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Focus On Your Feet This New Year!!!

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in January. For many of us, the weather outside is dreadful. However, this is the time of year where the wise tennisphile will work on his or her overall fitness and lay the foundation for a great spring "resurrection." Of course, many of us are playing regularly using indoor court facilities. Those in the southern portion of North America are probably enjoying outdoor play/competition. But, what are the pros doing?
At this time of year, the current grand slam is the Australian Open. I assure you that pros on both tours have been spending December engaged in "off court" training. The purpose of this "off court" training is multifold, but one objective is to improve the pro's footwork.
It amazes me how much time and energy a recreational or intermediate player will spend on stroke production versus the amount of time improving her or his footwork! In my opinion, footwork is one of the most overlooked aspects of the game. Yet, many "problems" occur for players because they have not spent the time and energy to improve his or her footwork.
For many of us, the early months of the year are the perfect time to dedicate our training to improve this critically important aspect of our great game. So, I am dedicating this month's column to helping you know how to "own" much better footwork on the court.
First, I need to define what I believe are the key and salient attributes of good tennis footwork:

  1. POWER -- Power refers to the ability to accelerate quickly on the court. Just like "drag racing," tennis frequently asks the player to move from a near standing still position to a full out sprint. The ability to get from "zero to sixty" quickly is what I refer to as power. As an example, imagine that you are at the baseline and your opponent hits a drop shot. You need to be able to "scramble" well to make a solid reply... and perhaps... even a winner.

  2. SPEED -- Speed is often confused with power. This is not surprising because one needs to get "off the blocks quickly" (to borrow a term from track and field). However once in motion, the competitive player can move with great speed.

  3. AGILTIY -- Agility refers to the ability to change directions quickly and effectively. In our wonderful game, it is not uncommon to have to run "coast to coast" to stay alive in a baseline rally. This requires us to change directions as soon as we have struck our own groundstroke and move in an opposite direction. Sometimes, a player will "hit behind" us. In these situations, we must be able to quickly change where we are moving to be able to get to the ball behind us. Sometimes, this is just impossible. But at times, good footwork can keep you in the point despite your opponent's tactic.

  4. BALANCE -- At all times, a tennis player needs to have proper body balance. There are those times when we are going to be "stretched" and find that we are striking the ball from a less than balanced position. However, proper footwork can promote and support balance in the vast majority of tennis shot situations.

  5. ENDURANCE -- It is usually much easier to hit effectively when one is not tired. Fatigue invariably sets in during long matches. However, one goal of footwork is to provide an endurance level that enables fatigue to be minimized. Even when one is "drifting" back to the center of the court after hitting a groundstroke, there needs to be a balance that permits effective movement in any direction.

How can you judge the effectiveness of your own footwork? Well, there are several indicators that will tell you much.
First, how quiet are your feet on the court? I have and do photograph pros on both tours. If you close your eyes when Roger Federer is playing, you will rarely hear much sound coming from his feet. He is literally a player who is "light on his feet."
Second, how explosive is your first step? The first step is always the most important. If you look at Rafael Nadal, he has an extremely explosive first step. It is a long stride, but it is very powerful and gets him moving forcefully.
Third, how much of your court time is spent on your toes? Of course when you are on the run, you should be on your toes. But after making a shot, are you bouncing on your toes as you await your opponent's reply? Are you on your toes when you are "drifting" back to the center of the court? Caroline Wozniacki is one pro who "drifts" extremely well, and is never seen standing still. She is constantly bouncing on her toes when she is not in motion.
Fourth as you approach the ball, are you taking "little steps?" Whether you are moving sideways, at an angle forward, or straight ahead, you always want to be taking "small, baby steps" as you get close to where you will make contact with the ball. These "little steps" will permit you to make the micro adjustments necessary to strike the ball perfectly... particularly when you are playing on a natural surface like clay or grass and bounces are not always consistent.
These four questions imply the four primary goals that you want to strive to achieve when it comes to footwork. To realize these goals, you will need to dedicate some off court time to footwork to improve your power, speed, agility, balance and endurance.
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!!!
The quadriceps is 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 quadriceps will help minimize knee discomfort... as a former baseball catcher, I know about knee pain. Really, power in footwork is dependent upon well developed quadriceps.
To this end, I recommend the following:
Riding a bicycle or stationary cycle for 1/2 hour. (Years back, Ivan Lendl used to use the exercise bike as a primary conditioning and leg exercise). Try to pedal at a fairly fast pace if you are using a traditional stationary bike. Today, there are many bikes that require interval training. Interval training is most conducive to tennis, as tennis play demands that we move quickly followed by moments or minutes of rest between points or sets. Of course if the weather permits, a true bike ride that has lots of hills is a great way to develop the quads, while getting fresh air!
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). You can increase the benefits of lunges by doing them with dumbbells in your hands.
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. Many gyms have abandoned these stair machines because they put a too great a strain on knees. Elliptical machines may be a viable alternative. Any aerobic exercise machine that places strain on the quads is useful. 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. Given that this article is being published in January, the likelihood of you finding a stadium that does not have ice or snow is somewhat minimal. Running up hills is a good replacement. Simply, run uphill at full speed, and then, jog downhill to your starting point.
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 to 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. Although this exercise develops the calf muscles rather than the quads, it is still a useful exercise that can be conveniently done anywhere and at any time. These "toe risers" will definitely help you stay on your toes during a match.
Speed and agility, as I have already stated, are critically important. In addition, one wants to develop anaerobic benefits if at all possible. When you are playing a long point and you find that you are struggling for air at the end of the point, you are experiencing an anaerobic moment. Literally, your muscles are "screaming" for oxygen creating the need for "out of breath" breathing.
Years ago when I was training at Saddlebrook in Wesley Chapel, Florida, I was taught a sprinting drill that is the absolutely best way I know to develop speed and anaerobic "endurance."
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 3 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 three courts away from the starting point. 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:
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.
Repeat step 1 with another full pace, straight ahead sprint... jog back.
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.
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.
Now, you sprint backwards making certain to stay on your toes and to pump your arms as you move. Be careful that you 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.
Repeat step 1 with a full out, forward running sprint... jog back.
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.
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.
Repeat step 5... jog back.
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" may 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.
In my mind, there is no better way to improve your speed, agility and "wind" than by running "Saddlebrooks!"
Another great way to develop your lungs' capacity to work under strain, develop leg strength and improve your overall agility 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.
When it comes to endurance, we turn 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 than concrete or other hard surfaces. I like to run on a cinder track, a rubberized track or on grass/dirt trails. The more cushioned impact on these softer surfaces allows my knees to handle this type of running with less discomfort.
Balance is not as easy to practice as power, speed, endurance and agility. However, I strongly recommend yoga if you can find the time. There are many yoga centers and courses in which one can enroll. There are also plenty of on-line video programs that permit you to learn yoga, practice it and benefit from this practice. Standing yoga positions and exercises greatly enhance your sense of balance. Apart from this benefit, yoga stretches our muscles, which is always beneficial.
A practical and convenient way to work on your balance is to "walk a straight line" while you are walking at work or while taking an exercise walk. Basically, this is what police ask drivers to do as part of a "sobriety test." You simply find a line and walk with one foot being placed directly in front of the other. You can actually use the lines on a tennis court or the lines that may be part of a work place floor. When you can walk in this manner at a "normal walking pace," you will find that you have truly improved your sense of balance.
All of the above in one way or another will improve your footwork on the court. Many of us spend hours and hours hitting balls. But, we rarely spend the time necessary to improve our on-court footwork. I assure you that if you conscientiously engage in the above exercises for the next thirty days, that you will soon 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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