Tennis players are like bears: They hibernate in winter and hunt quarry all summer. Not that the indoor tennis facilities around Washington weren't filled over the snowy season, not at all. But show us a dedicated hacker who claims he plays as often, as long and as passionately when it is costing him the hourly wage of a skilled plumber and we'll show you a golfer, a liar or a closet fisherman.

Some tennis players just hang it up altogether for the winter, figuring that if God had meant for us to play indoors, He would not have given us the defensive lob. Spring-time is nature's way of telling yo to play outdoors again.

First, run an equipment check: Wooden rackets warped? Strings (especially gut) brittle or frayed? Shoes watertight? Colors coordinated?

Now a body count: weight up 10 percent, jogging distance down 90 percent, eyes hooded from snow glare, serving arm stiff and strokes gone all to Mudville and back.

Pamper yourself. Think of spring as your tennis childhood again. It's patterning time, only at your advanced age, this will be the accelerated (read:fun) course. You'll be surprised how good it feels to find after the first 20 minutes that you can hit three forehands in a row over the net. Try to make it 10 by the end of the hour.

For the first 10 minutes out, avoid backhands if you've ever had tennis elbow. In October, you can at least look back and savor the first 10 minutes of the season.

For the rest of your first day out, forget about playing a regular match. This is to save your weary self for another day and to avoid looking like you should switch to leap-and-lunge sports like racketball. It will also help preserve that tenuous friendship with your partner. This is especially important if he lives in Potomac and plans to put in a private court by August.

Tennis strokes, like your gray matter, need grooving, especially when they've been asleep for more than a week. Watch yourself on the closed-circuit TV screen in the back of your mind. Concentrate on the fundamental mechanics of each stroke: backswing, weight shift and follow-through.Don't worry too much about where the balls are going at first. Hit easy, it's a long summer ahead. Clear the net by four or five feet each time. Best to begin, if possible, with a basket of old balls so you won't be tempted to smash winners with a weak arm. You'll also get more practice with 50 balls than with three. You only get an hour, remember. Drills can be fun. Set your partner up for 25 down-the-line forehands, then 25 crosscourt. Then take your turn. Repeat the process on the backhand side. Come to the net and do the same: forehand volleys down the line, then cross-court. Next the backhand.

Drills can also be boring. Wrap up the hour with two 10-point games. Your partner serves until one person has 10 points, then you do the same. Now get off the court because we've the to grim guys in line right behind you.

Special equipment for April: a down jacket on cool days to be shed after the warm-up; a white towel to wrap around your neck afterward to avoid late-season pneumonia and make you look tough, like a boxer; and one old broom to obliterate rain puddles, unless you like spending money on gut strings. Ignore all sideline jokes about witches.)

Q - I have one racket strung with gut, the other with nylon. Which one should I start off with?

A - The one strung with nylon. You never know how much water you may find on the courts. Also, gut dries out and becomes brittle during winter storage. This causes additional contact vibration which can aggravate tennis elbow.

Q - Is it all right to wear gloves on cold days?

A - Gloves are fine so long as they are thin enough to let your feel the racket handle and make the proper grip changes.

Q - I have noticed that pressurized American balls tend to feel dead on cold days. What about using European pressureless balls?

A - Pressureless balls such as Tretorn last longer, play more heavily and are less affected by wind gusts. But they can also have a jarring effect on the forearm muscles and the elbow.

Q - I want to improve my mental preparation for tennis this spring. How should I start?

A - In the comfort of your own living room. Read the great Bill Tilden's Match Play and the Spin of the Ball for basics, Tim Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis to calm yourself down and Vic Braden's Common Sense Approach to Tennis ("Whoever gets three balls over the net usually wins the point."). Better than three cop shows and an April storm.