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FOUR SEASONS’ FEATURED ARTICLE
Tennis players are forever in search of the perfect stroke and there’s an endless supply of “experts” willing to oblige in the quest. Countless websites, books and videos promise to teach us how to hit the Rafa forehand or the Serena backhand. We gobble up the information and then rush to the courts to work on our “new” stroke.
In today’s world, there are as many different theories on stroking techniques as there are racquets to choose from. The information is endless, often confusing, and frequently deflects a player’s attention from what is ultimately a much more important element of tennis—footwork!
The Moment of Truth
The critical moment of any shot is when the ball meets the strings and, at that time, the ball needs two pieces of information: the position of your racquet face and the speed of the racquet head. The ball has no idea what grip you’re holding or what style of backswing or follow-through you’re using and frankly, it doesn’t care. Racquet face position and racquet head speed determine the direction, pace, and spin of your shots, not your back-swing or follow-through.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, it’s certainly important to have efficient strokes. Strokes that will allow you to present the racquet face to the ball in the proper position and at the appropriate time and speed. However, I feel that in their quest for the perfect stroke, many players overlook the fact that, before they swing the racket, they need to get to the ball.
Contrary to popular opinion, tennis is not a “hitting” game, it’s a “moving” game. It’s a reactive sport, where one must respond quickly to a moving object. Therefore, your number one priority should be getting into the proper position as quickly as possible.
If you’ve positioned yourself correctly, you’ll be able to execute a smooth, controlled stroke. If you haven’t, your poor positioning will likely cause a breakdown of your stroke and loss of control of your shot. Plus, because your arm will have to work harder and contort itself to compensate, the potential for elbow, wrist and shoulder injuries increases dramatically! Bottom line: strokes are a function of positioning, which is a function of footwork.
An example: Bill came to me last week saying, “I’m turning my elbow over on my forehand and hitting every ball into the net. Plus, my arm is killing me.” I fed him a few balls and sure enough, Bill’s elbow turned over on every shot and the ball landed in the bottom of the net. “You see,” he said. “I’ve got to fix my stroke.”
I told Bill not to move, and then fed him a few balls at the exact spot it should be relative to his body. I then told him when to step and swing. Initially, Bill felt as if the ball was too far away from him but, after a few shots, he began to get used to the distance. He stopped turning his elbow over, extended his arm and was consistently producing solid, powerful forehands.
And, his arm didn’t scream every time he hit the ball. What Bill learned was that his elbow turning over was only a symptom of his real problem – faulty positioning due to poor footwork!
Over the years I have seen thousands of players stroke the ball beautifully and hit crisp, controlled shots in the warm-up—-when the ball is coming right to them. However, once the match begins, and they have to move to get into position, their beautiful strokes fall apart. Because of their poor footwork, they’re forced to play survival tennis- contorting their arms, legs and bodies in some pretzel-like fashion to fight off the ball, hoping to get it back over the net.
Watch the pros. Though you’ll see them swing their rackets many different ways, they all do one thing exceptionally well: move their feet. At the moment of impact, they’re pretty much always balanced and in control. So, instead of continuing to search for that perfect stroke, focus on your footwork. Commit to taking a split-step just before your opponent hits their shots and do some off court training with a jump rope or ladders to quicken your feet. As your movement improves, you’ll be amazed at how much better your strokes become.