I’m constantly trying to bridge the gap between how players should train off the tennis court and how they should train on the tennis court. It’s important to look at on-court tennis training through a physical lens as much as a technical or tactical one as these qualities are all interrelated. Let's look at an example to illustrate this point. Say you're working on retrieving tough wide balls on the backhand side. Not only is technique targeted (attempting to refine open stance backhands, for example), tactics (being able to send the ball back high/deep and with plenty of spin for example) along with the specific movement qualities (explosiveness, acceleration, deceleration) are also being trained. As you can see, it’s very difficult to separate one quality from another as they are all in some way related.
With this in mind, I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss several key movement skills that every elite tennis player requires - whether that’s a junior or a pro. Without mastering the below qualities, it doesn’t matter how much you can squat, how high you can jump, how efficiently you can change direction and so on, because you won't be able to express these physical attributes to their fullest.
Needless to say, being able to move well on the court is a prerequisite to elite tennis performance.
Tennis Specific Movement Skills in Detail
I know what you’re thinking, this is such a basic quality why am I even mentioning it here. I’ll tell you why. I was recently working with a 16 year old player - he’s game was quite impressive and he’s recently begun playing ITFs. But what I noticed within the first 60 seconds of hitting balls down the middle of the court was that he didn’t split step. This movement is so basic that it’s probably the cornerstone of every great mover in the history of tennis. In the pros, it’s pretty much ingrained (*not always as I've seen certain pros that didn't master this to it's full capacity) but many developing players have yet to master this basic quality. And those youngsters that do perform it, do it haphazardly.
We all know that the split-step initiates a player’s movement towards the oncoming shot. But it has to be timed appropriately. If done late, the player's first step will be delayed and they likely won’t get into the most ideal position. If done too early, the player will likely lose the reactiveness that the split-step provides and again, will likely results in a slow movement towards the ball. Remember the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC)? If not, you can refresh your memory in this article on plyometrics. The basic premise of the SSC is to utilize the muscle-tendon complex’s stored elastic energy to augment power output. The split-step is a SSC activity, so timing and utilizing it effectively will increase power output and any subsequent explosive action.
How to Optimize the Split-Step
Many have this perception that a split-step needs to be a high jump, this is not the case. The split-step has 2 main components, first, it needs to be timed properly and second, it needs to be highly reactive (read more about reactiveness in this article). There’s no exact science to the timing of a split-step but it should occur around the moment your opponent makes contact with the ball. In terms of reactiveness, the thought process should be - I’m using the split-step to “zap” me into the the direction of my movement (I often use a bolt of lightning analogy when working with players as it should feel as if you’re getting an electric shock which initiates movement). Here’s an example of Rafa timing the split-step along with using high reactiveness.
Ball judgement is often referred to as perception - I will use these terms interchangeably. Although not necessarily a movement quality, judging where the ball is going has a huge influence on footwork. Before you’re in a position to hit the ball, you must begin judging the oncoming ball at the same time that you’re making your movement towards it. This happens very quickly - and requires the player to make decisions as to what the ball looks like - how hard is it hit, how much spin is on it, what’s the ball flight like, will the ball land short or deep etc. You’d be surprised how many elite players lack the refinement of this fundamental skill. I often see it at tournaments. Players are all over the place with their impact points (another fundamental tennis skill that we’ll cover in another post) - this is often a result of poor perception skills.
Of course, the tactical situation will also contribute to your decision of the oncoming ball. For instance, if you decide the ball is landing short, and you want to attack it, your decision will be to move explosively towards the ball in order to make impact with it at a higher point (so that you can drive the ball instead of adding loft to it). But how many players make the decision too late, letting the ball drop too low and forcing them to reply with a neutral ball rather than an attack? This often separates good players from very good players - I found this out quickly when I first started playing Futures events. Anytime I hit the ball even remotely short, it seemed like my opponent judged the ball so quickly I didn’t even have time to recover before it was by me.
