It’s a warning I’ve not heard since secondary school when the football hurtled towards me in the playground, but now it’s the terrifying cry I hear for about an hour every week at my beginners’ tennis lessons. With balls flying all over the place, I’m grateful for the warning - I don’t want to rock up to work with a black eye.
Having never played tennis before - apart from one PE lesson which ended with my best friend and I in fits of giggles as we tried (and failed) to rally - I decided to take the plunge and start learning. Every year when summer rolls around my friends, inspired by Wimbledon fever, dust of their rackets to play tennis and I can’t help but feel a pang of envy.
So here I am at Better’s Islington Tennis Centre ready(ish) to royally embarrass myself.
It’s a scary thing to start learning something new as an adult. Heading to my first lesson, I almost turn back. With other gym classes I have no qualms with just walking in and giving it a go, but I’m dreading that awkward moment when you have to pick someone to pair up with - and them realising just how terrible I am.
Each session consists of around 12-15 participants and three coaches, one to every four or five people. Even though it’s for beginners there is a pretty big gulf in ability, I later learn some people have been coming to lessons for over a year, but they do take newbies on all the time. This means the room is a mix of people who can actually play a little and those like me who don’t even know how to hold a racket properly.
Each session will have a focus - be it backhand or serves - and the whole class will work on these. Because of the ratio of coaches to participants we’re often split into groups with some learning the absolute basics (me), while others build on what they’ve already learned.
“Whenever anyone joins the courses, we ask what their level is and coaches will observe from the beginning,” explains Joachim Treasurer, tennis manager at Better’s Islington Tennis Centre & Gym. “Even during warm-ups they are looking at every single person, their training is to identify certain things - hand/eye coordination, footwork (some people are a bit clumsy) and their perception. It looks like the coaches are walking around, but they are always looking.”
In my first lesson, I’m paired up with another beginner and we start working on our forehand technique. Her name is Danielle and it turns out she started just three weeks ago. We’re not far off each other in terms of ability, which makes me feel better. We laugh, encourage each other and forgive each of the missteps. I can get used to this, I think.
Then, some 45 minutes into my first lesson, our coach Luis serves a bit of a curveball and makes us start rotating around to play with different people. I know everyone else seems better than me and my current partner, so I’m effectively cacking my pants. “Welcome to the jungle,” he says, cracking a smirk.
But, even though I’m definitely one of the worst here, once we start playing you realise nobody is a perfect tennis player here - it is a beginners’ course after all. “Everyone started like you,” says Luis, reassuring me after sending yet another ball flying in the wrong direction.
Lisa Bunclark, a 28-year-old account manager for a travel publisher, has been coming to sessions for around four months and admits that she too was initially hesitant about coming on her own, but she soon learned not to take herself so seriously. “Every week I’ve got to know people, you start to share jokes and I know a few people by name,” she says. “I look forward to coming every week - you know you’re going to have a laugh, miss a few balls and have a laugh at yourself.”
In my handful of lessons, I’ve definitely had my fair share of awful cringeworthy moments. That time a stray ball of mine hit one of the coaches in the back (this is before I’d been conditioned to shout “HEADS”), that time I was asked to demo in front of the entire group and completely missed the ball or that time I hit the ball into a load of tennis rackets, sending them crashing to the ground.
What I am doing though is learning a hell of a lot. At the end of each session I feel completely exhausted - not physically, as I’m not at the level where I’m running around on court, but mentally exhausted. There is just so much to remember.
I’ve never been a particularly patient person (I quit almost every sport I tried as a kid because I didn’t think I was good at it) but my expectation of how quickly I would pick up tennis was particularly unrealistic - I genuinely thought after six sessions I’d be able to play.
“People don’t realise just how much is going on when you’re playing tennis. From hand-eye coordination, footwork to movement, there is so much going on and as you get better there’s even more that goes on,” says Joachim, adding that some people have been attending sessions for nine years before reaching the advanced classes. “As you advance, hitting the ball gets easier, but overall it’s much harder and there are more things to do. When you get to a good level, during a two-hour match a tennis player will make 700 decisions.”
But, he adds, the complicated nature of the sport means some people get frustrated that they can’t improve as quickly as they’d like to. He believes it’s also one of the reasons participation numbers aren’t as high as other sports.
“All club coaching or tennis centres is focused foremost on fun, not about making you an excellent tennis player,” he says. “Trying to be active, teach a new skill, and build confidence.”
I soon learn firsthand that learning tennis even at a basic, social level isn’t something you can pick up overnight. It requires patience, dedication and - above all - not taking yourself too seriously.
Better offers adult tennis lessons across the UK. Some are available to purchase as individual classes, while others are provided as part of a monthly membership. Find out more here.