In my previous blog posts, we learned that developing the right contact point and using good judgment on shot selection are the essential ingredients to winning matches. But how do you get there? Many players are aware that a good contact point is a requirement for hitting a good shot. Yet, in sport, knowing is not enough. Imagine Michael Phelps tells a person who's never been in water the game-changing aspects of swimming. Will that person suddenly swim well? Unlikely. That person needs a formula and a pathway to acquiring those game-changing skills.
In tennis, good timing is the game-changer. If you react late, then you're less likely to get in a good position, and thus you'll hit the ball late, which will cause you to hit the ball with a bad contact point. Good or bad timing can trigger a chain reaction that either goes in your favor or hinders you.
With that said, I welcome you to the split-step. The split-step might be both the most neglected and important component of your footwork. It's always taught but often taught incorrectly. And many players simply forget about it after a few practice sessions.
The split-step mediates the timing of your movement. It's a technique that allows you to get in the ready position and change directions quickly. Think of the split-step as both a reset button and as getting on a launchpad. And there are two things to know when doing the split-step: (1) it's best to split-step when your opponent is about to hit the ball (and not when they hit the ball because that makes you late); (2) you should land in athletic position from your split-step. Doing thing one and thing two correctly will help you react sooner, help you find your rhythm, and help you get in position early enough to make contact in front of your body.
Here are a few exercises that can eventually make it easier to split-step: (1) Jump rope often. Jumping rope makes you practice jumping and landing on your toes. (2) Squat! Getting in an athletic position means you're holding a wider and lower stance. Squatting will strengthen your legs and thus make it easier to get in the athletic position frequently. (3) Deliberately practice split-stepping when your opponent begins the forward swing. If you split-step later, such as when your opponent hits the ball, the ball will have traveled far by the time you land. Don't make any exceptions to working on your split-step. It's a simple technique that, when mastered, makes it easier to raise your game several levels.