Sharapova is one of the best at this. Watch here as she moves forwards & backwards in order to adjust to the oncoming ball (and make contact at an optimal height off the ground).
A simple way of determining whether your player is able to judge the ball effectively is for them to make a decision about the oncoming ball as quickly as possible. For example, you might tell your player to call out “up” or “back” and make the appropriate movement either forwards or reverse. Even if it’s just one step forward or one step backward, they should be making a decision either way (look at Sharapova above). The sooner they can make a decision, the better prepared they will be for the oncoming shot, effectively optimizing their set-up. Which is our next topic of focus.
The set-up is perhaps one of the most important determinants of high-quality movers (and strikers of the ball). It's also often overlooked. I'm not saying players lack a set-up before hitting, but there is a specific timing to the set-up that the best do on (almost) every shot.
When referring to the set-up, it doesn't necessarily mean you should before hitting. But it does mean having some sort of balance (whether static or dynamic) before hitting your shot. And I’ll take it one step further. Look at the best ball strikers on both the women’s and men’s sides and you’ll find a common trait; unless they are on the defensive, they are set BEFORE the ball bounces on their side of the court. Here are two photos of Nadal's set-up, one on the forehand and the other on the backhand:
You’ll notice that the ball has yet to hit the ground and he’s already in a good striking position. I’ve worked with many juniors over the years and this is one of those qualities that many struggle with...and then they complain about hitting late. As coaches, we preach to players about making small adjustment steps as they get closer to the ball but this type of feedback is vague. If you ask players to be set before the ball bounces (a good way to do it is to ask them to say “set” when they are in fact set”) you’ll notice something very interesting…those little adjustment steps start happening without them even consciously thinking about it. Making this conscious effort to be set before the bounce requires a great deal of attention and focus, which translates to better movement and preparation. You’ll see players moving faster than ever before. And combine this with the previous 2 qualities - a timed & reactive split-step, along with good ball judgement - and without training any physical qualities, you’ll see a difference in their movement.
Recovery could be a whole article on it’s own (perhaps even a whole chapter of it’s own in a textbook). But for the purposes of this article, I’ll just outline one key feature of the recovery that is so basic and fundamental that I’m almost embarrassed to have it here. I can sum it up in 2 words - maximum intent. As coaches, we often want to pull our hair out when we see players sluggishly recover after a shot. Yet once players reach a certain level, they know more or less where they should position themselves after they’ve hit a shot (based on the tactical scenario at hand), yet they often lack the intent it takes to get back to that position effectively.
Sure it’s hard work, but it allows a player to get back into a good position so that they can perform the other 3 skills for the next shot, and the next one and the one after that. Here's a look at 2 scenarios - a junior recovery versus a pro recovery. All I'd like you to do is focus on each player's intent & desire during their recoveries.
Andy Murray Pro Recovery
I'm not trying to pick on players here but rather outline the difference. The set-up and movement towards the ball looks good from both players, but the intent to move back towards the centre of the court is so high from Andy, that even in slow motion you can hear his shoes squeaking against the hard court.
Rather than yelling at a player to recover faster, I like the player to internalize the skill on his own (if you haven't noticed, I use a lot of verbal patterning with players - this form of conscious self-cueing may accelerate brain mapping). So ask the player to call out "recover" AS SOON AS THEY'VE FINISHED THEIR STROKE. And make sure it's being done at the intensity which is required (if it's not, just show them a video of themselves versus their practice partner or versus a pro).
Like all skills, these need to be focused on AND trained systematically. Attempting to do all of them in a 1 hour lesson will leave the player exhausted and confused. Begin with 1 or 2 of these skills. They can be implemented into a variety of drills, including cross-courts, Spanish drills and so on. But even simply hitting down the middle of the court can now have a focus and a purpose. I’ll even take it one step further and suggest implementing some of these skills into the mini-court with younger juniors. I often ask them to focus on their split-step in the mini-court before they can progress to full-court. These little drills performed consistently build fundamental movement habits that stand the test of time.