Tennis Split Step
Many tennis players spend their time mastering their strokes and forget how important footwork is to the game.
You can have the best serves and the best shots as a player when you go on the offensive. But what happens when the ball is about to be played into your court?
The split-step is the most important footwork a player can possess in relation to the moment when the opponent moves the ball. The purpose of the split-step is to help players launch forwards as they make their first step towards the ball.
This article will demonstrate the true meaning of the split-step, including when and how to do it, useful techniques, landings, and drills to help any player become a good split-stepper.
What is the split-step?
The split-step is a small hop a player takes just before they hit the ball from an opponent.
It is a footwork technique that helps ready the player’s legs, keeping them bent and loaded up like a coiled spring just before they plunge forward in the ball’s direction.
The split-step helps the player whip up energy, momentum, and balance enough to adjust to any changes in the speed, trajectory, and direction of the oncoming shot from the opponent.
It usually takes place a split-second before the ball hits the opponent’s racket. Without the split-step, the player simply stands sluggishly behind the net and will have to suddenly be up against gravity as they try to gather all the momentum needed to hit the ball from any direction or angle it comes.
When approaching the net, the split-step helps the player have just the right pace for the ball while they hit it and quicken their reaction as they anticipate the direction of the incoming ball.
It can help a player easily adjust his movement towards the ball, from forward movement to lateral movement depending on the direction the ball takes as they approach it.
When playing from the baseline, the split-step provides the player with just enough rhythm to keep them on their toes as they hit their strokes.
The most important thing about the split-step is the timing. A good split-step shortens the reaction time needed to reply to the ball coming from the opponent and increases the player’s reactive ability to adjust to changes in the ball’s trajectory.
It helps the player to readily guess what direction the ball is moving, providing the dynamism and spontaneity for the first step towards the ball, and enabling a quick recovery and positioning for the next shot if the player goes wide trying to catch the ball.
The split-step has to be timed accurately. Otherwise, the player runs into the danger of being slow or sluggish on the ball.
The following video demonstrates Roger Federer doing the split step:
Observe how Federer takes a small hop and lands with both feet, as though he were bouncing, as he keeps his knee bent, and evens out his weight on the balls of his feet, instead of just standing.
His split-step lets him keep a certain “bounce” that allows him to react explosively as he makes his first step towards the ball.
When to do a split-step
Often the split-step is done for every shot taken in tennis, including volleys.
However, there are times when the player has been run off the court or put in a defensive position when there would hardly be any time, so the player should go straight towards the ball.
The player should start doing a split-step as soon as he sees the opponent swinging their racket forward to hit the ball. It should be done a second or two (or split-second) before the opponent hits the ball with their racket.
Expert players may split-step two to three consecutive times before they make their first step towards the ball.
Timing of the split-step
The lifting or jump part of the split-step is called the “split jump.” The split jump or the “hopping” should be done just before the opposing player hits the ball with his racket.
The split jump should be timed perfectly, such that the player is mid-air when the opponent’s racket touches the ball. When this happens, you may be able to read hints about the direction and trajectory of the ball from the body language or reaction of the opponent. Hints such as ball toss, shoulder rotation, racket-face angle at impact.
Splitting while the opponent contacts the ball instead of before lets the player run the risk of a late split-step and ultimately delay on the ball that could make them get aced by their opponent.
So many coaches advise their players to do the split-step just as the opponent hits the ball with their racket. This may not be completely wrong, especially for advanced players.
But beginners may hardly make sense of it because when they initiate their split jump as the ball touches the opponent’s racket, within a moment, the ball is on their side of the court while they are still in the air. Therefore, they would be late for the shot.
The landing of the split jump should be done at the same time the opponent contacts the ball on his strings. Then by the time the ball eventually rolls from their racket face, and the player would have been in a vantage point ready to react to anticipate the direction of the oncoming shot.
The player should, in other words, time the landing of the split jump to match the opponent’s contact with the ball. Also, the landing should be so that the knees and the legs are bent forwards, and the player’s weight is pushed forwards to enable a push-off or springing in any direction the ball takes.
In the video below is a step-by-step layout on how to perfectly time your split-step to match certain aspects of your opponent’s game:
It has been made clear above that the player needs to time their split-step, such that the jump is done as the opponent prepares to take his stroke, and as he takes the stroke, the player is at the peak of their jump, then as the ball leaves the opponent’s racket, the player must have landed into a loaded position ready to move in whatever direction the ball demands.
