There is only one shot in tennis that doesn’t need the split step, the serve. On every other shot, you are forced to react to your opponents ball, and this simple footwork move will get your body ready to move. Performing a split step isn’t complicated and it isn’t too physically demanding, but it does take practice. Too many players at the club level are caught “flat footed”. If this sounds like you or your reaction times are too slow you need the split step!
A split step, is a shift in body weight and momentum in a forward direction to the balls of your feet. Both balls of the feet contact the ground at the same time and this gets your body weight off your heels. Any explosive movement in any direction on the tennis court starts with the balls of the feet pushing off the ground. The more body weight you have on the balls of your feet the harder you can push and the faster you can get your momentum moving one way or the other (another reason to stay low on the court). Of course it would be very tiring on the calves to always have your weight on the balls of your feet and this is why the split step is the perfect start to a reaction stroke.
The split step does not need to be a jumping start! Many of my first time students spend too long in the air when first learning the split step and thus react slowly to the ball coming off the opponents racquet. Any more than a few inches and you are doing too much. The timing here is very important and takes practice. The best players will actually start their split step just before the opponents ball contacts the strings and touch down exactly as the ball is being struck, this allows an instant push in the right direction and a head start to get to the ball.
The harder and more accurate your opponents shots the more important the split step.
A great drill you can do with a tennis pro or friend is to use a reaction ball (the one with all the lumps on it) to toss to one another. The receiving player lets the ball bounce in front of them and at the precise moment the ball strikes the ground uses a slit step to push off and grab the ball before it bounces twice. First person to let the ball bounce 5 times is the loser. This works on the timing of the shift and improves reaction greatly.
Incorporating the split step into your game will vastly improve your ability to react and your anticipation in all areas on the court, from the baseline to the net. Practice this footwork move until it becomes muscle memory and you will find yourself chasing down balls you never thought you could reach!
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