopadidas.com.
8. This skirt has built-in shorts for coverage and for carrying tennis balls. Prince skirt, $45, princetennis.com for stores.
What to do After
Stretching does little to prevent injury before playing, but doing it for at least five minutes immediately after playing will help prevent next-day soreness. Focus on your back, shoulders, hips, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, holding each stretch 20 to 30 seconds. If you have time before you stretch, a light activity (such as riding a bike or jogging for 10 minutes) will also help. You can further target tight spots in your hips, shoulders, and back by placing a tennis ball underneath the afflicted area (but not under your spine) while lying on the floor with knees bent and feet on the ground. Keep it there for 20 seconds, moving around slightly if you want to knead the muscle. "It's like a deep-tissue massage, releasing the tight points in your body," Brooks says. Be sure to drink plenty of water to keep hydrated after playing as well.
How to Practice Off the Court
Simple at-home drills will improve your hand-eye coordination, Mountford says. Stand with a racket in hand so your palm and the racket face up toward the ceiling. Then keep a ball bouncing 6 to 8 inches off the racket face. Now flip your hand over and bounce the ball on the other side of the racket. For a bigger challenge once you get the hang of it, flip your hand over after every bounce. Or dribble the ball with your racket at waist height, palm down, just as you would a basketball.
How to Train
Your off-court workouts may well determine how you fare on the court. Cardio exercise alone won't prepare you for the demands of tennis, Brooks says. Go for interval training: During a 30-minute cardio workout, alternate between four minutes of jogging and two minutes of walking, for example. Also, be sure to strength-train at least twice a week.
How to Take It to the Next Level
If you've got a competitive streak, join a USTA league where you can play singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. The USTA ranks players on a scale of 1 to 7. If you're new to the game, you'll start as a 1, but as you whup others who share your rank in your area, you'll advance. Eventually you could move up to regional and national matches.
How to Talk the Talk
Golf may take the cake when it comes to sport-specific lingo, but tennis isn't far behind. Here's some terminology to stick in your back pocket. A "let" is a fault called when a served ball touches the net before going over and landing in. A "match point" indicates a player is a point away from winning. "No-man's-land" is the area between the service line and baseline where it's near impossible to stand and return shots. If someone "attacks the net," it doesn't mean she "went McEnroe" and hurled her racket at it, but that she aggressively approached the net to "put the ball away" (or slam home a great shot her opponent couldn't reach). As you improve, you'll hear that your serve was an "ace" (so good, it's unreturnable) or that you "painted the line" (your shot landed just inbounds).