HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!
The 1900's are behind us and what better way to start the year 2000 than on the tennis courts?
Last November I talked about the importance of footwork towards a tennis players success. Simply, I feel that far too many players obsess over developing the "perfect" stroke when in fact the "perfect" stroke is absolutely useless if you cannot get into position to execute it. Thus, I feel that a large portion of a players practice time (once they have learned the fundamentals) should be spent on developing sound footwork.
When I first expressed this opinion, before I wrote my November column, a friend of mine who is a very strong player, vehemently disagreed. He felt that sound stroking mechanics could always overcome poor positioning and that I was basically saying that most tennis players were simply lazy. Soon after, I was reading one of Vic Braden's books in which he said something to the effect of, above all develop good strokes, we'll hire a golf cart to get you to the ball.
Now between my friend, and Vic, whose opinion I respect enormously, I must admit that I began to question my theory. Was I being too simplistic? I then went out to teach with a very open mind and decided to closely watch my students and re-evaluate my theory.
Well, after two weeks and over 100 hours of teaching, I must say, "sorry guys, but I respectfully disagree with you." I now believe more firmly than ever that a vast majority of a player's stroking errors are a direct result of improper positioning due to----bad footwork.
As I said before, tennis is a reactive game, where we are constantly forced to respond to our opponents shots. More often than not, players, particularly at the recreational level, do not move properly so they are rarely in position to execute a smooth, balanced stroke.
The stroking motion is a function of our bodies' position to the ball. If we line ourselves up correctly, we can execute an efficient stroke, if not, our bodies, and in particular, our arms, will contort themselves in order to compensate for our poor positioning. This is a fact and the reasons probably vary. Laziness, lack of knowledge on the proper way to move about a tennis court, or simply poor fitness all play a factor in our lack of movement.
So where does good positioning begin? With good footwork which begins ........
THE READY POSITION
Whenever I ask my students to show me the ready position, they always assume roughly the following; both hands holding the racket out in front, knees approximately shoulder-width apart
and slightly bent (so far so good), and their heels firmly nailed to the court. Oh, and I forgot, a big smile on their face because they feel they know the answer to my question.
Sorry guys, while this may be a good ready position if you're posing for a photo, you are not much more prepared to react to a tennis ball than if you were SITTING on the court. The proper ready position is all of the above (including the smile) with one MAJOR addition -- heels off the court and your body moving either side to side or up and down.
According to Dr, Jack Groppell, a leader in the field of sport science, when your feet are firmly planted onto the court, "the force between your shoes and the court is equal to your body weight." In other words, all of your weight is holding you down. Thus, when your opponent hits their shot, your first movement will not be a reaction to their ball, but rather to get yourself up and moving. This movement is called "unweighting" and if it is done after your opponent has struck their shot, you will lose valuable preparation time. You must first "unweight" and only then can you react.
So, by moving side to side or bouncing up and down in between your shots you are already largely "unweighted" and ready to spring into action once your opponent hits the ball. While you are moving and waiting, you are also closely watching the ball on your opponents side of the net. As they begin their forward swinging motion you are preparing for what is unquestionably one of the most important, and also underused elements in the game of tennis..........
Just before your opponent makes contact with the ball, you want to take a final, balancing move, called a split-step. Simply, a split-step is a small hop, timed so that you are in the air as your opponent is actually striking the ball. When you land, you can then quickly bounce off into the direction of the on-coming ball.
The key to a successful split-step is obviously the timing. If you bounce too soon, you'll be off balance, and if you bounce too late, you'll be late reacting. Take a small hop just BEFORE your opponent makes contact with the ball. As you are coming down try to determine which way they have hit the ball, and as you touch down, immediately spring off in that direction. It could be argued that a well-timed split-step is the single most important factor toward achieving proper positioning.
Once you've completed your split-step and have determined which way your opponent has hit, as you are bouncing back up toward the ball, you want to execute what Jack Groppell in his book "High-Tech Tennis" calls a "unit turn." This is an immediate turn of your shoulders and hips with your racket beginning it's backswing.
Keep in mind that there is a big difference between getting to a ball and being in position to execute a smooth stroke and the distance that you have to move will dictate the size of your steps. Simply, the farther away the ball is, the larger your steps and the closer, the shorter.
You may need to just shuffle a few feet, or sprint several yards, depending upon where the ball is hit. As you begin to get closer to the ball, your steps should begin to get smaller and more frequent as your thoughts move from merely getting to the ball, toward lining up to hit it. These short, adjusting steps will slow you down and allow you to fine-tune your positioning.
As you reach your desired spot (hopefully before the ball arrives) continue to keep your feet moving so that you will be able to make any last second adjustments in case you get a bad bounce or have judged the ball incorrectly.
