Playing tennis for keeps


Only tennis players know the joy of striking a screaming cross-court winner or the satisfaction of a service ace smacked up the “T.” But many also know the relentless ache of tennis elbow or the discomfort of sleeping on a shoulder worn out from one too many overhead smashes.

Tennis, says West Tisbury physical therapist Larry Greenberg, is a violent sport. In practice for 32 years, he’s seen more than his share of shoulder, wrist, elbow, back, leg, spine, and neck injuries borne by zealous tennis players.

“People don’t think of tennis as a contact sport,” says Mr. Greenberg, co-owner of Greenberg Physical and Hand Therapy Associates. “But it is. You’re in contact with the ground and a high-speed object. Competitive players experience tremendous shock absorption to joints and muscles. Tennis involves violent pounding, repetitive motion, and constant change of direction combined with speed.”

So what is it about all this running, jumping, swinging, and sweating that gets more than 24 million players a year in the U.S. alone so revved up? And is there any way to play the game at a competitive level without ending up on Mr. Greenberg’s table, reciting a litany of aches and pains?

Still slim and fit in his 70s, Kib Bramhall of West Tisbury strikes a tennis ball with the same passion he applies to his luminous landscapes and still life paintings. Playing several times a week year-round, this celebrated Vineyard artist is proof that tennis can truly be a lifetime sport — albeit one with accompanying physical complaints.

An avid doubles player, Mr. Bramhall has suffered his share of injuries over a half-century of matches. Today, he tries to make time both before and after his games to warm up and cool down, imperative if he’s going to compete against his favorite opponents — players that range in age from 20 to 50 years younger. He also walks, fishes, cross-country skis, and ice skates in order to keep a balance in his fitness routine.

“If anything, I’m playing better than ever,” he says. “I have to if I want to compete against younger players. I do dumbbell exercises before going out, along with stretches. And I try to remember to stretch after the match as well.”

Most common injuries

While health experts agree that tennis can help maintain or improve mobility, balance, agility, strength, and fitness, they also caution that the benefits come with a price: The wear and tear of a repetitive motion sport.

Dr. Rocco Monto, an orthopedic surgeon with offices on the Vineyard and Nantucket, admits with a chuckle that tennis players are good for his business.

“They tend to be type A personalities,” he says, “who try to play through their injuries. But since many of them are weekend athletes they often wind up in my office.”

Like Mr. Greenberg, Dr. Monto associates tennis players with shoulder and elbow injuries, but he also sees a large number of Achilles and calf strains. He encourages players to match their shoes to the playing surface. “They make tennis shoes for either hard or soft court surfaces. It’s important to choose the right equipment.”

With so many adults now participating in sports into their 50s and 60s, injuries are inevitable, Dr. Monto says. “I strongly suggest appropriate stretching and I also urge my patients to consider playing doubles instead of singles. It’s less ballistic and requires less lateral motion.”

Mr. Greenberg offers this succinct advice: “Get in shape to play your sport. Don’t play your sport to get into shape.”

Preventing problems

Players of all ages sustain injuries, from junior champions to seniors on the local town courts. But experts agree that there are ways to reduce the likelihood of acute or overuse tennis injuries.

Scott Smith, a certified tennis professional for more than 30 years and Executive Director of Vineyard Youth Tennis, has played since he was 10 years old. His favorite word: moderation.

“I don’t recommend daily play,” he says, “and make smart choices in equipment.” Racquets have become dramatically lighter over the years, sometimes to the detriment of players’ health. “They can put unnecessary strain on elbows and shoulders. Opt for soft-core strings like Wilson Sensation instead and relax your grip and your swing. If you think your mechanics are causing pain, ask a pro to watch your game. We can pick up on what you’re doing wrong and help you fix it.”

Craig Yuhas, co-owner of B-Strong health club in Oak Bluffs and a certified personal trainer, works with several tennis players on a regular basis and focuses on exercises that help compensate for the imbalances created by a repetitive and one-sided (the dominant-hand side of the body) sport.

“Don’t blindly perform exercises in the gym,” he says. “You want to address the motions inherent in the sport and try to correct for the imbalances caused by repetitive motion.”

Massage therapist and athletic trainer Jason Peringer, owner of Vineyard Haven’s Center for Therapeutic Massage, recommends massage in addition to regular stretching. “Come in for maintenance, not an overhaul,” he advises. “By the time you feel tight you’re already over-using the muscles.” Massage has been shown to help with circulation, range of motion, strength, and the ability to contract muscles.

An increasing number of tennis players are turning to yoga to help increase core strength and concentration. Yoga instructor Bonnie Menton of the Yoga Barn in Chilmark and the new Yoga Collective at Island Co-Housing in West Tisbury, says that it’s the perfect complement to any sport or exercise.

“We see people with back, knee, and shoulder injuries. The beauty of yoga is that you can work around injury by modifying poses. Tennis players can improve their focus, breathing, balance, alignment, and body awareness,” she says.

As for Mr. Bramhall, he looks forward to many more years on the court. A word of warning to his opponents: he likes his down-the-line shot best and Rafa is his favorite player.

Karla Araujo, who divides her time between Washington D.C. and Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.