I’ve been playing tennis since my childhood days when my parents stuck an old-fashioned wooden racket in my hand, and I can’t seem to get enough of it. Tennis has helped me get fit and healthy and meet many cool people who’ve become good friends of mine off the court.
However, I’ve never been able to afford a membership at a fancy tennis club, nor does my budget have room for top-of-the-line tennis rackets and shoes. I’ve discovered, though, that you don’t need to have the resources of stars like Roger Federer and Serena Williams to enjoy the sport of tennis -- and get better at it.
First off, let’s get you geared up. Much like basketball and soccer, tennis is a sport with a low barrier to entry. All you need are a couple of basic pieces of equipment and a court.
You won’t be able to play tennis without a few fuzzy yellow (or pink, orange, etc.) balls to whack around the court. A standard three-ball can of tennis balls typically costs around $3 to $4. Cheap, right?
The downside is that, unlike baseballs, footballs and basketballs, tennis balls wear out quickly. After a few vigorous sessions on the court, you’ll notice a distinct drop in the balls’ air pressure.
It’s no fun playing tennis with flat balls that don’t bounce, so make sure you stock up and order them in bulk. At Amazon, you can buy 12 cans of tennis balls for $23.81. That’s well under $1 per ball. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, the deal gets even better: You can buy 15 cans -- that’s 45 balls -- for $49.83, and with free same-day shipping, that saves you a frantic trip to the sporting-goods store when you find yourself short on decent tennis balls.
If you don’t want to drop big bucks on a racket made of the latest space-age polymers and what not, check out a used sporting goods vendor like Play It Again Sports. If you’d rather try before you buy, pay a visit to the pro shop at your local tennis club. For a small deposit, the experts there can provide with you some rackets of varying brands, sizes, styles, and string tensions to try out on the court.
If you don’t have a tennis club in your area, log on to MidwestSports.com and feast your eyes upon its vast array of rackets and other gear. If you see a racket that tickles your fancy, click on it and see if it’s available to demo. You can usually demo rackets for a fraction of the price of buying them.
For example, a $249 Wilson Pro Staff RF 97 racket can be demoed for just $15. For $5 more, you can demo two to four rackets, in case you wind up not liking your first choice.
If you demo rackets from your local brick-and-mortar pro shop, you’ll likely be required to put down a small deposit via credit card in case you damage the racket while trying it out. However, the deposit will be returned to you if you decide not to keep the racket; if you like the racket and choose to buy it, the deposit will be deducted from the purchase price.
Before choosing to demo a racket, make sure you have time to play-test it because the racket must be returned at a set date – unless you choose to buy it. Midwest Sports will charge a late fee of $2 per day per racket beyond its seven-day demo window.
Another way to save money on tennis gear is to buy your own string in bulk. If you play a lot of tennis, chances are you’ll break the strings on your racket at some point. A professional restringing job at a tennis club’s pro shop will cost you at least $20, and sometimes more, depending on what kind of string you choose.
Again, Midwest Sports is a great resource – check out its tennis string buying guide to get a feel, pun intended, for what string type, gauge, and tension is best suited to your style of play.
Once you’ve settled on your string of choice, bring that to the pro shop and, voila, you’re paying only for labor. Better yet, ask around the club for someone who has their own stringing machine, and have them teach you to use it. Maybe you have a skill you can teach them in return.
Or if you’re really serious, buy your own stringing machine and use it to make some money on the side to support your tennis habit. But be warned – stringing machines can cost anywhere from $189 to nearly $4,000.
Proper footwear is also essential if you plan to make tennis a regular part of your life.
Shoes, believe it or not, can also be the difference between winning and losing a match. I had to forfeit a tennis match once because one of my shoes “blew out” during play: the shoe’s outsole became completely detached from its side panel, which prevented me from being able to perform the sudden changes in direction required by competitive singles play.
Needless to say, I resolved never to buy that model of tennis shoe again and to invest more time and thought in shopping around for the most suitable footwear for my style of play.
Online shopping has revolutionized the way people buy shoes, so don’t feel obligated to visit a brick-and-mortar sporting-goods store to try on pair after pair of tennis kicks. At Zappos.com, you can drill down by brand, sport, and many other criteria when searching for shoes. Nike, Adidas, Prince, New Balance, and ASICS are some of the brands you’ll want to check out.
If you join the Zappos Rewards program, you’ll be eligible for free, expedited shipping with no minimum order cost. Also, Zappos’ legendary customer service ensures that you can return any pair of shoes, as long as they’re still in their original condition, for free up to a year after purchase.
If you need more help finding the right fit in footwear, hit up Midwest Sports. Nearly every page on their website has a “Chat With a Tennis Pro” tab at the far right. Give that a click and you’ll be connected with a tennis expert who can answer your questions about shoes, rackets, and all of the other tennis gear they carry.
Also, like Zappos.com, MidwestSports.com offers free shipping and returns, but you have to spend at least $69.95 to qualify. Unlike Zappos, however, Midwest Sports will honor six-month outsole warranties on some tennis shoes, which means you might qualify for a free pair of shoes – or credit toward the purchase of a different model – if yours wear out too quickly (a very real possibility for hardcourt tennis players). This policy varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so be sure to read the fine print before buying.
MidwestSports.com also has frequent sales and specials on shoes. For example, recently the site advertised a pair of 2016 Adidas Barricade men’s tennis shoes, which normally retail for $140, for $89.95. Sign up for the site’s email list if you want to be advised of when these sales and specials are scheduled to occur.
Now that you’re properly kitted out for action on the tennis court, it’s time to save money on court and league fees.
Many U.S. cities and towns have public tennis courts that can be accessed for free. If your local park doesn’t have courts, try the public high school. Its courts are usually available on weekends or during the week whenever the school’s teams aren’t practicing or hosting matches.
Some private and public tennis clubs will waive or reduce your court fee if you are enrolled in a competitive flex league, like Ultimate Tennis. Be sure to print out your league schedule and keep it in your tennis bag so you can prove you are there to play a league match – doing so might help keep a few bucks in your pocket.
In fact, depending on what region of the country you’re playing in, Ultimate Tennis requires the home player to cover any and all court fees for the visiting player. In other regions, the visiting player is responsible for court fees up to $10 if the match is being played at a private club. Any fee over $10 must be paid by the home player.
Even if the league you’re playing in doesn’t have a specific policy toward eliminating or reducing court fees, sometimes your opponent will pony up and cover your fee if you discuss it in advance. After all, tennis is a genteel, courteous sport-- most of the time, that is.
However, if you’d rather experience competitive play for free, there are other programs out there, like TennisRound.com, that will let you signup and contact a certain number of players in your area for free before charging a modest fee ($6.99 per month or $29 per year) for continued use of the site.
Meetup.com is also a fantastic – and completely free – resource for connecting with tennis players and groups in your area. It takes only a few minutes to set up a basic profile and then start searching for tennis Meetup groups to join. If you don’t find a group that’s right for you, you can start your own -- for free.
Game, set, match! We’ve covered how to acquire quality tennis gear at affordable prices, save money on court and league fees and meet other players with whom to hone your racquet-wielding prowess. Now it’s time for you to get out on the tennis court.
Brian Hartz is a freelance journalist and tennis legend (in his own mind) based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Check out his blog and links to his other writings and ramblings at www.briwrites.com.
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