Science is a good thing. But the almost endless amount of opinions on the ever-growing worldwide web can easily create confusion and over-analysis for the average tennis player. Slow motion cameras allow us to identify patterns in top players and enthusiastic coaches share that information freely all over the internet, of course with their own individual interpretations. On YouTube alone, a simple search on tennis footwork brings up countless tips. In fact, while writing this article and scanning the first page of YouTube searches alone, there are nearly 400,000 views of video clips on tennis footwork.
Why is footwork so important? At a coach’s workshop, I once shared that “A ball is not a dog. It won’t come to you. You have to move to it!”
Most players can be taught to stand in front of a mirror and in a short period of time, they will be able to shadow swing beautifully. Then they get on the court and their swing changes drastically, seemingly for every shot! The reason is when they are not rushed by a ball and are just standing in front of a mirror; a relaxed and fluid swing is relatively easy. It’s when we get rushed that we get tense and everything changes, often for the worse. This is true in life and on the court.
Four Elements of Faster Movement
Dealing with the pressure of the incoming ball has prompted tennis coaches and teaching pros to emphasize early preparation, movement, and balance for decades. From movement experts, tennis coaches commonly identify four elements of successful movement:
- Quick First Step – Of the four elements we will list, this is arguably the most important since it is the easiest of the four to improve.
- Acceleration – Tennis movement from Point A to Point B is all about acceleration since the distances covered are generally less than 60 feet. In other words, tennis movement is all about acceleration and deceleration. (NOTE: 60 feet is used since sprinters in short distance track and field short events are able to accelerate for the first 60 feet of their races.)
- Stride Rate – How fast we cycle our feet while running is called stride rate.
- Stride Length – How much distance each stride covers on a tennis court is called our stride length.
With this in mind, coaches and physical trainers encourage players to practice drills that help them move more effectively. Players with speedier and more efficient movement skills always improve their competitive results. After all, any player who prepares earlier for incoming balls is going to improve their playing level. No question about it.
How Many Movement Patterns Do I Need to Learn?
Faster movement is not always synonymous with the most efficient movement. This dangles a second carrot. Coaches and players naturally wonder, “Now I can move faster, but how can I also move more efficiently?” In recent years, improved technology has allowed the more studious and analytical coaches to review pro footage and isolate various footwork patterns. Each comes up with their own theories on how many “basic footwork patterns” should ideally exist in tennis, what should each be called, and when each should be employed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This current wave of opinions and the almost limitless amount of available information is a good thing … to a point. It can also be terribly confusing for the average recreational player who sincerely wants to improve. This dedicated player may be a TennisOne.com subscriber since Tennis One offers the service of wading through most of the sometimes contradictory opinions and presenting the best of the best. The point of this article is to try and simplify some of the “facts” about footwork, in an effort to save the recreational player from needing a graduate degree in movement physiology before they play their next league match!
Here are my suggestions about what the average recreational player needs to know about improving their footwork. This obviously does not cover “everything” about footwork, but this list of tips is a good starting point and any player who actually masters these 7 concepts could start thinking about a career in professional tennis!
- Lower Playing Height – a quick start to the ball is greatly aided by a lower playing height. To get a start on an improved playing height, stand up facing a full length mirror and bend your knees enough so when you look down you cannot see your shoelaces! You will probably bend enough to make yourself 4-6 inches shorter.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify – you may hear from different sources that there are 12 or 16 or 24 unique footwork patterns to learn on a tennis court, but I prefer to simplify this by saying we only have two feet. I picked up this simple concept from well-respected Tennis Canada and LTA coach Louis Cayer, who simplified footwork steps into just 4 categories: Left to left, right to right, left to right, or right to left. However you choose to think about and understand footwork, we will all probably agree that to keep it as simple as possible is generally a good thing!
- Quick First Step – The importance of a quick first step cannot be overemphasized. Think of a crouching cat waiting to spring. Ideally, this is how we need to be as our opponents strike each and every shot.
- Minimize Side-Shuffling – We have all been taught that side-shuffling is a good thing and it is. But, too much of it can slow a player down. Just use common sense to decide when to turn and run to a ball rather than side-shuffling to get into proper position.
- Don’t Recover to the Middle – On the baseline in singles, only recover to the middle when you hit down the middle. Otherwise, to cover the most court, figure out the two extreme directions your opponent can hit towards on any given shot, and stand in between those two possible spots. With both players hitting from the baseline, you will end up crouching and waiting for their shot diagonally opposite your opponent.
- Adapt to your Opponents – There are general instructions to follow and there are specific adaptations that are essential. For example, if your opponent has big circular groundstrokes, they will typically hit more balls crosscourt than down the line. Anticipate patterns like this and lean in that direction as they hit. This is when “cheating” a little can be a good thing! It can give you a quicker start to the ball and early preparation always helps us play better.
- Move Like a Crow – You know the saying, “As the crow flies?” Well, this holds true on a tennis court as well. Just remember that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and you will learn this tip quickly.
There are three common overused instructions recited repeatedly by tennis teachers and coaches all around the world in languages and countries too numerous to list. They are: racquet back, bend your knees, and watch the ball. The first two center on preparation and movement. That’s how critical these important elements are to improved play. And, if you don’t like the term footwork, try thinking of it as footJOY and increase your fun while you improve!
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.