As the game of tennis has become so much more physical over the past couple of decades, footwork has come under the spotlight more and more.
Of course, out and out fitness, technique, timing and tactics are all very important elements of becoming a good tennis player, but one of the most effective ways of improving your game is to focus on your footwork.
However, the word footwork is thrown around a lot these days, but it can be difficult to know what exactly it means.
Yes, if you are quick around the court you will often be sighted as having ‘good footwork’, but the two are not necessarily the same thing.
In our eyes, having good footwork means moving around the courts as efficiently as possible.
So, you may have great physical conditioning, be very agile and be able to sprint quickly around the court, but if this is taking a lot of energy out of you, you’ll struggle to last an entire match.
Therefore, using tried and tested footwork patterns and techniques can really improve your ability to cover the court in fewer steps, creating more time for yourself before you hit the ball and ultimately improving your endurance.
One of the most fundamental footwork movements you will learn is the split step.
It is so often taken for granted but forms the cornerstone of all movement on the tennis court.
The idea behind this movement is to get you ready for the next shot as quickly as possible, keep you on your toes but remaining balanced and in control of your body.
Mastering the split step is a very important step to take if you want to become a better tennis player.
Whilst the movement itself may not seem like the most complicated in the world, it is really a matter of perfecting the basics when it comes to the split step.
So, let’s delve into why the split step is so important, how to perform the movement correctly and how you can improve yours today!
Why the Split Step is So Important
The split step forms the foundations of all movement in tennis.
It is a very basic yet very important movement pattern that needs to be honed to perfection if you want to improve your tennis.
We see the professionals working on their split steps all the time in training videos.
Whilst it may seem like they are working on their overall strength and conditioning, they are always starting their drills with a split step.
This is true regardless of whether players are working on their technique on the court, doing repetitive cardio based exercises or are away from the court working on their speed and agility.
This reinforces just how important the split step is. If the best players in the world are working on it, so should you!
The split step allows you to move in any direction with ease, as you are using the ground to push off with your feet and create a reactive force.
Therefore, if you are returning serve for example and need to react quickly, the split step will help you push off either your right or left foot and move towards the ball with explosive force.
This is also the case when you are up at the net, as again you need to be quick when reacting to fast incoming balls.
Therefore, it is very important not only to understand what the split step is, but when to use different versions of it and how to improve yours as part of your training regime.
How to Perform the Split Step Correctly
In its most basic form, the split step is simply a small jump with both feet that helps you reset your feet, regain your balance and be ready for the next shot.
In terms of technique, you want to start from a solid base, with your feet facing forward, at least shoulder width apart and with your knees slightly bent.
Your weight should be on the balls of your feet and you should be leaning slightly forward.
This position gives you the perfect center of gravity to push forward or to either side to move into the next shot.
The idea is that after every shot you will perform a split step to help you prepare your feet for the next shot to come.
The act of jumping in the air and landing firmly with both feet gives you a more explosive reaction off the court surface, allowing you to transition into your next shot a lot faster.
In terms of timing, you should aim to split step as soon as your opponent makes contact with the ball.
This ensures you are ready to react to the oncoming ball and move into position as early as possible.
Whilst this is the case regardless of what shot you are playing, you should adapt your split step to the situation you are in.
There are a few variations of the split step that you should be aware of. First of all, if you are in a rallying situation you will likely be using a ‘standard’ split step.
This is used to recover your balance and get you prepared for your next shot nice and early.
This should be followed by your unit turn and big steps towards the oncoming ball, so you can cover as much ground as possible without expending too much energy.
If you are defending behind the baseline, you’ll want to use a higher jump in your split step so you can push off the ground with even more force, giving yourself more space and time behind the ball.
However, if you are looking to step inside the court and take the ball early, you’ll want to reduce the height of your split step and perhaps do a couple of small hops steps.
This helps you stay on your toes and keeps you reactive, but means you are unlikely to strike the ball too late or miss time your foot placement.
If you are returning serve, you may want to take a leaf out of Andy Murray’s book and go for a big split step jump, as this gives you a lot of explosive power to attack the return of serve with your legs.
You can then get hold of the serve and send it back with interest, as you are already moving forwards into the shot.
Whereas, when you are split stepping after your own serve, you’ll likely want to jump backwards since you’ll be well inside the court and need to recover back behind the baseline.
Finally, if you are up at the net and looking to defend your position, you’ll want to take lots of small split steps to remain alert and agile.
In this position, you are looking to stay nice and low by having even more bend in your knees, always staying on your toes.
This helps you move very quickly in any direction and will improve your ability to block fast balls back with ease.
How You Can Improve Your Split Step
There are a few drills you can use to improve your split step.
The first of these is a very simple one and can be used by beginners all the way up to professional levels. Simply start behind the baseline and split step over the line and back.
The more quickly you can do this the better.
This is a great drill for improving your ability to push off the ground quickly without getting too high off the ground, thereby improving your reactions.
Another split step drill is to use a racket bag, small platform or large cone to jump over.
Split stepping over an obstacle like this is a great way to work on your big push off the ground, adding more height to your defensive split step.
Finally, split stepping and catching a ball dropped a few metres away by a partner, then getting back into position adds even more realism to your training.
This emphasises the quickness of the split step and how you should push off your feet to catch the ball before it hits the ground, tying the split step into the forward diagonal movement pattern.
Overall, the split step is a hugely important tennis movement that needs to be practiced in order to improve your tennis.
It is an essential part of tennis footwork and forms the basis of all movement around the court, from serves and returns to ground strokes and volleys.
There are a number of different split step variations you can add to your game, along with a range of different training methods to improve each of them.
So, next time you are out on the court, remember to focus on your split step!