Why tennis is ace when it comes to boosting fitness
Soon Wimbledon season will be here, but don't let your tennis love affair be just a one-hit wonder. Nel Staveley explains why you should pick up your racket, go to the park and get some exercise all summer long - and beyond
Bearing in mind we have its biggest tournament in the world and we boast the (currently ranked) third-best player of it in the world, we Brits are not terribly au fait with tennis.
Yes, we all cheer along to Wimbledon (said biggest tournament), we're pleased when Andy Murray (said third-best player) wins, and for a few, blissful weeks a year, fired up by Wimbledon/Murray fervour, tennis courts across the land will be jammed with waving rackets and over-bouncy new balls.
But fast forward a few months, come your average, grey autumn day, and most courts lie empty; tennis rackets banished to the back of the cupboard until the next June and their next annual two-week airing.
Why? Perhaps it's the weather - rain and wind never feels entirely conducive to batting about a ball. Perhaps it's the slightly stuffy image - true or not, there's a general feeling that tennis and tennis clubs, with their whites and their Pimm's, are slightly elitist. Most schools don't teach tennis either, so it can never really stand a chance against the behemoths of football, rugby, or netball.
But it should stand a chance. In fact, it shouldn't just stand it; it should jump up at the net and slam down a volley on it.
Because, for all the fair-weather doubters, for all the people who see it as "difficult", or "boring" or "untouchable"; you're wrong. Tennis is one of the best sports you can play. And here's why:
It is for all seasons
Firstly, let's address the aforementioned anti-tennis points; at number one, that the British weather and British winter is an excuse not to play. Well, it's not, at all - according to official figures, there are tens of thousands of tennis courts across the UK, and a good number of these are indoor. Even if you don't opt for one of these under-cover courts, there's no reason you can't brave the elements. After all, most tennis courts are all-weather surfaces, unchanged in rain or wind, unlike, say, the pitches for those other - oddly, when you think about it - "winter-friendly" sports of rugby or football.
It is for everyone
The second anti-tennis point was that people might see the game as a bit elitist, a bit of a middle-class haven out of reach for your average person. But think about some of the greatest players - Jimmy Connors, the Williams sisters, our own Andy Murray; none of them born into privilege, all of them learning to hit a ball on their local neighbourhood courts. This year, the LTA is highlighting this accessibility more than ever, with the launch of their nationwide Great British Tennis Weekends, (next dates, June 13-14 and August 1-2, clubspark.lta.org.uk/OpenDays), where 700 free tennis events will encourage families to pick up a racket. They'll provide these rackets (and balls) for free, too, (although, to be fair, buying them wouldn't set you back any more than a pair of football boots).
It's the ultimate exercise
Two years ago, LTA launched Cardio Tennis sessions; a pimped-up version of normal tennis, where you're "supported by music and qualified instructors", "get to hit lots of tennis balls", "have a great cardio workout at the same time", and can burn up to 600 calories.
Which is great, but even 'normal' tennis is a fitness fanatic's dream - an hour of singles will easily cut through 500 calories, with the brilliant added bonus of up to 500 bursts of energy per match, leg toning, and constant twisting and stretching for your abs.
It boosts your brainpower
Scientists at the University of Illinois discovered the tactical thinking required in a game of tennis could generate new connections between nerves in the brain.
This is hardly surprising; tennis is all about strategy, plotting your next point, driving your opponent to the wrong side of the court - imagine a game of chess with a lot of running.
And your willpower
Any sport, team or individual, requires a certain level of grit, yet there's something about tennis that really ups that level. You only have to watch one of those eternal professional matches, where after six hours of playing in stifling heat, both sides of the net still manage to dig into some unfathomable reserve of resilience and slog out another 40-point tie-break.
Or, of course, you could just stand on the court yourself. You will realise how much tennis is all about you, how only you can make a difference - no team-mates bailing you out (unless you're playing doubles, obviously), no taking a quick breather, no dribbling the ball to buy yourself time; just you, your racket, and a split second to read your opponent, react, and do something about it.
And your confidence
Potentially stressful though that might sound, one joy of tennis is the worse you are, the more quickly you can learn to do this 'something'.
"What's great about tennis is even after one lesson, you can notice a huge difference," says Tom Crisp, head tennis coach at Surbiton Racket and Fitness Club. "And it's such a confidence booster."
He's right, I do feel more confident, and I want to keep playing - whatever the time of year, whatever the weather, and whoever wins Wimbledon.