Roger Federer was once interviewed by Charlie Rose after winning the 2004 U.S. Open. In the video, he was asked why his game looked so graceful. Without hesitation, Roger cited his footwork as the single most important factor in his game – for beauty and effect.
Specifically, Roger said, “The key to exploring my potential is improving my footwork…It’s always what I’ve been working on.”
During the interview, Roger kept coming back to footwork. In my opinion as a coach, tennis player and critic, footwork is the single most important factor in determining a player’s success in tennis.
I say this because it doesn’t matter how good a player’s strokes are, if his footwork is lacking, he won’t be able to place himself into position to hit effective shots. If we look at the best players on the ATP tour in today’s era (Djokovic, Federer, Nadal), they all have the best footwork in the game.
It’s no coincidence these men have consistently dominated the game for the last 15 years either. If you want to improve your tennis game, nothing will do so faster than bettering your tennis footwork.
But what does tennis footwork exactly mean? We hear so much about it but it’s quite a nebulous term which is rarely clearly defined. Let’s do that now.
I can break up footwork into four distinct stages. Each stage is important and crucial to hitting great, powerful shots.
- Attaining the optimal position – Getting to the spot where the striking of the ball takes place.
- Planting of the feet – placing the body into the proper firing position.
- Harnessing momentum – pushing off the ground, thrusting the torso and generating the necessary momentum to propel the arm into the swing.
- Recovering – returning or moving to the best location on the court.
I’ll go through all four stages in detail shortly. I can tell you for certain that the best players blend them seamlessly together. They do so all match long and repeat the process over and over during a point.
When a player can use his footwork so quickly and efficiently, often and oddly, it goes unnoticed by the casual observer. What remains is a virtuoso of perfection on the court with the final punctuating shot riveted as the last memory in the viewer’s mind – not the footwork.
This is the primary reason why footwork does not get talked about enough. Furthermore, not enough coaches work on it with their players.
By reading this entire article, you’ll know exactly what proper footwork entails and how to use it to dominate all your future matches. Your level of play or age is irrelevant. Everyone can improve their footwork if they determine to.
Without further ado, let’s get into the four stages of tennis footwork.
Stage 1: Attaining the Optimal Position
This stage can be the most difficult of all four for beginner and intermediate players to achieve correctly. This is because most people use inefficient movement to reach the ball.
Furthermore, most people set up to close or far away from the ball. However, when done correctly, getting to the spot where you can strike the ball should set you up perfectly for stage 2.
There are only three ways to move to the ball in tennis. The first is by taking a cross-step and then shuffling (or side-stepping) to the ball. This is the most commonly used technique by players.
A first cross-step and shuffle is primarily done when moving laterally but can be accomplished when moving backwards and forwards as well. This is done for balls not too close or far away – but at a middle distance.
The second is to simply shuffle to the ball. This movement is used when the ball is relatively close, like a few steps away. Shuffling is done laterally but can be executed forwards and backwards as well.
The third way to move to the ball is to simply run. We run when the ball is far away or we have little time to get there (like on a drop shot). Running is the quickest way to reach a ball but gives us the least amount of control when hitting.
If we run to the ball, it would benefit us to slow down before reaching the ball. Another important factor in helping us hit the ball (no matter which of the three methods we use) is to position the racket to the side of our body (close to the power position) before reaching the ball.
By doing so, we can save time and put ourselves into a better position as we reach stage 2. This is the reason why professional players rarely looked rushed when hitting shots and amateurs often do.
Stage 2: Planting of the Feet
By virtue of stage 1, we should now be in the ideal position to hit the ball. In this stage (# 2), we stop our feet (if only for a second) and plant them to the ground.
Why would we do this? Because all power is generated from the ground up. It’s true for every sport and tennis is no exception. In order to use the ground, we need to have our feet firmly planted on it.
We then bend our knees and push off the ground to create energy for the swing. As we plant our feet we must also rotate our body what’s called the power position.
This is a position where our racket is back (or loaded) and our torso is turned to the side. This position creates torque and kinetic energy that can be released into the shot.
Unfortunately, many club players (especially those 4.0 and lower) fail to achieve enough torque to hit truly powerful shots. This stems from improper technique and the discomfort required in torquing the body.
