By Patti O’Reilly, Universal Tennis Academy Partner
“A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an external force.”
— Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion
How does such a renowned physics law relate to the sport of tennis? When you play a tennis point, you are running on average between two to five sprints to the ball per point. Either the ball bounces and you are behind the bounce of the ball, or the ball bounces and you are not behind the bounce of the ball. How can players put themselves in a position to be behind the bounce of the ball every time? The answer is the split step!
The timing of the split step is of utmost importance. If you split step too early you are a body at rest, therefore you will not be able to get off to a quick start. If you split step too late, you are already off to a poor start. The split step should be timed at the start of the opponent’s forward swing so that you are landing from your split step during the opponent’s contact.
If you watch the top tennis players, they split step on every stroke of the opponent. When they land from the split step, they are in an athletic position on the balls of their feet with flexed knees and feet at least a racquet length apart. This will enable a player to get off to a strong, explosive first step, which is the most important step when you move to a ball.
In addition to the physical advantage that a split step gives a player, it gives a mental edge, too. If you focus on timing the split step properly, you will remain mentally engaged in every shot during the point. It will keep you in the present, which is so important. You are not focused on the past or the future. You will quickly know “how” and “where” the ball will bounce for each shot during the point.
“How will the ball bounce?” The first thing a player should recognize is the spin of the ball. You can discern the spin of the ball by how the opponent begins his or her forward swing. High to low is slice and the ball will bounce low; low to high is topspin and the ball will bounce high; and a level swing straight through the ball is flat and the ball will bounce straight and true. As you time your split step around the opponent’s forward swing, you can see the swing path of the opponent and thereby can quickly recognize how the ball will bounce. The speed with which the opponent swings will also add speed to the bounce of the ball. For example, if an opponent accelerates into his slice shot (high to low swing path), then the ball will bounce low and fast.
“Where will the ball bounce?” As you time your split step, you will see the flight of the ball right off the opponent’s racquet at contact. If the flight of the ball is low, the ball will land short; if the flight is the ball is high it has a chance to land deep (if there is some pace to it). Knowing how and where the ball will bounce is crucial in order to get in position for an effective stroke.
To increase the consistency and power of your shots, practice timing an athletic split step around the start of your opponent’s forward swing. As you get into better position, you will hit more consistently in your strike zone and your results will dramatically improve.