Once the time comes to swing, plant your back foot to stabilize yourself, step into the ball to re-direct your weight forward, and execute a smooth, balanced stroke. A good way to tell if you are properly balanced is to try to freeze after you've finished your shot. If you can comfortably hold your position, then you are balanced, if you find your back foot swing around or your body falling backwards, you are not. Try this little test a few times and I'll bet you'll be shocked at how often you are off balance.
After your shot, begin to shuffle back into position, always keeping your feet moving and ready to split-step just before your opponent hits their next shot. A good exercise to work on this movement is to hit shadow strokes. By this I mean, start in the middle of the court or any area where you have a few feet to move each way.
Get into your ready position (racket in front and feet moving) practice the split-step, bounce off to the right, turning your entire body and bringing your racket back, move across, shorten your steps, plant your right foot, step forward with your left and take a practice swing (forehand or backhand depending upon whether you're right or left-handed.
After the stroke, freeze for a brief moment, then shuffle back to your starting point. Keep your feet moving and then split-step and then move to your left in the same manner. Go back and forth 10 times. To make it a bit more realistic, you could have a partner yell out "forehand" or "backhand" as you take your split-step so that you learn to make a quick decision on which way to move.
Good footwork is not simply a matter of technique, you must also have a strong level of fitness because when you get tired the first thing to go are the feet. Fatigued legs lead to tired feet which then lead to poor positioning and a breakdown of your strokes. Thus, a good program of aerobic and anaerobic training is important. Of course, be sure to consult your doctor before undertaking any vigorous exercise program.
With the advancements in sports science over the recent years there are many, many sources which outline literally hundreds of various footwork exercises designed to improve our movement on the court. "Power Tennis Training" by Donald Chu, "High-Tech Tennis" by Jack Groppell and ""Complete Conditioning For Tennis" by the USTA. All have many drills and ideas which are excellent, as does Ron Waite's Turbo Tennis column from last month.
The important thing is that you just do something. It can be as simple as jumping rope a few times a week or if you really get into it, you can do agility drills on and off the court, with or without a partner and you can even get into areas such as plyometrics. Whatever you do that is more than you are doing now will help.
Pick up the books I've mentioned, try some of the drills and see which work the best for you. Take into account your time limitations, your level of fitness and any chronic injuries you may have.
Here is a basic agility program which I have used and given to many of my players. As always, thoroughly warm-up and stretch your body before working out and cool down and stretch after you're done.
Jumping Rope: If you're only going to do one exercise, jump rope. All the pros do. Jump ropes come in many different materials and are as inexpensive as $3.00. Begin very simply by trying to jump 5-10 times with both feet jumping at the same time. You'll be surprised how difficult this is at first. Try to build up to 50 in a row without missing. Next try to jump on one foot. Build up to 50 then try to build up to 50 on the other leg. After you can do 50 with both feet together and each foot on it's own, try to build up to 50 alternating your feet. Once you can do all of these, try to put it together and do the following without missing: 50 jumps on both feet then 50 jumps with your right foot only, 50 jumps with your left foot only and then 50 jumps, alternating your feet.
Run the lines: Start on the singles sideline, at the baseline. Sprint up the sideline, touch the net and shuffle back down the line as if you were hitting an overhead. When you reach the service line, shuffle across until you reach the center service line and then sprint up that line to the net. Touch the net with your racket and then shuffle back down the center service line simulating an overhead.
When you reach the service line, shuffle across until you reach the opposite singles sideline from where you started. Then sprint up to the net, touch it with your racket and then shuffle all the way down the singles sideline as if you were hitting an overhead. Finally, shuffle across the baseline back to your starting position. Repeat two or three times, take a one minute rest and then do it again.
Service Box Drill: Start at the center of the service box, facing the net. Shuffle as quickly as possible to your right and, using a cross-over step, touch the singles sideline with your front foot and simulate hitting a low volley, making sure to bend your knees so that your back knee is as close to the ground as possible. Then repeat the movement to your left. Do this back and forth ten times and then take a one minute rest. Do three to five sets of this and increase the repetitions as you notice your stamina improving.
Kangaroo Hops: Made famous by the legendary Harry Hopman, kangaroo hops build leg strength and explosiveness. Stand upright with your feet about waist distance apart. Jump up and bring your knees to your chest. Repeat 10 times.
These are just a few of the thousands of drills and exercises designed to improve your footwork. Try a few and I guarantee that you'll notice an improvement in your movement on the court and I think you will also find that as your footwork improves, your "beautiful" strokes will miraculously
become easier to execute.
See you next month!!!