I believe this stage is of huge importance when it comes to hitting very powerful shots. Both feet need to be planted firmly on the ground and the body torqued well past 90 degrees in the shoulders.
When you study pros in slow motion, you’ll see them set up in this way if they have even a second of time. When on the run, they don’t always have the time to achieve a perfect stage 2 position.
But they get around that by using the momentum of their run in stage 1 to generate pace. This is evident in the tremendous on-the-run passing shots of Nadal and Sampras off the forehand side. They can still manage to hit 80 mph+ passing shots on a dead run due to the momentum created in their movement to the ball.
Stage 3: Harnessing Momentum
At the commencement of this stage, the body and racket will have completed the setup to strike the ball. Think of stage 2 as being a loaded gun or a crossbow pulled back into the final position before being released.
In stage 3 we execute the forward part of the stroke. This is done initially by pushing off the ground with both feet. However, it should be noted that most of your weight will be on the back foot.
This is so because we want to distribute our weight from the back leg to the front leg in order to transfer our body weight into the shot. You’ll see every great player do this on every basic shot in tennis (forehand, backhand, serve and volley).
As the legs push off the ground, the torso begins to rotate towards the net, releasing the stored kinetic energy it achieved in stage 2. The last part of the swing happens from the arm, which more-or-less goes along for the ride.
The major mistake most club players make here is thinking the arm is the primary source of power when it’s the legs and torso that really do the heavy lifting. The arm should be loose and flexible, snapping forward from the momentum of the body.
If a player never achieves an ideal power position and pushes off from the ground, then the arm is left to do the work. This results in a labored swing and slower velocity shot. Such players can never seem to generate power no matter how hard they swing.
This is because the legs and torso play a huge roll in how hard the ball is struck. If the legs and torso only play a small factor in the swing, the arm must work extra hard to compensate. This approach can tire a player out over a long match and result in weak swings.
Stage 4: Recovering
After the ball is struck and the player completes his follow through, the next and final stage is to move again. This time it’s a movement to the best location on the court to set up for the next shot.
Experienced players rely on their anticipation to move to the ideal spot to hit the next ball. This can mean moving in any direction and any distance, just depending on the situation.
Often, you’ll see a player like Djokovic (who has the best footwork in the game) immediately move to a different spot on the court after completing his follow through. He seems to always know exactly where to go.
This comes from years of playing. Beginner players often stand in the same position after hitting a shot or move only a couple of steps. This usually puts them out of position for the next shot in the rally.
If you’re unsure of where to go, a good rule of thumb is to get back to the middle of the court. In general, it’s best to play slightly in back of the baseline or inside the service line (if you come into net).
The movement in stage 4 is similar to the movement in stage 1. You can shuffle back, cross-step and shuffle back, or just run. The quicker you can reach the ideal position to set up for the next shot, the easier the game gets. It’s also more difficult for your opponent to cause an unforced error on your part.
Summing It Up
Ideal footwork requires technique, anticipation, and willingness to put in the work. Most players with great footwork are constantly in motion, taking as many steps as they need to place themselves into ideal hitting position.
The next time you watch a professional tennis match on TV or in person, take note of the footwork of the players. Instead of watching the ball or the strokes, notice how much the feet are moving.
Then compare that footwork to yours – if you’ve ever videoed your play. You’ll probably notice a big difference. One of the reasons I’m better than I look on camera is my footwork.
While my strokes weren’t honed at a prestigious tennis academy in my formative years, I make up for a lot of deficiencies with my tennis footwork. My college coach instilled it in me early on and I’ve used it religiously throughout my playing life.
Due to being in great physical shape and having a light body weight (150 lbs), I can move nearly as well as most professional players, despite being in my mid-40s. I’m actually known for being a great mover (more than anything else) and dazzle people with the balls I can track down.
I do this by utilizing the four stages of footwork I outlined in this article. If you’ve never given much thought to tennis footwork, I hope this blog post sheds new light on it for you.
While this article is by no means a comprehensive guide to tennis footwork, I hope it gives you food for thought and motivates you to improve your foot movement on court.
Thanks for reading. If you wish to leave a comment or question, please do so below and I will respond.
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