Footwork - The Nuts and Bolts
Some Concluding Thoughts
In the past few issues I have ruminated about footwork. Discussing Federer's disguise led us to imagine what cues players have to "start early" and that leads into a really large issue of when to move, how long to wait, and what exactly makes for a "good jump on the ball." Then the discussion of the Russian women, how they appear (to my eye anyway) to move somehow smoother or with less effort than many of their highly ranked colleagues, and whether early ballet training may have influenced this ease of movement.
There has been a tremendous amount of reader feedback on this topic, and perhaps footwork may be overlooked, maybe misunderstood, or at the least a skill set that is not readily trained, or whose training methods not readily identified.
With that in mind, let me try to answer some questions that may lead you to some on court experiments.
A proviso before starting: there may be in fact two realities when it comes to tennis. The first, television tennis, occurs when we watch the professionals leap, sprint, lunge, scramble, and generally make shots that we (or at least I) cannot duplicate.
Truly, they can control their swings when seemingly off balance, and much of what they do could only be duplicated were we world class athletes dedicating 20 hours of tennis practice per week for a period of many years. The second reality is closer to home - it is how you feel when moving to the ball. It is how you move about the court. It is your awareness of your feet, both in how they move and how they are placed when hitting.
So what is the purpose and value of footwork and what does it allow us to do?
What is the difference between covering the court and good footwork? What specifically makes for good footwork? If most things have a beginning a middle and an end, then similarly one can ask how you feel when starting to the ball, what is your awareness when moving to the ball, and finally how do you arrive, in what footwork sequence, and with what foot placement when finally ready to swing? (The ensuing discussion presumes a right handed player moving to the forehand, using the old school footwork where one actually steps in.)
The elegant Chris Evert, a perfect role model for grace and movement.
The beginning - starting to the ball. In the ready position, refer to the 3 Rs - Ready, Read, and React. And many people already start behind the eight ball here, for their ready position has somehow a crouched-bending at the waist look, rather than an erect spine with ankles and knees engaged. Assuming an athletic posture, in sequence the player then reads the ball (discerns whether to prepare for forehand or backhand) and then reacts. This reaction is the beginning, the first move, everything starts here, and if done poorly everything that follows will suffer. The elegant Chris Evert can be the model for "our reality" on this one. The first move, the beginning, the initiation of movement to the ball began with her. Every time. The hips, the shoulders, the foot closest to the ball, everything turns as one toward the direction of movement. This turn, this pivot, places the body weight on the right foot, the left knee going slack, this unweighted left leg then moves in close succession following the hip turn.
The middle - how do you move your feet once started? If at all possible the movement is now light, the steps relatively soundless, and the strides even. Not long then short then long strides. Not quick, then slow, then sudden steps. The best movers at our club appear to glide at this point, moving quickly but somehow without effort.
Now balance is everything, for when moving quickly the body must lean slightly ahead of the feet, but only slightly. Lean too far and there is a staggering look. Lean not at all and the movement occurs with effort, if at all. As you evaluate this "leaning" reflect that when someone walks through a plate glass door, do they hit their foot, their knee or their head? Always their head. Otherwise known as dynamic imbalance, but the art is in mastering, controlling and initiating this imbalance that leads to movement. Perhaps it can be best said as moving from the top and letting the feet follow.
Ready position, split step, hip turn, smooth glinding motion, balance.
The ending. Now it gets tricky. Turn to the ball, moving quickly, now how to land and where to land? Whenever possible, the footwork ends on the back foot, the foot furthest from the net, in this case the right foot, Fred Earle called this the "educated foot."
This final step on the back foot measures the ball, so at this moment you are in a good position to initiate your step and swing. But there is one more chance to measure, and that is with the final rhythmic step into the hit (this is old school terminology, but some of us still step into the ball now and then). This final step with the front (left) foot can also be measured, so if not exactly in the correct position, this step can adjust position once again.
Interestingly, most club players stop on the front foot. In this version, there is less rhythm in the swing, and if this last step is not placed correctly they are unable to readjust, and often assume the ball crowded them (at this point I look for language that accepts responsibility, as in "I crowded the ball").
And a final note on when to step. Somehow many of us assume that "prepare early" actually means step in early. Just the opposite. Prepare early refers to the initial turn, and on this issue the earlier the better (visualize Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi). The final step into the ball has the same rhythm as the pitcher or the batter. The pitchers delivery begins with the step toward home plate. The batters swing begins with the same but in this case subtle step. One - two - and three. One is the weight waiting on the back foot. Two is the forward step initiating the forward swing and describes the syncopation where the hips and shoulders turn in but the racquet lags. Three is the loose, flowing, heavy hit.
Through your footwork journey, understand that matches can be long, seasons longer, and this sport of a lifetime will take just that much time. So always evaluate your efficiency. That is, always monitor the amount of effort you expend when scooting around the court. Always be aware of the quality and clarity of your turns. Are they early? Are they simple? Have you turned precisely toward the direction you intent to move? Always monitor your balance when turning and when arriving. Feel whether your footwork enables you to swing slow yet hit hard, and that is not a misnomer. When on balance and in rhythm, precise footwork enables you to hit flowing strokes, effortlessly driven, all from the timing of that final step and swing.
Many readers referred to Welby Van Horn, and others to Tom Stow, as prominent teachers known for their emphasis on footwork, on balance, on posture and on rhythm. As a student, Tom would tease me about how much noise my shoes made, how muscular and choppy my footwork appeared, and how much effort it took me to still arrive late for the ball. With practice under his withering and unrelenting scrutiny, my turns improved, my steps became simpler and my measuring steps more accurate. Once, and truly just once, he finally told me, "That is how it is supposed to look." I can still remember that afternoon at Silverado, and I was moving quickly, on balance, and stepping into everything. And in our own way, we were all trying to emulate the dancing grace of Toms prize pupil, Grand Slam champion Don Budge.
Note - there are many articles within the TennisOne library that elaborate on footwork.
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 Jims McLennans Secrets of World Class Footwork Video).
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