Instruction: Footwork

Put Your Best Foot Forward
By Joe Watson

Ever hit a ball and you think it will be a good shot, only for it to wind up in the net or sailing wide?  Then, do you look at your racquet head? Next time try looking at your feet.

We are always concentrating on keeping our eyes on the ball, working to improve our ground strokes, placing our serves and winning points. Certainly in tennis there is a lot to think about. But how often do we actually remember that our feet carry us through each rally, each point, and that footwork is a major part of our overall game?

Without proper footwork, a quarterback cannot throw passes, hand off the ball to a running back, or scramble with the ball effectively. If you are a true New Englander, you should remember a young Boston College quarterback that stole the spotlight and won the Heisman Trophy via the infamous “Hail Mary” pass.  Doug Flutie’s miracle in Miami back in 1984 would never have happened if not for his fleeing footwork. (Go to YouTube to re-live this incredible play!)

One of the basic foundations in any sport starts with the feet. Think basketball - a game of balance, control and quickness.  Players work constantly on ball handling and drills to balance their footwork. The footwork of a professional boxer is crucial to his training and ultimately his success in the ring.  Soccer players practice footwork drills incessantly, as it is the key to their field success. Why should this be any different in tennis?

As with anything, you should think of the game of tennis as being built from the ground up – then this means you start with your feet. You’ve heard your tennis instructor say “Get ready, on your toes” - these are cues – move your feet!  When watching the U.S. Open, you see all the pros bouncing on their toes and moving their feet as they await service from their opponent. 

You have to move to hit the ball, and since getting the racquet on the ball is the way to play tennis, you have to make sure your feet are moving with you to properly to get to your opponent’s shot. If you feel you are always lunging for balls, or feel you are a step behind each shot, here are some helpful tennis tips to improve your footwork.

Take Short Quick Steps:  If you find yourself lunging for balls, pull up and take quicker steps. Shuffling your feet will give you a better stance and better positioning to return a ball to your opponent. Ultimately this gives you better control on the ball and will allow you to effectively cover the court, and more of the court.

Parallel to this, if you have to sprint from one side of the court to the other, or baseline to net, everyone uses regular strides to reach the ball.  In these instances, as you get closer to the ball you should try to shorten your steps.  The reasoning here is that your body energy has been heightened to get to the ball, and when you get to the ball you actually have excess energy, so when you hit the ball you may have excess energy/power to put into your shot. This gives you more lift on the ball resulting in an “out” call.

By shortening your steps as you get closer to the ball, you should have more control and balance to hit a great return, if not a winner.

Bounce Step:  Use a bounce step between shots.  On the balls of your feet, move your weight back and forth from one to the other – finding your own rhythm. This will make you actively ready to move to your next shot.

Split Stepping:  At the net we all tend to become flat-footed, after all we’re at the net. Tennis is about balance and precision hitting. The volley is the easiest way to put away points.  And guess what? Your feet can help make that happen. When you get to the net, make sure to “plant your feet.”  How many times have you heard your instructor say that?  When you get to the net, your ready position should be on your toes, this way your feet are in primed position to correctly hit a forehand or backhand volley, and possibly give you better placement on the ball.

Knees Bent: The next step up from your footwork foundation. By keeping your knees bent during points, you will be ready to move during any part of a point.  Whether you are returning serve or in the midst of a point, keeping your knees bent will help move your feet to the ball or for those sprints to the net for drop shots and back to the baseline for lobs.

What else can you do to enhance your footwork? First off, try a Cardio Tennis class.  Cardio Tennis is a fun way to add fitness to your tennis, but more importantly it is also excellent in improving footwork.  Constantly in motion during a Cardio Tennis class you will be hitting twenty times more balls than you would in a regular game situation. This means you can really work on your footwork while hitting tennis balls and see for yourself just how much footwork is important to your game.  The first Cardio Tennis class I took, I was amazed at how much I didn’t pay attention to my feet! Believe me, it helps!

Here are some other ways to improve your footwork:

Slides: Bring both feet together then slide/step one foot out and bring the other together again (like skipping sideways in one direction). You can do this as part of your warm up. Go down one sideline with your right foot leading, then come back with your left foot leading.

Jogging:  I’m not saying go out and jog ten miles! A short jog (like two times around the tennis court) while focusing on your feet and the steps you are taking.  At the baselines, modify your jog to bring your knees as close to your chest as possible. You can also add a hop in here (jog and high hop). This will help with your balance and your foot control.

Jogging backwards:  Try jogging backwards. This does take a little bit of skill, and you understand if you’ve ever tried backing up from the net to retrieve a ball! Once you master this, try a Backwards Snake.  While jogging backwards, try completing an S-turn with every ten small steps. Just pay attention to your feet, we don’t want anyone falling!

Try a Wedel (a what?): From a trainer friend, I learned about the Wedel drill. Keeping your feet together, jump sideways to the right and slightly forward, and then jump sideways to the left, still moving forward. This movement will help you push off sideways and forward when you need to chase down a ball hit wide to your side.

Jumping rope: We mentioned professional boxers earlier. Jumping rope is an essential element in their work out regime, spending hours focusing and concentrating on footwork . I don’t recommend taking up boxing, but I do recommend jumping rope.  If you have young kids, make it fun by jumping rope with them!

Did you know that footwork is also getting wide attention through shows such as Dancing With The Stars and America’s Got Talent.  One of the most widely posted instances was in last season’s run of Dancing With The Stars, where U. S. Gold Medal skater Evan Lysacek, with dance partner Anna Trebunskaya, were constantly judged critically on their footwork. Lysacek and Trebunskaya worked extremely hard during that season, focusing on their footwork to finally win over judges Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli, and Carrie Ann Inaba. 

See, everyone needs to improve their footwork! And proper footwork will put you into the best position to hit your best shot. So, get out there and put your best foot forward.


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