If you are a regular reader of my column, you already know my favorite saying is “lazy feet lead to lousy shots.” We have accepted and conquered the fact that our feet must move for us to be in proper position to strike the ball. Let’s now consider the importance of the timing of our footsteps in relation to being in proper position to strike the ball.
There is a certain cadence that is associated with a rally in a tennis point.
In today’s world of professional tennis with all of the grunting and squealing that is now prevalent in the game, you can actually hear the beat, like a rhythm in a song, as the players are exchanging strokes.
This cadence and rhythm is also extremely important in our footwork. Basically, if my feet are not in proper cadence and timing with the incoming ball, my ability to proficiently strike the ball is greatly diminished.
With beginner and intermediate level players, the most prevalent problem is that they are usually too close to the ball at contact, and this encourages them to swing short and fast. However, when the contact point is farther away from the body, we will naturally reach out to the ball, which will force us to swing longer and slower. This will also force us to swing more withour shoulder(s) and rotate our upper body through the stroke, all good stuff!
To help prevent us from being too close to the ball at contact, we must learn to be able to combine short steps with long strides. The long strides provide the speed we need to cover a distance while the short steps act as a braking system, to slow us down, which allows us to change direction of movement.
Next time you watch tennis on T.V. and the camera is on a full court view showing both players, focus all of your attention to only watching just one player and pay close attention to his/her footwork. Notice that when the ball is on the opponent’s side of the court during the rally, while there may be a slight pause in the movement of his/her feet to allow a change of direction, the player’s feet virtually never stop moving.
I often see club level players do what I call “hit and sit.” They strike the ball, finish their stroke and just stand there, motionless on the court, like a sailboat sitting on the water with no breeze.
You will also notice that the pros make a split step when their opponent is striking the ball. I jokingly call this split step a “jounce,” which I define as a jump and a bounce combined together. The purpose of a jounce is to get and keepour feet in proper timing with the cadence and rhythm of the rally. Players begin their movement with a jounce when the opponent is striking the ball. Following the properly timed jounce, they begin to move towards the ball with small short steps and end up in long strides.
Unfortunately for most players, (because we have not jounced at the proper time), we begin to move our feet too late. In addition to this, we sometimes also move with the wrong foot first. Now we are not only out of cadence with the rally, but are also out of step with the incoming ball. A recipe for disaster!
Coaches in many sports utilize a rope ladder for footwork drills. I do training drills with my students utilizing a rope ladder, which I locate on specific areas of the tennis court. Using a combination of pickleball and tennis lines, I have the students move through the rungs of the ladder in specific patterns, placing their feet on specific lines with each step to encourage proper footwork.
These patterns and movements train the player to always step laterally with the correct foot first, which will keep our feet in proper synchronization with the incoming ball. These patterns and movements also train the player the proper gait of long strides and short steps to help from over running/running into the ball, and being too close at point ofcontact.
The programming of our feet from properly doing these drills create the ability for us to not have to think about our footwork patterns. I call it unconscious consciousness or doing without thinking.
To strike the ball cleanly, we must find a proper balance between the upper body and the lower body.
When we take small, short steps, (or no steps at all), our upper body tends to be off balance, because our feet are too close together, which makes us feel top heavy. Therefore, when we swing at the ball with our feet too close, we are off balance, which generally produces a weak and usually misdirected shot.
If we take longer strides and learn to hit on the run, our upper body will be more in balance with our feet.
From this we will naturally hit a stronger shot and have more directional control over where our shot is going.
Wayne Clark is a certified professional tennis instructor with over 23 years experience coaching players on all levels of the game. Wayne is also qualified in pickleball instruction. He has been the head instructor at the Marco Island Racquet Center since 2001. The Racquet Center offers clinics, private and group lessons for both tennis and pickleball. Coach Wayne’s Island Kids Tennis juniors program runs year round and has classes for players from kindergarten through high school. Contact Coach Wayne by email at WClark@cityofmarcoisland.com, by phone or text at 239-450-6161, or visit his website at www.marco-island-tennis.com.