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Put Your Best Feet Forward!!!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Most tennis players do not pay enough attention to developing good footwork. So, I thought I would dedicate this month's column this essential aspect of the game. Now as I write this, Roland Garros has just started, and clay is a most unique surface when it comes to footwork. Clay courts encourage "sliding" when it comes to hitting groundstrokes. However, the "slippery" nature of clay surfaces makes getting to the net a bit more difficult. So as I begin this month's column, I am aware that the advice I am putting forth this month may be a bit different for natural surfaces (clay or grass). Still much, if not most, tennis is played on hard courts. On hard courts, the "rules" that I identify are definitely applicable.
One thing about many tennisphiles is that they do not train specifically for footwork. This is clearly a deficiency that any serious competitor in our great game must remedy if she/he is to develop the speed, agility and endurance needed in today's modern game.
Before I get to specific drills and exercises, I need to clarify what proper footwork is. First, tennis is a game of primarily small steps. Granted, when one is running wide to get to a ball she or he may be running at full stride. However, this is the exception... not the rule. Actually, tennis is a game of short sprints, and frequently quick changes in direction. It requires the ability to move from side to side and forward/back with equal proficiency.
When footwork is well developed, the player moves with quiet feet. With exception of an occasional sneaker squeak, you should not be able to hear your feet as you move. Players with poor footwork make lots of noise with their feet as they move around the court. Whenever I notice that my opponent has "loud" feet, I make certain that I run him as much as is possible.
Why? I know that sooner or later his poor footwork will force him to lose form and make errors.
Regrettably, many tennis players think that the only kind of footwork training that is necessary is distance running. Every other day, they will run two, three, or even five miles in the hope that this will make them faster and more agile in their movement on the court. Unfortunately, they never really achieve either goal.
Good footwork training involves a variety of exercises and movement drills. Most of these should replicate the movement on a tennis court... short sprints. Some of these should develop speed, some should develop strength and others should develop endurance. Distance running usually develops only the latter of these three.
If you are serious about improving your tennis game, I assure you that a six-month commitment to these drills and exercises will make a marked difference. If you are in the heart of your competitive schedule, you can weave these drills into your overall training regimen and cease these drills a few days before you actually compete. In this way, you won't be too fatigued when it is time for important or tournament matches. Still, you need to practice footwork deliberately, regularly and consciously! The idea is to train so well that you never have to think about your footwork during a match. The last thing you want to do in a competitive match is to take your mind off the ball and the opponent. So, you need to make good footwork second nature. Before you begin these drills and exercises, you want to make certain that your physician approves. This is a good idea whenever beginning any new exercise regimen.
There is one set of sprints, which I have labeled as "Saddlebrooks" because I learned these when training at the famous resort/academy some years back. My college players dread these sprints because they demand so much of the body in such a short span of time (just as tennis can). It is best to begin these sprints at 3/4 pace and to attempt only one complete "Saddlebrook" set per day. As you become stronger, and more important, as your "wind" capacity increases, you can move to two or three per day. Never exceed three Saddlebrooks per day! In addition, I recommend running these sprints every other day rather than every day.
You can run these sprints on tennis courts, in a gym or on a large field. If you are running on tennis courts, you want to run the equivalent of 2 1/2 court widths for each sprint. I usually begin at the center service line on one court and then run until I reach the far sideline of a court that is two courts away from the starting point (thus, 2 1/2 court widths). If I am running in a gym, I run the entire length of the basketball gymnasium for each sprint. If I am running on a field, I try to run approximately 35 yards for each sprint. You can vary the distance of the sprints to suit your conditioning level.
A "Saddlebrook" consists of 10 sprints with a jog back to the starting point in between each sprint.
The idea is to never stop running or jogging. Do not walk back to the starting point in between sprints unless this is absolutely necessary. The ten sprints should be run in the following order:

  1. Sprint from the starting point to the end point at full pace. Then without stopping turn around and jog back to the starting point... make certain you jog... do not run.

  2. Repeat step 1 with another full pace, straight ahead sprint... jog back.

  3. Now "sprint" using a side step. Using quick-paced sidesteps, "run" to the end point at full speed. Do not use crossover steps. Rather bring the feet together as you move sideways... jog back. Football players who play the line frequently practice this type of movement. Try to keep your body low in a somewhat crouched position as you do these sidesteps.

  4. Repeat step 3 but this time turn around before you begin your side steps. Because you have turned your body around (if you were facing North in step 3, you are now facing South in step four) you will in effect be "sprinting" in the opposite direction... jog back.

  5. Now, you sprint backwards making certain to stay on your toes and to pump your arms as you move. Be careful that your path is clear of any debris before you run this backwards sprint as you will not be looking in the direction that you are moving. Pay attention to when you have passed the end point. Stop. Then, jog back.

  6. Repeat step 1 with a full out, forward running sprint... jog back.

  7. Now we will do a sideways sprint as in step 3, but this time we will use crossover steps. A crossover step is when one foot moves in front of the other as you move sideways. Frequently in tennis we need to use a crossover step when we recover quickly from being pulled wide by an opponent's shot. Don' t be afraid to really try to move fast as you do this sprint... jog back.

  8. As was the case in step 4, we want to move sideways, but in the opposite direction. To achieve this, simply turn around and do the crossover step . As was the case in step 4, because you have turned around, you are effectively moving in the opposite direction... jog back.

