Playing the Rally Game gives you a good chance to streamline your footwork and timing.
Footwork in tennis is a very natural and simple thing. You turn your body toward wherever you have to run or walk, and you move your feet as if you were walking down the street or running to catch a bus.
If your opponent hits a short ball and you are facing it, you don’t need to turn your feet. Just go straight to the ball and hit it. If the ball is hit to your side, turn that way, get to the ball, and strike it. If you need to cover the court you just left open, turn and go that way.
Slow ball? Go as slowly as you please. Fast ball? Go as quickly as needed.
If you want to get to the ball quickly, lean in that direction to get a faster start.
These are very simple techniques of movement that you probably learned before you were five years old.
Pivoting into the direction you want to go is crucial and the most natural thing you can do. I see very young children turning when they want to change the direction of their walk or their run, so I see no reason why adults can’t also do it.
Leaning while pivoting is the fastest way of turning and starting to move, just like the basketball pros do. Top tennis pros do it very well, especially in stress situations. They take several sidesteps only when they have a lot of time or they want to stay in the vicinity of their last shot, not when they want to race all the way across the court.
Many professionals skip up and down on their toes between shots to keep their legs alert and ready for a fast start. You can do this sometime in your development, but beware: thinking of your feet can be very harmful to your game. As a beginner, don’t complicate your learning. Just turn to the right or to the left, or wherever you have to go.
You want to strike the ball as comfortably as possible. Walking backward or to the side to get out of the way of a ball coming straight at you is okay. Backing up to let a high ball drop to where it is easier to handle is also fine. But if you have to go some distance back, it is better to turn your feet in the direction you are going, while watching the ball over your shoulder. Then turn again to strike the ball as usual.
Lean, step, walk or run naturally, without paying attention to the position of your feet. Keep your attention on finding the ball.
Many people move their racquets in preparation for their shots long before they move their legs, wasting valuable time that should be used to get to the ball. Keep your arms close to your body while you run. When you are near the ball, you may move your arms away from your body to get momentum or reach, but well after your body has moved. Of course, you can pump your arms in your run if needed, but have the racquet come back to both hands if possible before you get to the ball, in preparation for your shot.
There is a definite separation between the time you move your body, usually leaning and turning to get to the ball, and the time you swing. This sequence sometimes takes too short a time to really get the feet moving, because of the speed of play.
That is the reason why most top players split-step (a quick upward jump, with the feet landing about shoulder width apart), just as the opponent is about to strike the ball. That gives them momentum, like a coiled spring, to lean and start in any direction, anticipating the flight of the ball.
Anticipation is reading the racquet-to-ball contact of your opponent. From his racquet angle at impact point you know where the ball will go before it actually starts its flight toward your court.
If you carefully observe your opponent’s racquet at the moment it makes contact with the ball, this will become very apparent. Just leaning in the direction the ball is about to take will tilt your body and your weight that way and help you start to move.
Timing is the coordination between the time the ball is nearing your reach and the release of your stroke.
Correct timing by the professionals simply comes down to waiting for the right moment to strike the ball. That is why many pros use the left hand to hold on to the racquet. It helps them wait. It makes them move their legs first, rather than overreacting with the arm alone.
The left hand also helps change the grip when necessary, simultaneous with the first shoulder turn.
As a last-minute effort to get to a difficult ball, a player will stretch the arm in a groundstroke or a volley. That occurs after the body has moved and the swing has started in a normal way.
On both the forehand and the two-handed backhand, if your arm or arms have to stretch to get to the ball, finish toward the opposite shoulder as you did on your easier shots. This will help your timing and ensure that the ball goes over the net and into the court.
Delicate touch shots, or blocking difficult returns, should be the only exceptions to this rule.
Taking the racquet back too early messes up both finding the ball and timing your hit. Most conventional teaching techniques discourage waiting and stress the earliest possible backswing. This makes it very difficult to find the ball well and to hit it with control.
Those techniques are outdated, as shown by the way the top pros play today. They may turn the shoulders, changing grip in the process, but the hands stay near the body, waiting for the right moment to swing.
In your groundstrokes, wait until after the bounce of the ball before you make a final judgment as to how you are going to swing.
Waiting longer actually seems to increase the time you have to make a perfect shot. Your mind may not grasp all the details, but at a deeper level you’ll feel the difference.
Learn this from the beginning. Have your partner hit slow, looping balls. Keep both hands on your racquet as long as possible. As you get faster balls you may tend to get anxious and overreact. Keep making yourself wait until well after the bounce. Move your feet and turn your shoulders in the process, but keep your hands near your body.
Wait for the bounce, then swing as usual, finishing your swing all the way.
In the one-handed backhand, the racquet moves to a position parallel to the front of the body together with the shoulder turn. The racquet head goes back, but beware of taking the arm back too soon.
In the forehand and two-handed backhand, the butt of the racquet is kept close to the waist while turning and waiting for the bounce of the ball.
Wait and finish. No matter how horrified you may be that you might be late, keep yourself from overreacting.
Your legs may be racing all over the court, but wait until you are near the ball to move your arms to swing.
Most human beings tend to overreact. The top professionals wait– sometimes milliseconds–but they wait. That is why some pros seem almost inhuman–they are so cool, with such great timing.
Pros are as human as anyone. They have learned to wait, no matter how fast the ball is coming, no matter how anxious they may be. They have gotten so used to waiting that it seems totally natural to them.
The body reacts while the ball is still far away, the arm reacts when the ball is near. Sometimes it seems too late, but if you keep your mind on finding the ball and on the finish of the stroke, instinct takes over and you get the ball where you want it.
The Striking Zone
Most conventional techniques also stress hitting the ball well in front. There is quite a risk involved in that.
To explain further, the point where you meet the ball doesn’t necessarily have to be exact or the same every time. There is an entire zone in which you can stroke the ball perfectly, provided that you first find it well. Attempt to almost touch it before exerting your force on the swing, making sure that you have angled the racquet correctly for that particular shot.
The direction of your shot can remain the same in any of the contact points within the correct striking zone. The height of your shot can also remain constant, provided you didn’t change the racquet angle in this zone.
This correct striking zone can be, in your groundstrokes, as long as two feet. The front position is the area where it is easier to hit the ball flat, while further back zones are better for topspin shots. It is easier there to “muscle” the ball, keeping it on your strings longer, and rotating it more.
In coaching professionals and top junior players I make sure that the athlete hits many balls around the later hitting zones during practice. The tendency in tight spots in tournament play is to rush slightly. The player used to wait more will tend to hit earlier, getting less topspin than he intended, possibly hitting out by a foot or two.
The player used to hitting in front will hit a few shots too early and the ball will sail out. The difference here may be just a few inches within the striking zone. In terms of time it could be a difference of just a few hundredths of a second. But in terms of feel, the difference is more pronounced. The impact is definitely longer when you let the ball come farther back and you “muscle” it with topspin.
You may hit a few balls too late through your learning period. You’ll definitely notice those. But if you are constantly early you may not know what is going wrong. Diagnosing early shots is more difficult because of the compensations you may create to make up for it.
That is another good reason to wait for the ball as long as possible. The fewer the number of compensations, the smoother and simpler your swing will be, and you’ll get more “feel.”
The accuracy of a pro is so high when hitting within this latter part of the striking zone that the player gets very confident and goes for better and better shots, whether they are harder, at more of an angle, or closer to the lines.
Throughout this whole striking zone your racquet angle should change as little as possible, so that your shot goes where you want even if you misjudge the contact point.