Move to the Ball – It's About the Split Step
Move to the ball, get into position, adjust for the hit, recover, then do it all over again, but this time more quickly. Tennis is and always will be a game of movement. But just as you and I work to feel the nuances of the underspin volley, or the semi-western topspin drive, the nuances of your first move to the ball can also be practiced. Yet somehow, footwork tends to be overlooked as we marvel at the power of the professional game, as well as the technology of the latest racquets. But if you really want to improve your game – the answer lies at your feet.
Ready, Read, React
Simply put, the best players, whether recreational or professional, react very quickly. But before reacting the player must stand ready, neutral, and able to move forward or backward, left or right. And before reacting the player must read the ball. The reading thing does not occur at impact, but actually a moment after contact when the ball comes off the player’s strings. Note the absent “A” in my formula (Ready, Read, React), this model makes no reference to “anticipation.” It will not be about guessing, or hunches, but simply neutral ready, then reading and reacting. The quicker the reaction the better. The simpler the reaction the better.
For the first shot of the rally, whether returning serve, or simply hitting the ball back and forth with a friend, players are generally ready. But as the ball moves back and forth across the net, the readiness thing becomes an issue of timing. And there in lies the secret to the split step. Each and every time your opponent strikes the ball you must be splitting your feet into a balanced ready position. But to my “teacher's eye,” most players rarely time or execute this all important split step.
Take a moment with the following close up of the magnificent Fabrice Santoro (below). This “Magician” (the nickname earned after beating Pete Sampras 6-1, 6-1 on the red clay of Monte Carlo) lands the split step with perfect balance, and instantly moves from the split step to the ball. But, his movements appear (and actually are) quick rather than powerful, agile rather than explosive. Remember McEnroe or Edberg, those guys were quick as cats.
Time Your Split Step to the Moment of Contact
Click photo: Santoro moves immediately into his gravity step (left leg folding beneath him) as he moves left.
Some recreational players split way too early, then wait to read the ball. And waiting at this moment kills the momentum, freezes the feet, and delays the reaction. Others run through the split step, either ignoring it entirely (through misguided anticipation) or split well after the ball has been hit, such that the reading and subsequent reaction occur way too late. Each and every time the opponent touches the ball, bounce into a light, poised, feet spread, back straight split step ready position.
Professionals, however (and we see this in the video demonstration of my colleague, JJ, below), time their split a moment later. This has to do with the “reading.” One can read the ball not at the moment of contact (unless the shot has been telegraphed) but actually a moment later, as the ball comes off the racquet. So the pros have developed a technique where they are in the air at contact, and reading the ball as they descend into the ready split. In that manner, they quicken their reaction time.
So whether professional or recreational, there will always be subtle variations in the timing of the split step. In certain instances Federer places the ball such that his opponent has few options, and when he can anticipate even slightly within this scenario, his split and subsequent reaction may be sooner than contact. And equally, JJ’s timing and subsequent footwork may vary within his three examples.
Too often players work to recover to the middle of the baseline (presuming that spot bisects the opponent’s angle of play) and place more importance on where rather than when. But again, we can learn from the professional model. Those guys and girls place much more importance on the when, often not fully recovering back to the center of the baseline, but landing the split in such a way that they can often overcome poor recovery positioning with quick starts to the open court.
The ready position allows one to move in any direction at a moment's notice. This position is about posture -- a wide stance, but equally a lightness where the legs feel engaged rather than stuck to the ground.
When landing the split step, one simply moves into this position as the opponent hits, but with total attention to posture, to width of stance, and to a feeling that one does not land and wait but rather “touch and go” (a little like a practice plane landing and taking off again). On this score McEnroe was (and continues to be) the master. The following video shows just how this split step looks. Nothing dramatic, muscular, or explosive, just a “gathering” at impact followed by an immediate “go” to the ball.
Split Step Practice
Click photo: McEnroe moves cat-like and balanced through the split step into volleying position.
First and foremost when viewing a match, either live or on television, watch one player for the duration of the game, not the ball as it crosses the net, but simply that one player. Then note that each and every time you hear the opponent make contact, the player's poised, well timed split step.
Second, when playing, make an equal effort to watch the ball closely on both sides of the net. Too often players use their eyes far better when hitting than when reading the opponent. In order to be on time, and react quickly, make every effort to see precisely when the opponent makes contact.
Third, try this drill with your coach or practice partner. Positioned yourself slightly in front of the baseline and have your coach feed balls from the service line to either your forehand or backhand wing. As the coach tosses the ball up in the air for a drop hit, begin walking forward. Then, as the coach makes contact, execute a moving split step where you retain your forward momentum, but quickly cut to the forehand or backhand to finish the volley. The art lies in noting that you can indeed continue moving forward as the ball is tossed up, but that the split must occur only when contact is made.
(Click link to purchase Jim's McLennan's Secrets of World Class Footwork Video.)
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