Taking My Game Outside

Spring is finally here, and for those of us in New England, that means tennis is moving outdoors. Most of the players I know get positively giddy at the thought. The fresh air! The sun! The unlimited free court time! It’s tennis the way it’s meant to be!

Others, and I count myself among them, dread the start of the outdoor season. The wind carrying your ball long! The sun in your eyes! The unlimited rolling of your ball until it’s three courts away because there’s no curtain to stop it!

Last summer I played singles at a local clay court and discovered that yellow jackets had built their nests in it. Fortunately they didn’t emerge until we were sweeping the court after our match. The broom filled their entrance holes with clay and, needless to say, kind of ticked them off. Yet another plus for indoor tennis–no hostile wildlife.

But unless I want to be all alone with the ball machine in my indoor club, I need to follow my friends outside.

After months of playing strictly indoors, the shift to outdoor tennis can be charitably called “an adjustment.” Even seasoned players can end up shanking the ball. With our spring league starting in just a few weeks, I researched some tips to help me with the transition. Here’s what I found:

  • Focus harder on the ball. Of course, you’re always trying to watch the ball. But when you move outside, the ball is traveling against a completely different background from what you’re accustomed to seeing. Instead of close walls, you may have rustling trees or a wide-open football field or a busy road. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your mind is busy processing the altered background. You’ll need to work harder than usual to have the same focus you had when you played indoors.
  • The background is different, but so is the ceiling, or lack thereof. Tom Damkowitch, head pro at Boston Sports Club in Newton, explains that, without the ceiling, your depth perception on your service toss and overhead will be skewed. His advice? Keep your non-dominant hand up for as long as possible before hitting the ball. Seeing your hand against the sky will help you judge the height of the ball.
  • Move your feet. All those little steps in tennis footwork become even more important outside. The wind will affect the ball in unpredictable ways, so you’ll need to have quick feet to continually adjust your position. Consider adding some short footwork drills to your warm-up routine. (I’ll try to post some drills next week.)
  • Play as much as you can. It will take a few days to adjust to outdoor conditions, so try to schedule several practices on your home court before your first spring league match. (If you’re like me, it’ll also take some time to get used to your sunglasses and visor again.)
  • Practice serving at the same time of day as your matches will be played. Don’t wait until match day to find out that the sun is right in your eyes. If you need to adjust your service stance, better to work out the kinks ahead of time.
  • Unless you’ll be playing on grass, anticipate a higher bounce. You know a clay court will play slower and cause the ball to bounce higher than a hard court. But did you know a typical outdoor hard court will also play slower and higher than an indoor hard? Because our New England weather causes cracks in outdoor hard courts, they get resurfaced more frequently than indoor courts do. Years of use will wear an indoor court smooth, whereas the newer outdoor court will have more grit, causing it to play slower and bounce higher. (For more on why court surfaces play differently, check out this excellent article from the now-defunct ESPN blog, Grantland.)

With these tips in mind, maybe I’ll learn to love playing in the great outdoors. (Of course, having ballboys to chase my runaway balls wouldn’t hurt, either.)

Do you love outdoor tennis? What do you do to adjust to the conditions?

5 thoughts on “Taking My Game Outside

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  1. Having grown up in California, I’m one of those people who love playing outdoors. But as a New Englander now, I do find it tricky to adjust to the elements at the beginning of the spring season. As Tom Damkowitch said to me once, you’ve gotta expect those first few game outside to be “clown tennis.”

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