More Thoughts on Footwork
The previous newsletter on the Russian women and footwork generated many emails, complimentary and critical, and some asking more questions. To digress (yes once again) I am delighted to have the opportunity to "muse" about the game, and equally delighted with the email feedback. I think there is more to the game than meets the eye, and hope that the occasional "off the wall observation" may get you to thinking, or better yet re-thinking some aspect of this game.
Federer seems to glide around the court with graceful, ballet-like movements.
So it is said there are two cardinal rules of tennis, and when never broken one is assured to win. Rule one - get the ball in play. Rule two - always assume your opponent will get the ball back. As to rule one, it really is that simple.
Ion Tiriac, once a Davis Cup partner to Ilie Nastase, then coach to Guillermo Vilas, Boris Becker, and Henri LeConte, has been considered one of the smartest men in tennis. When asked for the key to good play, he replied, "Put the ball up and over the net." Laughable, perhaps. Concise, definitely. Key word, UP. Getting the ball in play means getting the ball up and over the net. Assuming your opponents will always get their return in play (though we prefer they miss just a little more than we do) means recovering, repositioning, and being ready to move to the next shot.
So perhaps, since the cardinal rules above have little to do with grips, tactics, or even racquets - it may really be that FOOTWORK IS THE NAME OF THE GAME. And if so, then the quality of your movement to the ball - this includes your positioning for the swing, your balance when arriving in this position, and the timing of your arrival - this quality of movement may be everything.
So what does the reference to ballet and the Russian players have to do with footwork. Miroslav Mecir, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Roger Federer - all moved in a dance-like way, quick not powerful, fluid without betrayal of effort. Yes, we can appreciate this, but can you and I approach it? And further, as many of you asked, what are drills, methods, and other devices that offer insight.
On this question, I approached a number of our writers as well as many local colleagues, asking, "What is it in the quality of movement that makes the footwork appear light or effortless and how (and why) do these players appear to glide over the court. Do you have any drills that attempt to promote this to your students?" I didn't really get many answers. Might be that everyone was busy, or perhaps something in the question is the issue - that is this may be difficult to explain much less teach and or learn.
Allow me to go off the reservation here. First I know my coach, the legendary Tom Stow, asked me and others to "rehearse." He expected that I would glide across the baseline pretending to hit forehands and backhands with ease and rhythm, a purposeful dance. And this was (and is) difficult. He knew that, and would acknowledge wryly, "If you can't do it without a ball, how can you ever imagine doing it with a ball." Point well taken. I confess I did not rehearse as much as he expected, but only came to enjoy this drill years later, and I still am willing to do it. Plain old rehearsal. Practice steps to the forehand and a rhythmic step and swing, recover and repeat to the backhand. Simulate a graceful 10 shot exchange, catch your breath, and repeat.
Second, I spoke with Tony Kramer, of the Stanford Dance department, asking whether he knew of dance instructors working in an athletic cross training vein. Though no names came to mind, he did reveal, "Ballet does a significant amount of training on a single leg (balance). On this single leg there is real speed practiced in the free or gesturing leg. Moving always involves a step where one foot reaches as the other pushes.
Dancers practice many jumps and combinations of jumps but is there really something to gain here for tennis players?
Dancers practice many jumps and combinations of jumps in an hour." So this led me to reflect on a routine I explored years ago, discovered when riding the rails with Mister O. Waiting for a train, I was killing time on the tracks, and began leaping from rail to rail, trying to maintain balance on one landing leg. This required strength, but more importantly it was about reaching, leaping, then landing on balance. So on a Sunday morning, I attempted a safer (and 30 years down the road) version of this drill. The following morning my legs felt like I had played a three set match the previous day.
Here was the routine, and it may have value. Rehearsing in the Tom Stow mode, I practiced quick moves to the forehand, then the backhand, but in this drill I was trying to land on the back foot and maintain balance on just this one foot. Some of the time I kept balance, other times I failed, but with practice, I started landing slightly lower, and quickly rekindled the hang of it. Moving quickly, then alighting on perfect balance on the back leg, poised, low, ready to step (not exactly in but rather to step so as then to be on both feet equally). This may be as close as I can get to a dance like rehearsal. I encourgage you to experiment. And keep me posted.
As always, we would love to hear your views on the subjects raised in this newsletter. Please click here to send your email directly to me.
Jim McLennan TennisOne Editor
(Click link to purchase Jim's McLennan's Secrets of World Class Footwork Video).
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