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Tennis challenges you to improve, to hit your strokes and develop your strategy to become a more efficient, effective player. When you improve your game, you don't just become a better player. You also get the satisfaction that comes from mastering a skill.

That's where pros — teaching professionals, not pro players — and tennis lessons come into the picture. When you get serious about your tennis, even if you're just playing for fun, you need to consider taking tennis lessons.

No tennis instructor, regardless of how much experience and talent he has, can turn you from a beginner into Monica Seles or Pete Sampras in one hour-long lesson (or even three, for that matter!). However, an instructor can help you improve your game in some very concrete ways, starting with Lesson 1.

Strength in numbers

A group program makes a lot of sense for beginners. When you first take up the game, you need to master the same fundamentals as everyone else. Your game doesn't have a unique personality, complete with strengths and flaws, that requires the individual attention of a one-on-one lesson.

You hit fewer balls in a group lesson, and you run less. Group lessons can be an advantage for beginners who aren't in great shape or for people who haven't developed enough strength or skill to take advantage of an intensive, 60-minute private lesson.

Group programs are usually given in series, often early in the year at outdoor facilities. Typically, you can sign up for a series of six lessons, given on set days and times over the course of three weeks or a month.

In a group lesson, which usually lasts for 60 to 90 minutes, you should expect to pay about $10 to $15 per lesson, including court time and balls. Bring your own racquet and accessories and be ready to play.

In order to get the most out of a group lesson, try to get in a class with six or fewer players. Go as high as eight students if you must, but any more bodies than that on the court really dilutes the lesson. Don't expect much individual attention in large groups.

Try any of the following places when looking for a group lesson:

  • Your local public courts and clubs: Most public tennis facilities have teaching pros on hand, and many of them offer introductory group lessons.

  • Municipal programs: Your town may offer summer tennis programs through its recreation department. Often, these programs aren't advertised, so don't be bashful about calling your local parks department and inquiring about their offerings.

  • The USTA: The United States Tennis Association, the organization that runs U.S. tennis, sponsors a free program called "Tennis Free For All" to get people of all ages to try tennis. It also offers the "USA Tennis 1-2-3" program, a low-cost introductory instructional program for all ages that teaches basic skills to new players in a group environment.

  • The USPTA and USPTR: The United States Professional Tennis Association and the United States Professional Tennis Registry are the two main organizations created for and run by certified teaching professionals. Each of them has referral services for players in search of instructors. You can reach the USPTA at 1-800-877-8248 or the USPTR at 1-800-421-6289.

  • Resorts and dedicated tennis camps: A great introduction to the game. The programs are moderate to very intensive but designed at the best camps with an excellent sense of a beginner's need. Most camps and resorts offer a variety of other activities for playing as well as non-playing guests.

    You can use to check out and link up with a wide variety of camps and resorts. Most camp and resort Web sites provide a schedule of current programs, costs, and contact information.

Hiring a certified pro for private lessons

The USPTA has about 11,000 members, 2,000 more than the USPTR. Both organizations have one great feature: They conduct serious, elaborate certification programs to make sure that their members are qualified to teach tennis. Certification proves that a pro knows and plays the game well enough to teach.

A letter of certification from the USPTA or USPTR is as close to a quality guarantee for your pro as you can come. Most certified pros are affiliated with individual commercial or private tennis facilities. You can start your search for a pro at any of those places.

When deciding whether to take lessons from a particular pro, ask her about the following things and base your hiring decision on the answers you get:

  • Fee: You pay for most tennis lessons by the hour, including group sessions and private, one-on-one lessons. Fees vary widely based on the amount of personal attention, the equipment used, and your location. On average, you can expect to pay around $40 for a private lesson with a teaching pro, and anywhere up to $100 for a big-name teacher.

  • Teaching style: Is the pro in the mold of a Marine drill sergeant? A New-Age, "see the ball, be the ball" guru? An old-fashioned teacher who stresses mechanics? Not all teaching styles suit all players. Ask the pro about her style and see whether it seems compatible to yours.

  • Background: Ask as much about the pro's playing and teaching experience as possible without being nosy about her other pupils or private life. Ask what the pro likes and dislikes about teaching.

  • References: You could ask the pro to give you the names of two or three former students as references. But seeing a pro in action is the best reference of them all.

  • Communication skills: After your conversation, ask yourself whether the pro showed an acceptable ability to communicate in a relaxed, friendly fashion. But remember, you're not looking for a new best friend — you're looking for someone who can help your tennis game.

Maximizing the efficiency of your hour

Before you show up for your first lesson, your pro should already know something about your game and, therefore, your strengths and weaknesses. The pro should understand what you need to work on and how you can improve. You should have described your game or even hit with the pro before you hired him, so that he's familiar with your game.

During the lesson, ask for more information if your pro tells you something you don't understand. When communicating valuable information about the game, good coaches have a knack for doing it with vivid examples, memorable catchphrases, or even gimmicky techniques.

Keep these tips in mind to get the most out of your time with your pro:

  • Show up on time, ready to play.

  • Do your stretching beforehand.

  • Have all your stuff.

  • Be patient — give your body and mind time to loosen up and get in the flow of things.

  • Forget your pro and concentrate on the ball.

  • Stay within your comfort zone.

  • Enjoy yourself!

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