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Form & Fitness: Footwork Is Key

Federer© Getty ImagesEven at 30, Roger Federer still has some of the best footwork in the game.

Former World No. 4 doubles standout Tom Gullickson once said, “If footwork was easy, they wouldn’t call it footwork.”

Gully’s statement still holds true today on the ATP World Tour. The upper echelon of players has one thing in common: superior footwork. While they all move efficiently on the court, the appearance of their footwork can be very diverse.

David Ferrer is one of the elite movers in the game and his footwork is evident on the baseline with his rapid, squeaky steps. On the contrary, Barclays ATP World Tour Finals champion Roger Federer seems to slow down time, moving effortlessly to each shot as if he were part of a ballet production. These two players have different styles, but succeed because they are fast and their feet are always moving. “Footwork forms the framework of any great player,” believes Todd Ellenbecker, Director of Sports Medicine for the ATP World Tour.

“There is so much movement involved in tennis and you have to position yourself optimally. The best players are able to get to the greatest number of shots in a prepared, balanced way. Good footwork allows a player to position themselves relative to the ball to hit to most effective shot.”

In having excellent footwork, it allows players to think ahead in the rally, explains Ellenbecker. “It’s like the game of pool. The professional pool players make one shot, but they’re looking ahead four of five shots down the road. Same thing goes for tennis. They hit one shot but are already thinking of getting into position for the next shot.”


Smalls Steps > Large Strides
For many years, it’s been known that taking small, quick steps are far preferable to taking large, long strides. But why is this case?

“A majority of the shots we hit in tennis are within a metre or two on either side of us, so that’s why the small steps are so effective. Players are changing direction several times within a point, so the little steps help with maintaining balance,” says Ellenbecker.

“Obviously when you are one end of the court and have to sprint to the other side, covering the longest distance of the court, you have to take several large steps to even begin to move to the ball. But once you get closer to the ball, that’s when you see players taking these small transition steps that fine tune the position. These are so important to a player’s success in a rally.”

More Than One Drill
Players use a variety of drills to train their footwork. And quite a few ATP World Tour tournaments make practice facilities or courts accessible for fans to watch, so check out these areas when attending your next event to see what the pros are doing. “This allows for a greater depth of learning as there are many different ways to improve footwork,” Ellenbecker says.

“A number of players use footballs to train their footwork. They kick balls back and forth, dribble the ball between their legs, and work on ball control. All these little fine movements and balances are intended for their footwork and it’s something anyone can do at home with a backyard.”

There are also ladder drills that let players work in a number of directions. “You can go forward, side-to-side and backwards. The ladder gives them framework to keep moving with quick, short steps.”

Players use foam pads and platforms to hone in on balance. “They land on these platforms back and forth to work on developing a balanced position with their feet. There is also the alley hop, when a player stands with their left foot on one side, and jumps across to the other end, landing on their right foot. By going up the alley and jumping back and forth, this helps with lateral direction and recovery.”

Making It Tennis Specific
To make these drills tennis specific, players want to keep the following things in mind:
1. While doing the drill, hold your racquet. As childish as that sounds, you never play tennis without your racquet. You won’t be running on the court empty handed, so why do it during a drill? It’s important to emulate the same balance point in a training exercise.
2. Select a drill that involves directional changes. Within several points during a match, you will change direction multiple times, so adding an exercise that focuses on multi-directional movement will improve your footwork.
3. Cover short distances, because a high percentage of shots you will be covering will be within two metres of your body. Training 100-metre sprints for example, is the wrong type of drill to implement in your footwork exercise plan.

Seeing Results
As simple as it sounds, improved footwork in match play just happens naturally. “Whether it’s a recreational or professional player, if proper exercises are added to a training program, a player will see a carryover from training to their matches. He or she will move more effectively to their shots and will have greater recovery to the middle of the court.”

This is barring any shortcuts or compensating when a drill is too hard. “Sometimes the basic drills, such as jumping back and forth over a line or standing on one leg are just as important,” states Ellenbecker. “They are very complementary as they work on balance which is imperative to good footwork. Just because your feet are moving quickly doesn’t mean you can be out of balance with the rest of your body.”

Fitness First, Footwork Second
In working on enhancing footwork, a player must be fit before increasing their training for it to be safe and integrated successfully. “A player needs to have a good base level of fitness. You don’t just decide to start footwork training, working on these high-intensity, explosive type drills. Always begin with basic aerobic and strength training before moving into advanced exercises.”

- COMPEED is an official supplier of the ATP.

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