What this means for the split-step technique is that during the player’s landing from the split jump, they touch the ground with their exterior/lagging leg first, in a laterally displaced position, while the interior/leading leg follows suit,opening up in the direction of movement.
The overall result is that the feet are spread and slightly wide apart, such that they are in line with the body’s center of mass, providing the “loaded” or “springing” position for the player as he approaches the ball.
The exterior/lagging leg may have a greater lateral displacement from the interior/leading leg as it lands the split-jump during more difficult balls or balls that are much further from the player.
Like during high-pressure moments, there are occasions when the player may land with the interior/leading leg first.
This may also apply when the player’s previous recovery step comes from the same direction as the current ball. Some players may land with both legs at the same time, spontaneously positioning both legs towards the direction of the first step.
In this, the interior leg leads the exterior leg in the movement towards the ball’s direction.
Other players, especially the high-level or advanced ones, may, instead of split-jumping, stagger into a position where they can initiate movement from.
This is often performed during defensive situations or on the first shot after the serve since serves are fast and returns will come back almost as quickly. By “staggering,” the players can cut down on the time of the hop, and in doing so, recover much better.
Below are videos of the different techniques one can apply during split-stepping. The first is Roger Federer doing the commonest and most repetitive kind:
The Landing of the split-step
During the landing proper of the split-step, the player’s legs should be bent and spread apart, and they should know immediately in what direction of movement to make, such that their body shifts towards that direction.
That is, as the player lands on the ground from the split-jump, they should be in the loaded position with their legs bent and apart to push forwards in the direction that the ball requires.
For example, suppose the incoming shot is to your backhand corner (or left side) and you are right-handed. In that case, as you land, your left leg (interior leg) should open to the left side of your body, and your right leg (exterior leg) should push your body in that direction, initiating the first step.
The landing of the split-step is to be done with the knowledge of the direction in which the player makes their first step. As they land, their body shifts in that direction, initiating lateral movement towards the direction of the ball.
This consequently increases the reactive ability and explosiveness of the player on the ball.
What happens when there is no split-step?
The split-step increases a player’s reactive ability and bounce and reduces their reaction time while conjuring up the necessary energy and gravitas needed to make the first step and approach the ball.
When the player does not split step, they are slow on the ball and take more effort to approach the ball in any direction since they would be standing flat-footed on the ground.
Also, the player would find it difficult to shift their body in the required direction for the first step, leading to poor recoveries on the ball. For example, if the player were initially recovering back to the middle of the court and the opponent hits the ball behind them, the player would not be able to recover accurately without a split-step.
Tips on how to make the perfect split step
The player requires lower body strength for the footwork that the split-step requires.
They need to develop their lower limb muscles and their muscular system by any means possible, e.g., exercise, weightlifting, etc., to muster enough carriage and propulsion during the workings of the split-step.
They need to be able to make the split jump effortlessly and repetitively and transition into a landing that shifts their body in the proper direction for the first step.
Think while in the air
The calf muscles of the exterior leg of advanced players usually show great activation patterns during the landing of the split jump, as seen in recent studies.
This means that high-level players are already thinking in what direction to move mid-air just before they land, such that as their feet touch the ground, they move explosively in the required direction of the ball.
Not only do they think of the direction, but they also think of the amount of force they ought to generate from hitting the ground with their feet, such that movement towards the ball comes easily and more naturally.
Using the split-steps as brakes
The split-step could be used as a braking system during gameplay, providing small pockets of inertia as the game goes on.
When a player is pushed wide from a shot, the next thing on their mind is to recover to the middle. The split-step can help them recover swiftly to be able to catch the next shot without putting undue pressure on the body.
In the following video, Roger Federer shows how efficiently this idea could be applied:
Split Step Drills
The player is encouraged to practice different kinds of split-step drills to become more accustomed to the technique.
For stiffness in the ankle and calf area, which is required during split-step landing and body, subsequent body positioning, reactive hops, and drop jump training are encouraged. Click the link below for an example of this drill.
Also, other training like lateral depth jumps, cone agility drills, and split and diagonal forward movement are great ways to improve the split-step know-how, especially for beginners and amateurs ready to take their game to the next level.
Click the two links below for some examples of this drill.
To conclude, even though the split-step isn’t actually a step, it prepares the player for the first step in tennis.
It helps improve the player’s reactiveness and explosiveness towards the direction of the ball to meet the ball in time and be able to return the opponent’s stroke with enough power and momentum.
The split-step should be done in virtually every shot in tennis.