  9. Repeat step 5... jog back.

  10. Repeat step 1... jog back.

By the time you have completed the "Saddlebrook," you will have run 4 straight-ahead sprints, 2 sidestep sprints, 2 backwards sprints and 2 crossover side movement steps... 10 sprints all together. In addition, you will have jogged back to the starting point after each sprint.
Now, I know that this "Saddlebrook" does not seem challenging. Believe me it is. You may find yourself struggling to get your breath if you sprint too hard at first. Take it easy until you know with certainty what your fitness level is. This is why you should not run back in between sprints. You want to let the body slow down a bit before you sprint again. This replicates the extreme nature of tennis... running hard, then idle... running hard, then idle... etc.
There is no better way to improve your speed, coordination and "wind" than by running "Saddlebrooks!"
Another way to develop your lungs' capacity to work under strain and to develop leg strength is to jump rope. Now, I have never been good at jumping rope... Muhammad Ali I am not! But you don't really need the rope to jump rope. Rather, you can pretend you have a rope and go through the rope jumping motions... it will do the same job. Regardless of whether you jump rope or pretend to jump rope, usually 3 minutes of jumping rope is a maximum to strive for at any one time. The pros regularly jump rope to stay in shape. Since you are on your toes the entire time you jump rope, you will find that staying on your toes when playing tennis will become easier and second nature.
The quadricepses are very important in tennis. These "thigh" muscles allow one to get down low for volleys and make that first step to move to a ball more powerful. Thus, it makes sense to develop these muscles. In addition, strong quadricepses will help minimize knee discomfort... as a former baseball catcher, I know about knee pain.
To develop the quadricepses, I recommend the following:
  1. Riding a bicycle or stationary cycle for 1/2 hour. (Back in the day, Ivan Lendl used to use the exercise bike as a primary conditioning and leg exercise). Try to pedal at a fairly fast pace.

  2. Doing leg lunges (about 10 for each leg constitutes a set)... three or four sets. A leg lunge is very similar to a leg squat except that one foot is about 4 or 5 feet in front of the other, as you lower your body. As you lower your body downward, you should feel the tension in the top of your thighs (quadriceps).

  3. Using a stair stepping machine or running up stairs in a football/sports stadium. 20 minutes on a stair stepping machine (at a medium level of difficulty) should provide a good workout. Running stadium stairs is good, too. The number of stairs in the stadium will determine how many of these upward sprints you run. If you run stairs in a stadium, you have the added advantage of being able to run down the stairs. I don't recommend doing either of these activities if you have bad knees.

As an aside, I encourage you to avoid using an elevator whenever possible. By taking the stairs throughout your workday, you are automatically developing your quads... in a very convenient way.
Another good exercise that you can perform throughout your workday is "toe risers." Here, you simply go up on your toes... hold the position for 2 or 3 seconds... then, go back down a normal standing position (both feet flat on the ground). A set of 10 or 15 of these two or three times during the day will greatly improve your ability to stay on your toes during a match.
Finally, we come to distance running. There is a place for this activity in tennis. Distance running does help develop endurance. However, the distance one runs should be limited. 1-1/2 miles to 2 miles are for me the maximum distance a tennis player should run. If possible, these miles should be run on something other that concrete or other hard surfaces. I like to run on a cinder track, a rubberized track or on dirt trails. The more cushioned impact on these softer surfaces allows my knees to handle this type of running with less discomfort.
In putting this all together, let me give you a sample regimen that is based on a six-day exercise week. It is absolutely essential that you take at least one day off from any exercise each week! Also, it is imperative that you stretch before and after training. Again if you are in the heart of your competitive season, you can reduce this schedule to prevent becoming too fatigued to compete.
  1. MONDAY: I run two miles on a cinder track. I follow this with approximately 1 to 2 hours of tennis.

  2. TUESDAY: I begin my exercise day by playing 1 to 2 hours of tennis. Then, I run 1 or 2 Saddlebrooks. I end the day with leg lunges... approximately 3 to 5 sets of 10 for each leg.

  3. WEDNESDAY: I jump rope for two sets (three minutes each set). Remember, I do not actually use a rope... you don't need to either. I play tennis for only 1 hour (I limit myself to no more than this 1 hour). I end the exercise day by biking or using a stepping machine for 20 to 30 minutes. With my knees, I don't use the stair machine all that often.

  4. THURSDAY: I run 2 miles on a cinder track. I follow this with 1 to 2 hours of tennis. I end the exercise day with three sets of leg lunges (10 lunges for each leg in a set).

  5. FRIDAY: I begin my exercise day with jumping rope (one, three-minute set); I play tennis for no more than one hour. I, then, run 2 Saddlebrooks.

  6. SATURDAY: I begin my exercise day with 1 or 2 Saddlebrooks. I play tennis for 2 hours. I follow this with leg lunges. If time permits, I bike for 10 to 20 minutes... assuming my body is not aching.

  7. SUNDAY: No exercise of any kind!

This schedule may not work for you. It may be too rigorous... or not rigorous enough. You may not have time to do all of these exercises. However, the idea is to do as much of this type of training as is possible, while still maintaining your tennis training. If you are a competitive player (collegiate, high school, other), you probably want to increase the tennis training and reduce the footwork training during your season. However, during the off-season, you will want to decrease the tennis playing and increase the footwork drills.
Some of these exercises and drills may appeal to you... some may not. The point is that you must train your feet. When you practice tennis, try to stay on your toes as much as is possible during points. No one can stay on her/his toes throughout every point. The idea is to do as much as you can. By focusing on this during practice, you will train your body to stay up on its toes during matches... without having to think about it! That's the goal. I am certain that if you can incorporate some sprint work, strength training and endurance running into your training regimen, in no time, you will become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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